Your THING: Nouns and the Magic of Memory


The door. The garage. The clock. The exit. The book. The tear. The secret. The stump. The backwater.

Nouns beg for meaning to be given. My examples probably conjured a variety of images for you, or you wanted more information.

Nouns are loaded guns. Full of potential. Easily used. Deadly effective when used correctly. Disastrous when mishandled.

Lists of nouns jotted down by a half-conscious mind may reveal patterns and textures unknown before. Obsessions become obvious. Mysterious longings take form. Bradbury’s essay Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds explores the creative potential in the most basic words on the page: nouns.

Lynda Barry, probably one of the best creative voices, led a short writing workshop at the Center for Cartoon Studies when I was a student. One of her most amazing sessions was free writing that used limited time and lists of nouns to open us up.

We’d only have short times of thirty seconds or so. She’d tell us to write as many nouns down the side of our page as we could in the time allotted.


The timer started and we scribbled madly.


The time was a blink. I was almost out of breath.

“Now, look back at the page, which noun held the most weight for you? Which one had a momentary hold on your mind? Circle it!

“New page! Write that noun at the top of your new page! You will have one whole minute to write down along the side quick thoughts and memories about that noun.


And we did. Slowly she worked us through our own minds to gold. When it was over we had the beginnings of a story, and some were quite amazing.

“See? You had it in you the whole time. Just didn’t know how to get it out.” She winked and moved on to some other exercise.

I regret not keeping my page of nouns or the story I began from her session. What stuck with me was the very practical magic she used to create something from our own minds. We all started with blank pages. We ended half an hour later with a full page or two of potent material. How come no one taught this stuff in school?

If I had spent more time than a first read of Zen in the Art of Writing I may have learned my lesson seven years earlier. Bradbury knew the power of nouns to unlock our minds and memories. Today we’d probably call them creative triggers. He would keep lists and lists of nouns and revisit them. Doing exactly what Lynda Barry told us to do with ours, finding ones with weight to them.

Time is an important factor in beginning the act of writing. Bradbury thinks of it like a lizard. Moving fast. Getting somewhere. Pause. Look around. Continue! When we write in short bursts or under a tight deadline, our survivor brain can override the higher mind’s apprehension. We get something on the page. We stop. We look at it. We keep going.

Get your noun. Check. Write down somethings about that noun. Check. Find one or two things that really stand out. Check. Write! Stop! Write!

Of course this doesn’t work for everyone and isn’t a universal formula, regardless of what Bradbury may want you to believe. The exercise is still a useful one. Want me to demonstrate?

Ok. It should be said Lynda Barry insisted (and I think Bradbury would too) on using pen and paper…

The following is a real-time attempt to create ex nihilo.

Step One: Nouns 30 seconds













(I hit all caps as I was typing. I won’t change it. It’s real, man.)

Step two: Find your noun. Mine is Car Seat 1 Minute

The fauz leather of my dad’s beatle car seat

the fuzzy warm and sweet seats of our old crystler

the from seat of our old van

the red seats of my grandparent’s La Baron

Whew. Ok. Major misspellings. So which one is grabbing me? OK. Sweet seats of the old Chrysler mini van. Now I need to put myself in that spot and write what is around me.

Step Three: Place yourself in the memory. 2 Minutes

In front of me are my parent’s seats. The backs were a sticky blue faux leather. Above me the light blue felt ceiling was sagging in places, I wanted to pull on it. A single light was in the middle. Behind was the backseat where our dogs would travel. To my left was the window with those black nob things to partially open it from the bottom. To my right was the almost impossible to open door. Under me was the fuzzy carpeting with mashed candy and crumbs. It’s summer.

Whew. Ok. Time to write about a memory with those details in my head.

Step Four: Remember a scene. 10 minutes

I had wanted a Wendy’s burger and frosty so badly after the hot day I had playing little league baseball. The uniform was itchy and I was flush from the activity. My brother was in the shotgun seat, smiling.

“Can I have a large frosty?” I asked as we pulled into the drive thru.

“You will have a small.” Her words were final, but I was glad it didn’t get downgraded to a soda. She turned to my brother, “What do you want, AC?”

I didn’t hear my brother’s reply. The heat which built up inside the van from the Texas sun had released all the odors of past food spilled and lost among the cracks and blue carpeting. Like olfactory ghosts each sprang up and swirled together in an unholy mist. I suddenly didn’t feel well.

When our turn to order came my mother rolled down her window and pushed her head out of the car to speak into the little box. Her dark perm floated in the unforgiving summer wind. “We will have two kids meals, one with no pickles, and three small frosties.” A voice of muffled static read it back to her. “Sounds about right.” The price was given. She pulled ahead and handed her purse to my brother to find the right payment.

As home schoolers, my parents always found a way to teach us something during the day. When buying food, we would either find the right change or tell how much change we should get back. My brother found the money and began working on the change needed.


Whew. Ok. I didn’t promise literary gold. But before I began I wasn’t even thinking about the last time my family ate at Wendy’s for almost a decade (spoiler, there was a dead fly in my brother’s burger when he went to see if the pickles had been removed. He had already bitten into the burger and the pickles were still there). Memories of baseball hit me while writing that piece. How self-conscious I was in my uniform at a young age and worried about my HUGE athletic glasses, all those young emotions floodef back.

