Everyone, in any given field, is bound to have some cool ladies and dudes they look up to. I’ve got a list myself, and Ray Bradbury is very close to the top.
In 2001, Ray Bradbury spoke at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea and had a helluva lot of wisdom to throw down (I highly recommend giving that whole keynote address a watch, especially those with writerly ambitions). And to start things off, he tells you, you gotta develop writing hygiene. Which is to say, a routine. Practicing, learning, applying. Quite a bit of the advice he gives is still spread today, adhered to by many a-word bandit. Me, I’m one of them.
I’ve developed my own hygiene regiment, and figured, why not post it? It’s not me trying to give advice, who am I to do that? But it’s stuff that works for me and hey, maybe it will work for someone else.
Most of this seems like a lot to do daily or weekly, and it might be, but we all have the same amount of time in the day and I think most writer’s know the struggle of fitting in words. I work a full time job, maintain a healthy social life, and run errands like we all do. But, I also try to remind myself of a philosophy held by a brilliant writer (Stephen Graham Jones, whose work you should immediately seek out), that goes along the lines of: the day is filled with little moments, moments where we’re doing nothing, when we could be writing. Even if it’s on a little pocket notebook while you’re on your lunch break, or waiting in the DMV. I think that’s important.
Anyway, here’s my regiment.
1. Daily Dose of Longhand Flash & Verse
I was lucky enough to be a kid in the 90’s, before the internet was a thing (and damn did it blow my eight year old mind when it was) but for the most part I’ve always typed. It’s just one of many items on my list of “Reasons I Want to Punch Backwards In Time to Punish Young Me.” Because now adult me can’t write longhand without fast-onset hand cramps. So, I decided to, as they say, kill a couple birds with this stone: every day I write a piece of flash fiction or a poem by hand. I carry around a pocket notebook and a pencil with me at all times so, if an idea comes on unexpectedly, I’m prepared. Any outlet for creating prose is a good one, I feel. Flash fiction is great for developing good writing habits that will help your short stories and novels. Poetry is the music of literature, and if you want to write lyrically it’s a great place to practice. I wrote a ton of poetry before I started writing fiction seriously, and I’m happy for that now.
2. The Noun List
Credit for this one goes to Ray Bradbury. In order to help him with ideas, he made lists of nouns to trigger what he called “something honest”. He explains in an essay, where he writes:
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. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.
I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
And so I tried this, too. And I loved it, and it worked for me. It was inspiring, and even a little cathartic. Difficult to do at first, but eventually you grease the wheels of your brain and you find the words flow rapid. Of course, my subconscious takes liberties, and I end up with quite a few non-traditional nouns with adjectives, and some just plain made up. They still help me, so I think it works. Here’s a couple of lists I did:
The Symphony. The Mockingbird. The Violin. The Macaw. The Narwhal. The Spinning Whistle. The Guarded Night. The Gilded Man. The Book. The Secret Face. The Shadow Inspector. The Miracle. The Gray Goddess. The Mystical Penance.
The Marshal. The Kite Brigade. The Talisman Retriever. The Dissident. The Slave Crafter. The Massive Statue. The Con Artist. The Grail Seeker. The Mastiff. The Calamity. The Caravan Machine. The Lies. The Miredowns. The Commander. The Vixen.
If I never make it as a writer, I could always become a consultant for band names, at least.
3. Bullet Prose
This one is maybe more ad-hoc. Or maybe that’s just an excuse. Regardless, bullet prose is just my bullshit cutesy name for random lines, sentences, and dialogue bits that pop into my head throughout the day. Maybe inspired off the cuff by something I see or something someone says. Sometimes it comes out rough, sometimes like a sniper’s shot. But it always comes on like a bullet. It can be great for drawing more inspiration for, at the very least, some good flash or a short story. And sometimes you find yourself writing something and, wouldn’t you know it? that little piece of prose you wrote fits perfect. You’ll soon find that the seeds of ideas sometimes begin long before they’re fully conceptualized in your head with lightning-strike inspiration. Sometimes the clouds have to bloat first, to make way for the storm.
4. Daily Required Reading
Taken from Ray Bradbury again, for the most part. As he suggests, every day I read — at least — one short story, one poem, and one “essay.” I say “essay” because this is where I deviate. I basically read up on a different subject every day. Usually this will be, well, essays if I can find them, or I’ll find reputable write-ups online. Sometimes I’ll spread out a subject over the course of days to soak up as much as I can. Some favorites are astronomy, true crime, conspiracy theories, ancient & modern history, AI, existential threats, folklore, geology, and language. I try to mix it up and look into new things, or subjects outside my comfort zone. The benefit here should be clear. If you’re writing, you should already be reading a ton. Your head should be filled with prose until it’s spilling from your eyes and ears and mouth and fingers. Poetry gives you an eye for things like rhythm, structure, metaphor, and much more. Lastly, we all have thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge sitting in our pockets, so tell Facebook to fuck off and learn something instead. They say, “write what you know.” So it follows you should know a lot, so you can write about a lot of cool shit. Right?
5. The Ray Bradbury Challenge
This is the last one, and the biggest. For those unfamiliar with this challenge, it comes from that video I linked above. It was really more of a piece of general advice given by Ray Bradbury, but it’s developed into something more. The idea is simple. Write a short story every week for a year, 52 stories total. As Ray reminds us, chances are good that there will be a few gems in there. But really the point is practice. Not your innate talent, that’s not something that can be practiced obviously. It’s a cocktail of nature and nurture that pushes us into being Word-whisperers. But everything else absolutely can be: craft, structure, subtext, plot, active voice, omitting needless words, writing with brevity, and so on and so forth. It’s a great way to purge yourself of bad habits. I’ve only just started the challenge, but so far I love it.
This list is ever expanding. I’m always trying to think up or find new mental exercises, they keep me focused. I’ll add to this list or do an update in the future should these changes.