I don’t have much of a creative process. An idea for a story occurs to me, I think about this idea for a period of time – sometimes years – until the guilt of not acting on said idea forces me to begin writing. Anxiety seems to be the primary driving force behind my work. Anxiety and guilt.
And so, I’m fascinated with how other people create art. Their methods, rituals, superstitions – what they do to find inspiration. Ray Bradbury’s book of essays, The Art of Zen Writing, is a treasure trove of advice on the creative process. In the book, he discusses what lead to the writing of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes and all the other brilliant stories he produced. Bradbury urged writers to Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. I’ve always been a cool writer. Too calculated by far. I envy Bradbury’s white heat. I long to feel it.
Bradbury kept lists, specifically lists of titles for stories he’d never written but wished to. To come up with his titles, he used an almost stream-of-conscious methodology, quickly writing down nouns that evoked an emotional reaction. Bradbury believed that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing. So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”.
In his own words:
These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.
The lists ran something like this:
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.
I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I decided to do as Bradbury did, to conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wanted to jump out of my nerves onto the page.
This is what I came up with:
THE LONELY BEACH. THE LIGHTHOUSE. THE UNQUIET COFFIN. THE EMPTY HOUSE. THE THIN MAN. THE ANGRY CHILD. THE FALLEN KING. THE WOODS. THE CLINKING GLASS. THE CLIFFS. THE FACE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRS.
Looking over the list with an analytical eye, I see echoes of my youth in the small coastal town of Port Macquarie. I see purely fantastical things that interest me, and mundane things that speak of secret sadness. Just like Bradbury, I see the seeds of stories. Sparkling grains along the dark shores of my subconsciousness.
I don’t know if my list will yield dozens of classic stories and books like Bradbury’s, but I feel something… a tingle in my fingertips. A flush of warmth. Bradbury’s white heat? Could be.