Back to Basics, Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists

This is Part 5 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

“I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

We’re done peeking at other people’s papers. We won’t compare ourselves to them any longer–not our friends, not our enemies, not our heroes. Does that mean we shouldn’t appreciate them as we do? Of course not. Only that we shouldn’t want to be them. That author you love–if they wrote about things that didn’t matter to you, then reading their most beautiful prose would be nothing more than an aesthetic exercise. You love them because their work speaks to you about things that are important to you. What are they?

If you think about it, I suspect you’ll find that they’re writing about things from your life, your own hopes and fears, fascinations and obsessions, loves and hates. They’re there in your memory. Find them.

“…I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. … I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Think, he advises, of the things that scare you. The things that make you feel something, good or bad. The things you’re fascinated by, the darkest place you’ve ever been, the deepest, the brightest, the best. One will lead to another. Make a list.


What good is a list? The nouns on our lists are things that only make sense to us personally. They’re the things that have shaped us. Remember our “zest” and “gusto”? They’re going to find their way onto the page in our own authentic voice through these lists.


“You don’t set out to reform a certain kind of writing. It evolves out of your own life and night scares. Suddenly you look around and see that you’ve done something almost fresh.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

Those who were at the Rainforest Writers Retreat with me–or with my friend Minerva in years since–may recognize what we’ve stumbled upon. There’s an exercise we did there that began with a visual prompt. We would view the prompt, and then write for five minutes about a memory sparked by the image. Somehow in that time, if we just kept writing, something would emerge–a line, a concept, sometimes a full scene–strong enough to hang a story on. The best stuff, the stuff that is uniquely our own, comes from our memories and experiences. Bradbury discovered this, and we’re about to discover it ourselves.

“And the stories began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”

When I reread this chapter, I started a list of my own, some of which I’ve shared above. Over the course of a day I filled three columns with memories, encoded in nouns. I look at these lists and I know exactly what each item means. Each one represents something I will never forget. Somewhere in there is the key to writing stories that matter to me, and can carry enough weight that they’ll matter to a reader eventually, too.

Grab a pen and notebook, and try it with me.

How does your list begin? Feel free to share in the comments.

Next time: The Lopside of Your Brain



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  1. Cheryl
    09/04/2015 at 5:09 pm Permalink

    I like this idea of making word lists… I do find certain words inspiring or intriguing, though I’ve never analyzed them to consider why. (Bookmarking to try it when I’m not tired and slightly loopy.)