Wednesday, June 27, 2012

thinking about writing, and vice versa

I've always been something of a thinker.
From The Paris Review's The Art of Fiction interview series comes this excerpt:

In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this? 
Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 
After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 
I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them. Certain pictures evoke in me things from my past. When I look at the paintings of Edward Hopper, it does this. He did those wonderful townscapes of empty cafes, empty theaters at midnight with maybe one person there. The sense of isolation and loneliness is fantastic. I’d look at those landscapes and I’d fill them with my imagination. I still have all those pensées. This was the beginning of bringing out what was me.  

Writing advice is helpful, but the kind of bringing out that this writing exercise encourages is a little frightening. I hadn't quite realised to what extent writing requires the writer to bare their soul. I mean, I knew this, I did ... but my soul? To dredge the innermost workings of my brain? My personal histories? My reactions? Ye gads. But Ray Bradbury is (was) wise and I see, I see how this will work, to "write the way you see things". For when all of the stories have been told, then unpicked and written again, it's our unique experiences, and the slightly skewed way each writer sees things, that makes each story a new one.

I shall penser on it some more.


  1. "it's our unique experiences, and the slightly skewed way each writer sees things, that makes each story a new one." YES. I love this.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Kate. I've been feeling a bit blah about writing lately, and this reminded me how exciting and meaningful it is.

    1. it is! and yr words reminds me of this all. the. time. and spur me on, too. xx


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