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The Ray Bradbury Noun List Twist

For today’s challenge, try a twist on a technique Ray Bradbury used to beat writer’s block.

Photo by Alan Levine (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Ray Bradbury, author of 11 novels, including classics such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, faced writer’s block just like the rest of us. Bradbury, in addition to giving great writing advice, busted writer’s block by creating lists of nouns — the basic building blocks of sentences, paragraphs, short stories, novels, flash fiction, memoir, and poems.

The beautiful thing about the noun list twist is that you can use it to nudge your muse when writing fiction, non-fiction, memoir, poems — anything you wish to work on.

In today’s challenge we’ll ask you to write a new post using some nouns from various sources.

The Bradbury noun list technique

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova distills the essence of Ray Bradbury’s noun list technique and how the nouns’ associative properties helped inspire new writing.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

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.

The challenge

As usual, you choose how you’d like to participate. Remember, you’re always welcome to adapt the challenge to meet your needs as a writer.

Your mission is to write a new piece that includes at least five nouns from one of the following sources. You can write a paragraph, a story, flash fiction, a poem, a memoir, — whichever you desire. Bonus points for a whole, coherent story/narrative within your piece.

And, now, to the nouns.

Noun sources

  1. Bradbury’s sample noun list. Write a new piece using at least five of the nouns from Bradbury’s sample list, above: 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.
  2. Your nouns. Create a list of at least ten nouns. (If you can think of more, great, you’ll have more nouns to choose from.) Write a new piece using at least five of the nouns on your list.
  3. Our nouns. Choose at least five nouns from the following list and integrate them into your new piece: The balloon. The squirrel. The river. The clown car. The thunderstorm. The Peking duck. The airplane. The mouse. The red rose. The French pastry. The wedding. The tombstone. The camper van. The bee. The caltrops.
  4. Phone a friend. Phone or text one or two or a few friends. Ask them to tell you the first three nouns that pop into their head. Compile a list of all your friend-supplied nouns. Write a new piece using five of those nouns.
  5. Random noun generator. If you can’t think of any nouns that inspire you, and your friends are screening you, get some help from the internet. Visit the random noun generator and compile a list of five nouns you’ll use to write a post.
  6. Let the bot supply your nouns. If you’re on Twitter, @reply the Twitter handle, @YouAreCarrying with the word “inventory” or simply, the letter, “i” and you’ll receive a list of items in reply. Here’s my list of items from @YouAreCarrying. Feel free to use my list, request your own, or compile a list from the bot’s replies to others.
    Here's what I'm carrying. What are you carrying? Ask the bot!

    Here’s what I’m carrying. What are you carrying? Ask the bot!

No matter how you choose your nouns, have fun with the challenge! And remember, you can put Bradbury’s noun list technique into your writer’s kit bag so that it’s ready the next time writer’s block darkens your desk.

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  1. This sounds like a great technique to get over the writers block. Just through some nouns out there and see what story or topic they want to talk about. I will be asking a fellow blogging friend to supply me with some nouns and supply some in turn. Lets see what the words create!

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  2. Thank you ~ This is so helpful! I will keep it in mind when I write something in the future! I’m starting a document with noun lists and “what I am carrying” right now! 😀

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  3. a piano, sweet tea, friendship, wizards, spies, dragonflies, butterflies, lightning bugs, digging holes…………wizards spies and dragonflies send me spinning in the colored light of fantasty……flying through my imagination like a song…..filled with the grace notes and argpeggios of a melody that sings and floats in the softness of…..a wish to let go of every cry and wish to know why…..to satisfy myself in not knowing……..simply growing with the wildflowers…….particularly the dandelions……with the seeds that fly and spin…….into unknowingness……away from the creekbed and the digging of holes…..no more fabricated stories dug from Walmart shovels…….no more whying……..just flying

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