In his early years as a writer, Ray Bradbury made lists of nouns based on childhood memories. Things like: The Lake, The Night, The Crickets, The Ravine.
“These lists were the provocations,” he wrote in Zen in the Art of Writing, “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.”
I love that metaphor of the trapdoor. We need to flip that door open and shine a light down where all the “better stuff” is.
What did Bradbury mean by that? I think he meant what comes from deep, emotional resonance. It’s what you can’t put into words to define it; but what you must put into words to create it—first for you, then for your reader.
I’ve written some scenes that I’ve gotten emails about. When I look at those I find inevitably they came to me after I opened the trapdoor.
How do you do that?
You make a list like Bradbury’s. Find some time to get alone, take a some deep breaths, and just start remembering….write down all the images and smells and sounds that come to mind. Don’t judge any of it. You’re recording, not fictionalizing. When you get tired, take a break, then come back and add to this list. Put it aside for awhile. Then read it over and highlight the words that generate the most emotion inside you.
I guarantee you’ll find story gold. You can transmute those feelings into your Lead character. You can create moments in your book that will connect with readers in a powerful way. You can also mine the list for short story subject matter. That’s what I like to do most with my own list. (Hat tip to Dale for yesterday’s post which prompted this one.)
I was looking at my list a few years ago when I stopped on The Cigar. That word was there because of my father. To this day when I get a whiff of cigar smoke, I think of Dad. This time when I read the word I flashed back to a scene from my own life, involving me, a liquor store, and a box of Dutch Masters. The emotion of what happened—embarrassment—gave me an idea for a short story called “My Father’s Birthday.”
I published it. And apparently that emotional resonance I mentioned above was there for many readers. If you’ll allow me two clips from the reviews:
Then, in only 12 pages, he ties all his plot threads together to impart an emotional impact that a lot of authors wouldn’t be able to do in a book-length memoir. Indeed, other writers could have turned the bares storyline of “My Father’s Birthday” into an entertaining short story. Few could produce one with the same lasting impact.
I’m telling you, this author has the power to take a person on an emotionally resonant trip down memory lane.
I show you those simply to demonstrate what opening the trapdoor on top of your skull can do for a story. If you’d like to read the story itself, I’ve made it free today for your Kindle or Kindle app. Click here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon site and search for: B081THHSYL
Try this: Right now, write down three nouns from your childhood, pictures under your trapdoor. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now pick one of them and share it with us. Why that word? What’s the emotional resonance for you? Have you used it in one of your stories?