Ray Bradbury’s Noun Exercise: A Gift for Writers on his Centennial Birthday

Today, marks Ray Bradbury’s 100th birthday, and in his honor, I am going to share one his favorite writing exercises. This exercise, which I learned in the Ray Bradbury and Creative Storytelling class I recently completed with Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, addresses two area with which many authors struggle, writers block and writing titles. I have begun to incorporate it into my own writing practice and it has become one of my favorites as well.

On a blank sheet of paper, list nouns that pop into your head. These should be free-associated nouns that come to you from your subconscious, without thinking too hard. The only restrictions are that, A. the nouns should not be about the same subject (don’t list boat, sail, water, ocean, fish); and B, you must write “the” before each of the nouns (The Sky, The Candle; The Painting; The Chair; The Tree; The Scotch Whisky, The Vampire; etc.). Now, go through the list, choose one, and use it for both the subject—and title—of your story. That’s it. It seems simple, but it works. Here is a picture of one of my lists:

If you look at Bradbury’s catalog of stories, you will find many stories with titles that follow this format, including some of his most famous: The Lake, The Foghorn, The Crowd, The Fire Balloons, etc. It is likely that he used this technique to help him start writing his stories. Even Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 began as a story called “The Fireman.” The proof is in the pudding.

I love this technique because it’s so simple, so low pressure, and so effective. On each list I make, there may only be two or three ideas that I will eventually pursue, but by listing so many, there is less pressure to create any individual idea, which it makes it so much easier to start writing. If the idea doesn’t work, there are 20 more on the list from which I can choose. And, as an added bonus, when I do finish a story, the title is already written. I don’t have to think of a title, which is one of my least favorite parts of the writing process.

Ray Bradbury left us so many gifts in the forms of his books and stories, and this “noun exercise” is one more gift for us writers. During this, his centennial celebration, I urge you to try it. Let me know how it works for you.

Be sure to connect on facebooktwitter, and instagram, and check out the links page to read some of my published work.

In Search of the Muse

In ancient times, it was traditional for a poet to begin a work with an invocation of the muse: “Sing to me of the man, muse…” Homer writes in the first line of The Odyssey. The poet, according to this conceit, was merely a conduit for one the divine muses (there were nine ancient muses, each of whom personified a different art), a scribe recording her song on paper. “Start from where you will” (Fagles, trans) Homer continues, reinforcing his passive roll. Over time, the muse became symbolic of inspiration. Writers within the Western tradition continued to invoke the Muse long after the Ancient Greek religion which inspired it went out of fashion. Christian writers, such as Dante and Milton, continued to invoke the muse at the start of their epic poems, and even Shakespeare addresses her on a number of occasions.

Recently, however, the muse has gone out of fashion. Contemporary writers don’t speak much of the muse anymore, except, perhaps, in negative terms. The muse has been trampled beneath the feet of the capitalist gods Hard Work and Consistency. The key to writing, they say, is making a routing and sticking to it, and in their minds (for thoughts like this have no place in their hardened hearts), the muse is dead. She simply doesn’t exist.

The thing is, history proves this line of thinking incorrect. While hard work, dedication, and discipline are important traits for a writer, and while, one may be correct in arguing that a writer—even a talented writer—cannot be successful without it, that does not disprove the existence of inspiration, whether divine or otherwise.

Now, I’m not arguing for the existence of mythological goddesses, but consider the following:

Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery, one of the most anthologized and taught short stories of the 20th Century, in “only two hours and submitted it to the New Yorker [where it was published] without major revision, according the College Board-approved textbook Literature: A Guide To Reading and Writing.

Ray Bradbury, famously, asserted that he wrote the first draft of his great masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. The story has been corroborated in many places, including by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller. He still had to go through the revision and editing process, but the core of the story was created in that fit of inspiration.

William Faulkner took a bit longer than Bradbury to pen one of his most famous novels. It took him six weeks (between the hours of midnight and 4 in the morning. The literary critic Harold Bloom called the book “an authentic instance of the literary sublime.” (As quoted in The Creative Writer’s Notebook).

Thus, it seems that inspiration exists. These writers all wrote other books and stories, but in these particular cases, it seems like the muse was kind to them. Now, before we go any further, let me just reiterate that this in no way negates the needs to work hard, to stay consistent or to find a writing routine. The idea of the muse–of fits of inspiration–does not stand in opposition to hard work. The two are not mutually exclusively. Bradbury was extraordinarily dedicated to his craft. For the majority of his life, he wrote a short story a week, in addition to his novels and screenplays. He, like the rest of us, struggled at times. He had drawers full of incomplete stories in the file cabinets in his basement office. He still worked through his ideas to finish his story a week. Yet, for the time that he was writing his most famous work, whether you want to call it a muse, the stars aligning, or simply having a good week and a half, something was different; something magical was in there air.

The thing is that writers have no idea when the muse is going to grace us with her presence. In his introduction to The Voice From The Edge volume 1, the great science fiction short story writer Harlan Ellison talks about his love for his story “Grail.” He talks about how hard he worked on the story, how he meticulously researched the names of all the demons who appear therein, and how much he loved the final result. Few people, however, remember that story aside from himself, remember the story. On the other hand, “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the most anthologized science fiction stories of all time, was written in a few hours, and though Ellison felt the story was perfectly competent (he talks about how a writer can achieve a certain level of competence where each story they write is publishable), he felt no particular love for it, but, whether he knew it or not, Ellison was inspired that night when he wrote “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.”

So if the muse is fickle, if she is unpredictable, if she comes rarely—and only to those who are already grinding—if she if so ineffable that sometimes she comes in secret, sometimes unbeknownst to the writer, why spend 1000 words singing her praises? Perhaps because so much writing advice is focused on sticking with it through the tough times: ignoring the muse is like writing about running by focusing exclusively on the hard hours of roadwork while ignoring the incredible endorphin release known as the runner’s high; perhaps I feel we need some light to give us hope even in this dark time; or maybe this post is an offering to Calliope, an invocation, an invitation to whisper in my ear like she did for Homer, Jackson, Bradbury, Faulkner, Ellison, and all those other writers down through the ages.

Sing to me muse; start where you will…