Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Word Play

It happens to all of us at some point. We sit before the blank computer screen, waiting for inspiration to strike. And we sit. And sit. Then we get up and grab some Double-stuff Oreos to dunk in milk to make the sitting more enjoyable. But it doesn't help us come up with an idea, not one little bit.

Sometimes we resort to idea-generating devices, and some work better than others. I return to Ray Bradbury's excellent Zen in the Art of Writing in the chapter titled, 'Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stair, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds. He suggests using word association to "Be blown up , as it were, by your own delights and despairs." (pg. 15). He reflected on his past and made lists of nouns that surfaced in his memories - a sort of free-flowing association. From these he wrote authentic stories that were his alone.

I also found a website called The Thousand Word Project from Bates College Museum of Art which is an educational tool to use artwork to improve writing skills Here . On this site are interesting videos of artists who discuss the creative process and foster creativity in writing. It also offers this wonderful word list program called Wordle which makes my noun list even more inspiring and useful. You simply copy and paste a selection in the box or create your own random word list of your own. You can even adjust the font or color, or select 'randomize' for interesting variations. Then you can print the list or upload it to a forum. Here's mine.
Wordle: Childhood summer
Click on it to enlarge. It's titled 'Childhood Summer' and contains some of my memories of Maryland. The only glitch is that it does not distinguish phrases, so my 'Queen Anne's Lace' word was split up. Oh well. One of the artists said she chooses a topic and brainstorms words that are associated, then prints her list to ruminate on the project and see what ideas emerge. Sounds like a winner to me.

It's a fun tool, and delving into our past greatly enhances our writing. Mr. Bradbury moves on from pleasant childhood memories to what fears molded him. Our fears can powerfully affect the trajectory of our story. He tells of waking in the night with a powerful need to use the restroom but fearing to walk down the hall with the stairs that led to the attic where The Thing waited at the top. He ends the chapter: "I leave you now at the bottom of your own stair, at half after midnight, with a pad, a pen, and a list to be made." (pg. 28)

Is there anything you can share with us from your fears list? I, for one, would use these words about the basement: damp, musty, cool, workshop, sharp tools, scents of Tide and machinery oil, wall of canned vegetables and fruits, creepy, door that leads to coal bin which we were forbidden to open.
Have you made word lists to mine your life for topics? What works for you?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Word lists...clever.

I'm editing a novel now and you wouldn't believe how many times I used the word tugged. Tugged?!

Fears, let's see. One of my biggest fears was a blue man on my door (you can imagine I'm not a huge fan of the Blue Man Group). I think it was probably my eyes adjusting to the light being turned off. I saw a blue outline on my closet door and it wigged me out, but I didn't give you a list at all did I? Nope, a bunch of sentences.

I'll have to try this.
~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Making a list of all our childhood fears would probably be good therapy, wouldn't it? From the advantage of distance, we might be able to counsel our 'inner child.'
I'm not sure how much text you can enter into the program, but it will highlight the words used more than others, which might be a good tool for determining what we overuse.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea.I grew up in the mid-west and I had this dream of being completely alone in this vast desert. Sand was everywhere and it was so quiet,this dream terrified me and has always stuck with me. Alone, lost,silence,dust,grit,invisible.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Anonymous, what a great 'memory' to draw from for a story. I find that my feelings in my dreams are just as authentic and potent as if I were awake, don't you? And therefore reliable for characters.

Anonymous said...

When I was little my family loved watching "Unsolved Mysteries". That show caused this over-active imagination to go wild. Here's a list inspired by Robert Stack...


Ew...just thinking about it makes me feel creepy.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sometimes I put what you're calling a word list right in the manuscript. For instance, if I need a descriptive word and can't put my finger on the right one in my mind, I just put all the likely candidates right in the sentence. I continue writing, and then when I go back to read it quite often the "best" word will come to mind.

Anonymous said...

Latayne! That's genius. I'm doing that from now on.

Anonymous said...

Latayne, I do that too. Then I highlight the words so they're easy to locate when I'm ready to make a decision. Funny the tricks we employ only to find other writers do the same thing.

Nikole Hahn said...

Sometimes I'll gaze out the window at something try to find different, non-cliche words to describe it.