by Sean Houlihan
What Bradbury would do is create one to two word lists of nouns- recurring images that reflected loves and hates. An early list would run something like this: The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine, The Attic, The Basement, The Trap-door, The Baby, The Crowd, The Night Train, The Fog Horn, The Scythe, The Carnival, The Carousel, The Dwarf, The Mirror Maze, and The Skeleton.
Anyone familiar with Bradbury’s work will recognize familiar motifs: a drowned girl who builds a sandcastle on the shore of the lake she died in years ago; an ancient sea creature, the last, that mistakes the horn of a lighthouse for another of its kind; a midget, who, everyday, longingly stares into a fun house mirror; an illustrated man, who’s tattoos are precursors of horrors yet committed...
A few years ago, I tried to put Bradbury’s word association technique into practice. I wrote down a list of recurring images I’d been having: The Actor, The Rocket Man, The Terminal Ward, The Mentor, The Unrequited Love... And then I started writing, with no direction other than that list of nouns. The story I wrote was called Arcadia, and it was about a man on his deathbed who keeps slipping out of consciousness, and flashing back to a cheesy B-movie he had starred in when he was a young man- which also happened to star the only woman he ever loved.
It was the first story I sold to a professional publication.
Afterwards, I started to piece together where the list had come from. I was a huge science fiction fan, and Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis, the stars of the seminal sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, had died relatively close to one another during the time of my writing Arcadia (Nielsen died the 28th of November, 2010; Francis on January 2, 2011); also, at this time, I was dealing with death in my personal life: a beloved grandfather and a college professor I was close with, had also passed.
The only addendum I’d put to Bradbury’s usage of word association as a tool for writers, is that I don’t agree that the nouns need necessarily reflect such extremes as loves and hates; they can be any recurring image, whether you know why it’s there or not. If an image is rattling around in your brain, even if you don’t know why, it’s got to be there for a reason, and perhaps, through your writing, you’ll discover why.
The idea of just generating a random list from one’s subconscious and then writing scattershot, may seem ungainly to writers who like to compose detailed outlines before committing anything to paper. That’s a perfectly natural reaction, this technique is not for everyone.
But, let’s face it, if we only wrote when we were truly inspired, and had a thorough plan of attack, we wouldn’t do much writing.
That’s why writing through word association is a great writer’s technique, it lets us sidestep the writer’s outline, while allowing us an opportunity to find inspiration through the exploration of our own subconscious.
Sean Houlihan lives in the northeastern United States, and is not so much a writer, but rather a cipher for a battle-scarred bicolor cat who dictates her stories to him between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning.
He is a lifelong fan of Ray Bradbury and considers Fahrenheit 451 one of the greatest novels ever written.