The day Ray Bradbury died I cried. Then I got out the big box of DVDs and watched The Ray Bradbury Theater.
The Ray Bradbury Theater is a relatively little known work of Bradbury’s, but it ran for years in the 80s and 90s on USA
Network and HBO. By the time the series finished, 65 of his stories and books had been translated into 30 minute episodes.
It’s no wonder each episode began with Bradbury in his office addressing the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” His answer as he sat down at his desk and looked around at a room full of toys and memorabilia was, “Right here.”
It was the kind of answer that pulled at something deep in my gut, but it was a television blip, and he didn’t elaborate, so for a long time I was left to wonder what magic made the veldt come alive when he closed his office door.
I may have wondered forever, if it hadn’t been for a little essay in a little book I stumbled on at a used bookstore several years ago.
In Zen and the Art of Writing, Bradbury returns to that office and the question of where his ideas come from. For 17 pages, he remembers how his stories were born. It’s easy to imagine him going through that office picking things up and putting them down.
Except, the things that he picks up and puts down aren’t toys. (That’s just good television.) They’re nouns:
THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON. THE MEADOW. THE TOY CHEST. THE MONSTER. TYRANNOSAURUS REX. THE TOWN CLOCK. THE OLD MAN. THE OLD WOMAN. THE TELEPHONE. THE SIDEWALKS. THE COFFIN. THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. THE MAGICIAN.Finally, some insight! Anyone at all familiar with Ray Bradbury, will be able to see him in this list, but even if this is the first time you’ve read his name, I’m sure you can see the outline of a writing life that looked at the world through coke bottle lenses of nostalgia and fear.
And it was toward this list of nouns that Ray Bradbury urges the young writer in Zen and the Art of Writing:
I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made. Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness.
As a young writer, I took that advice, expecting my own veldt to rise out of the paper. After all, Bradbury himself promised “my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone.”
So, I wrote the list, and I waited, and nothing happened, and I put that little book away, and years went by, and Ray Bradbury died, and the book resurfaced at a time in my life when I was haunted by a question one of my advisors in grad school had asked me over and over again, “Where are you in this?”
Putting Bradbury’s list and that question together was electric. Finally, I figured out where I’d gone wrong. When I wrote my list, I was so enamored of Bradbury, my list looked terribly like his, and the magic wasn’t in any old list of nouns. It was in the way that those words sparked for him and his ability to take your hand and pass that spark along.
So, I made my own list:
THE OFFICE. THE DUNGEON. THE PILOT. THE BEACH. THE BRIDGE. THE WATERFALL. THE HAUNTED HOUSE. THE EXECUTIVE. THE DRAGON. THE FACTORY. THE DESK. THE RUINS. THE GHOST. THE PLAYGROUND. THE KNITTING NEEDLES. THE SALT FLATS. THE ROMANTIC. THE MONK. THE ELEVATOR. THE KITCHEN. THE CAMERA. THE FIRE. THE TOMBSTONE. THE CELLAR. THE BARN. THE HILLS. THE STILETTOS. THE CARDBOARD BOX. THE FENCE.Is there a pattern in these words? I have no idea, but what I do know is that when I created a list of those words, a shift happened for me. I went from sweating blood just to write a page of fiction to having fun. The writing process that had been a chore became a quiet place to pick up and put down my own toys and mementos.
So, how about you? What’s on your list?