On his lifelong practice of list-making, prolific author Ray Bradbury said:
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…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.
When I began my self-created artistic apprenticeship (during a bleak period of extended sick leave, as described in a previous entry), Bradbury was one of the authors I chose as guide to a more creative life. I admired his fluency and joy in the work. Starting so late at writing, and doing so around the care of young children, I couldn’t afford the models of creativity I’d encountered during my distant English degrees – artists bleeding slowly in life, on the page, both. Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing advocates a practice which is more playful, curious and swift, even when tip-toeing towards our darker material:
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.
If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me…Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…
As I sat outdoors in that first season of trying to write, quiet in the daytime for the first time in seven years of working while raising small children to school age, I was as blank of desire as the page before me. What did I love? If I’d ever known, I’d forgotten.
The difficulty seemed worthwhile. I would give a whole days to it, and make a list not of ten things but a hundred, more. Try in this way to recover appetite, as when we have to force ourselves to eat again after a long illness.
The first ten items were simply domestic, and very close to hand – ‘growing things from seed’, ‘apples eaten with a knife’, ‘my husband’s wedding jacket of brown corduroy, hanging still in our hall’. Then a spurt of cultural stuff – ‘The diaries of Virginia Woolf’, ‘The life of Iris Murdoch’, ‘The sculptures of Barbara Hepworth’.
Next came more evocative ideas and memories, while still on a modest scale. Colour, texture: ‘Knitting myself a winter jumper on a summer beach’, ‘the railings on my long street which I painted green this year’, ‘handkerchiefs worn as headscarves’.
It was only towards the end of that day’s long, awkward courting of my lost self that deeper feeling returned:
67. My sense of calm, of rightness, when I sit at the hospice with a dying person
69. Lives lived wholly in one place: My mother, Granny Shadrick, Old Mr Phillips
81. The idea of this country in the two wars: How classes mixed; men and women
87. That I met what I thought was my death with courage and clear sightedness
93. Nobel Laureates of Peace and Literature
94. My ugly hands which mother, make love, knit, write: their strength and skill
99. Watching myself and my husband age together, this two decades
Until I arrived, finally, at a new and larger perspective of myself, and what I was pursuing:
100. That I am trying to live a connected and considered life after a difficult childhood: My life as a quilt made from the better stuff of friends – patched, borrowed, cobbled together – and yet, through my sincere effort, becoming something my own.
My first published work was still two years away – an essay about painting those railings I mention as Number 33, then a story called The Weather House about my childhood’s most beloved toy (a broken barometer shaped like a Swiss Chalet that my estranged father threw in the hedge as rubbish on a rare visit).
It would be a full five years before I could look back and see just how much of my second life’s work grew from that list made on an obscure out-of-work school day. Not only the material, but also the aesthetics: When I performed my two-season Wild Patience mile of writing by the historic lido of my home town, I wore a handkerchief as headscarf and had red polish on the short nails of my large hands that moved across the pool-length scrolls of paper – things from my list become emblems for the kind of woman, the type of writer, I wanted to be in the world.
The Wild Patience Diaries are occasional creative practice posts that draw on learnings from my late and strange writing journey of the last five years – shared in the hope of keeping others company in theirs. I would be so glad if you subscribe or share this resource with others you know who are at an early (or otherwise tender) stage in their artistic awakening. Followers receive each new post as an email.