Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
My client’s mind must be awash with conflicting ideas about her manuscript. Here’s what happened: I love Marissa’s novel and received nice enthusiasm for the idea when I pitched it to editors. But this is the tally of how editors have responded:
- 2 didn’t like the setting
- 2 didn’t like the theme
- 1 didn’t like the protagonist
- 2 didn’t like the way the story was told
This range of reasons to turn down a manuscript creates cacophony in a writer’s brain. How does she move forward in light of such varying opinions?
Another client, Alice, has been searching for what to write next. She’s passed probably 10 ideas by me, and I’ve responded, “Meh” to each one. I’m not seeing anything original, fresh, or that stands out from all the other ideas editors see everyday.
Marissa and Alice, although each in a different phase of creating a manuscript, must answer the question, How do I find what is “true” inside me? Locating that deeply held passion is the path to figuring out what’s next.
No less a writer than Ray Bradbury was a firm believer in writing from that place of passion. His path to that spot was surprisingly simple: he created lists of nouns. In a Paris Review interview he said that we all hold three things in our heads that provide us with what he calls “fabulous mulch” from which to come up with ideas–whether to fix a manuscript or to start a new one.
Your mind holds:
- Everything you have experienced since birth.
- How you reacted to those experiences at the moment they occurred.
- All the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers.
But how do you pull out what is true from this mulch? Bradbury turns to lists.
Here’s his recounting of how that works for him: “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 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.”
In another example of how lists worked for him, he observed, “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.“
List-making may not have the same magical effect for you as it did for Bradbury, but every writer has to find ways to shut down the chorus of others’ views of their writing and find true ideas in their noisy heads. For when a writer can find that nexus of passion, others (not everyone, but many others) will recognize it for the beautiful, honest work it is.
What method(s) do you use to find your muse or to solve a gnarly writing problem?
How writers can find true ideas inside their noisy heads. Click to tweet.
Lists are provocations that caused my better stuff to surface. –Ray Bradbury. Click to tweet.