All this, from a list of nouns. I guess Barry and Bradbury know a thing or two.

Happy writing. What will your lists produce for you?

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Joyful, Joyful: Writing and Responsibility


It is disorienting when you feel something newly born within your heart. Falling in love. Finding the rotting zombie of hate in a graveyard of memory. Returning home and being a stranger. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with writing. And I am off balance.

Writing was what I wanted to do in college, but it was born from wanting to be a critically acclaimed “important” writer. I wanted to be the next fill in the blank. I wrote without heart and full of pretension.

It was a chore for me.

It was not vital.

It was disheartening.

I’ve always felt my future career was in the creative world. Cartoonist and illustrator have been titles I can use to make a living in that world. Drawing can feel fun until a project comes along where I need the money and don’t really care about what I am putting on the page.

When I finish a piece of drawing and Kristin tells me it is good, I don’t feel much.

When I finish a piece of writing and she says it is good, I am filled with joy.

I didn’t see this coming. I was shocked to wake up with “writer” in the middle of my mind like a mystical name given in the night.

All I want to do is think, talk, read, and write!

Not for the sake of critics.

Not for fame or glory.

Not to be remembered in textbooks by obsessed researchers and bored students.

I want to write for the sheer joy of it. Seeing words on a screen or a page. Getting thoughts down and wrestling with grammar and structure to make the poor, mediocre, or the mediocre, good. These are what I want to do, all the time.

Kristin will tell you I get obsessed with things easily: running, card games, video games, television shows, etc. I fear I may be obsessing with the joy of writing.

I have responsibilities. I have drawing deadlines. I have old unfinished design projects I need to deliver. I have my day job. I have my family of which to be a part. I can’t throw these things off for an affair with writing.

I need to learn what everyone learns when a new things is born, how to not spoil it. How to give proper space. How to not feel so off-balance all the time with blinding love or expectation.

It’s a difficult task for me as I read Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. He exploded and burned for his writing. The incendiary efforts of his mind and typewriter fueled so many stories and worlds. He understood the place of the “cool” moments of editing, but he described not writing for a day as if his thoughts and ideas would become toxic.

I have to wonder what other things in his life suffered as he chased his love with pen and paper?

What moments of joy or terror were lost by obsessing with stories?

A bit of wisdom comes to me from Ecclesiastes, a truism easily forgotten, “for everything there is a season.”  I can’t give myself, body and mind, to the desire to write. I need to remember my responsibilities and things I value like walking with my family, talking with Kristin, staring at a sunset and the changing color of leaves, or being in a quiet room at rest.

I am in awe of the sheer joy of writing I now possess. Now it is up to me to find a way to father the flame of my joy; a way for it to continue to give warmth and light, not to let it die, and not feed it to the point it burns my life down around me.

Fellow writers, I hope you can find a way too.

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To the Side – part one –


Anyone who has known me in passing will think I am making this up. I’ve been a “leader” at many functions and organizations. I am a confident public speaker. I can lead discussions in front of a classroom; and, as a member of the classroom I am often engaging in conversations with lecturers. I put on the persona of a loud, confident extrovert, and I think I fool most people. But talk with folks who have known me for years and you will hear stories of a shy, emotional man. I have lived the vast majority of my life to the side of whatever is going on around me. Only recently did my wife, and long time friend, Kristin, point this out. Of course, it was during the aftermath of an argument.

My family is poor at communicating with itself. We don’t close loops well and we often leave our deepest, most personal emotions unsaid.

We are not remarkable because of this.

However, the argument in question was regarding the plan for food on a weekend trip with my family this summer. I had texted my mother earlier in the week to ask about the meal plan. It was agreed that the plan would be figured out once we all had arrived at a group of family cottages. My mother and I didn’t know which day my only brother would arrive, he has Celiac disease and we would need gluten-free options.

Kristin and I arrived at the cottage we would be using, next door to the main cottage, where my parents and grandmother were staying. Kristin and our toddler son, Oliver, went to greet the family next door. I unloaded. My brother and his wife arrived next door while I was unloading. Oliver had to go down for a nap, so Kristin returned to our cottage with him. I stayed on the couch reading a Western. When she emerged she informed me that my brother had brought pulled pork and plans had been made without us being involved. An argument briefly ensued. I lost my temper because I didn’t think I was to blame for not knowing the plan. I said mean things. I threw my hat on the floor, a huffy, childish action. Kristin asked me to leave.

After a trip to town with my mother and brother, a meal plan was created and I cooled off. Kristin accepted my apology. The weekend went on without another incident.

But my outburst stuck with me. Why had I gone off the rails for not knowing the plan? Why did I violently hurl my hat to the floor? What nerve had been struck?

Kristin later told me it was obvious to her. It was typical of me to assume things and stay uninvolved with what was happening. She observed that my brother was over at the main cottage. He made things happen and is often in the middle of situations. I stayed to the side and waited, like I always do.

