Recently I found myself reading the 2010 issue of Hunger Mountain (published by Vermont College of Fine Arts), a literary journal that features, in addition to poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, young adult and children’s literature, photography, and essays on craft. In that particular issue, the managing editor, Miciah Bay Gault, detailed a writing practice of word association that Ray Bradbury used to begin drafting and explained that the editors had challenged several of the issue’s contributors, to try the exercise; the results of which are published in the journal. It struck me as a wonderful writer’s tool and a prescient contemplation since Ray Bradbury has so lately passed away.
The exercise is as simple as it is effective: write a list of nouns, or what might sound like story/poem titles. Separate them by periods so they stand alone, but allow one word to lead you to another (or not). Do this quickly, without dwelling on word choice, and stop once you have four or five lines. Go back, read the list you’ve created, and see what you have. Notice patterns, groupings, and odd-men-out words. It is like stream-of-consciousness writing, but brief and without syntax, just things and their thingness.
As Gault points out, this exercise has the effect of bringing up many of the deep-seated obsessions of the person making it, and I would add that it also often hauls in some wild and surprising details amid the repeated or logically-connected nouns. In the published exercises, which often seem to stand on their own as poems, you see evidence of those startling images that seem not to fit the larger “motifs” of the lists they are part of. I also noticed that sometimes the associations, if any were perceptible, seemed to be governed not only by theme (for example, “Lake” to “Night” to “Crickets” to “Ravine” in an example printed from Bardbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing), but in some cases by sound, as “The Baby. The Banshee…The Pie. The Pink,” from Bruce Smith’s offering.
Ray Bradbury was a writer important both to other writers and to a larger public of devoted readers, and it can be difficult to know how to honor the memory of someone whose legacy is so complex and variously significant; the practice of writing is one possibility. Making a word association list in the Bradbury style can help one pass through the initial slump I often feel when sitting down to the work of writing when, all of a sudden, the world seems flat and boring, my mind level, predictable. It’s compelling that a writer not known for poetry created an associative exercise that not only works as a way into writing poetry, but is practically a recipe for how to make a certain kind of lyric. If you get a good poem, or many, out of this, thank Bradbury silently and take the credit.
—Jasmine V. Bailey