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?