Epiphanies rarely happen. When they do, they are unexpected moments when memories of events draped in shadow are flooded with light and one can trace their curves and spikes. When she told me it’s my nature to be to the side of things, my mind exploded into hundreds of illuminating flares.

Epiphany flare!

I am the eldest brother. On a first pass, one may think my standoffish behavior is unbefitting my birth order. Yet, I only have one brother, no other siblings. I had the undivided attention of my parents for two full years before my brother was born. From then on, it was an undeclared competition. He had to try harder to be noticed. He had to get in the thick of things. And something in our past shaped the dynamic we have now, a something I will write about some other time. Regardless of our history, my detachment has much to do with my nature and experience, and little to do with my birth order.

Epiphany flares shot through my head and echoed down long-ignored synapses, I saw how I was content to stand to the side as life happened. I observed things and people. I participated in events, but was rarely the center of attention.

Epiphany flare!

I hated the interpersonal dramas of High School.

Epiphany flare!

I hated being in large groups.

Epiphany flare!

I was, and am, content to wait for the chance to talk with someone alone. Put me in a group of more than two, and the survival tactics of a child born and raised in the military kick in.

Epiphany flare!

I was raised in the United States Air Force. I moved almost every two or three years until college. My brother and I were also home schooled until high school for me, and middle school for him. Friends were hard to come by. To survive, I had to be able to make friends fast; and, grow callouses around my heart from saying too many farewells.

I realized television was our national vernacular. If I knew enough pop-culture references I could turn on the charm to make friends and influence people. If I could act loud and friendly, I wouldn’t be alone.

Survival tactics.

Hello, good buddy; good-bye, stranger.

The epiphany flares lifted mists from history with my brother. I have never been emotionally involved in his life. I assumed he wanted distance, probably because that is what I preferred. I watched. I annoyed him when my survival tactics made his friends laugh hard or they asked if I was coming along to whatever they were doing. I caught a hint to back off, but I was too immature to know that my backing off as a brother would create a canyon of emotional distance between us. I don’t know what relational donkey I need to use to climb over to his side again.

Epiphany flare!

The funny thing about epiphanies, they show banal details too.

Epiphany flare!

I always loved watching my brother play video games. I was the cautious player always looking for checkpoints or saving multiple times. The 10,000 saves on my level 26 Skyrim character is proof I still play this way. But my brother was, and is, amazing to watch at games. He plows ahead. He learns the optimal system and then abuses the hell out of it. I beat Zelda and the Ocarina of Time using a player’s manual. He figured it out on his own and I enjoyed watching him do it more than beating it myself. I was the original digital sports spectator.

Epiphany flare!

I enjoy video games the most when not actively involved.

It’s no use diagnosing when, where, or how I became this way. An epiphany is only helpful if I can continue to be aware of what I learned. I am a wallflower. I take to the sidelines. At big family gatherings, I’m in the kitchen washing dishes and talking one-on-one with a family member, not around a table with everyone else. In our small house church, unless I am supposed to interact, I usually don’t, other than one-on-one conversations.

My behavior has its benefits. I am an observer. I feel detached, like Stephen Crane’s correspondent in The Open Boat; I am here to watch and report. Even when real-life milestones come like the tragic death of a friend, the birth of a child, an argument where unforgivable words are uttered, or an epiphany, I detach and analyze.

Epiphany flare!

I have assumed this behavior makes me a writer, but really, most of the time, it just makes me an asshole. Primarily because I wasn’t aware of how my distance from people and situations could cause harm. I agree with John Donne, “no man (person) is an island onto himself,” but I really don’t live like it’s true.

My disengaged behavior influences vital networks of my life: my family, my few friends, my career, my doubting and my believing, and my politics. I don’t know where this newly illuminated section of my psyche will go or what I will learn.

I am processing my epiphany and the flares it has set off. I know there is good here, but there is harm too. I will explore what has come to light the best way I know how, through writing.

I’m glad I had a tantrum and threw my hat; but I am more grateful to the woman who forgave me and spoke truth. I think it must be difficult to be married to me. To misuse an old phrase, as I learn more about myself, I’ll do my best to… hold on to my hat.


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Hot Today, Cool Tomorrow: Fueling the Creative Fire


When I experience writer’s block, it’s usually because I’m starting from a place of creative emptiness. Maybe itsĀ an idea I convinced myself is clever but feel nothing about it. Maybe I’m writing something without conviction. Usually I am forcing myself to write with an eye on money or critical acclaim. Writing needs fuel. In The Joy of Writing, Ray Bradbury lays out his formula for writing and pinpoints the burning core of his creativity. It makes all the difference in my own approach to creative work and writing. Continue reading

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Explosive Self-Revelation and Continuous Astonishment


Espresso didn’t taste good in high school, but I drank it in a little cup to look impressive. I would order it whenever I was in a bookstore and intended to read. I wanted to seem sophisticated. Like most teenagers, I wanted the image to betray reality and felt to be a writer, one must drink espresso, not the yummy mocha drinks of ordinary people. When I finally read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing my senior year, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t yet understand his wisdom. Continue reading

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