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.The Art of Fiction No 203, Paris Review (Spring 2010), Ray Bradbury
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.Ray Bradbury
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…Ray Bradbury
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.