Words lead to inspiration and the writer you are at heart

Rob Parnell shares Ray Bradbury’s practice of using words to find inspiration and in the process he discovered the kind of writer he is at heart.

by Rob Parnell

I borrowed a book from the library, written by Ray Bradbury, called “Zen in the Art of Writing”.

It’s so packed with great writing advice I’m almost loathe to finish it – because then I’ll have to take it back!

Writers often wonder about inspiration – and how to get good ideas for stories.

And often, when writers start out, they wonder what kind of writer they’re going to be – and what kind of stories they will write, and in which genre.

Mr Bradbury has some advice on both of these issues. In the pages of his book, he explains what helped him.

He says he’s been writing at least a thousand words every day of his life since he was twelve. Great. We like to hear that all the best writers have this simple habit ingrained.

He’d been reading a lot of science fiction since he was a kid he said and naturally thought he was destined to be an SF writer.

Trouble was, in his early twenties, he wasn’t having much success with his SF stories. Editors complained that they were derivative and not very original. Ray agonized over this because he knew in his heart he would have to make a living from writing – there was after all nothing else he wanted to do – but how was he going to get his work published if editors weren’t impressed with his stories?

He made a decision to take a couple weeks off to write down all his favorite words and phrases. Some of them intended as titles for works, some just words that he liked. Words that appealed to him and struck him as evocative.

This is the important part. He didn’t just pick words that sounded good. He picked words that inspired an emotional reaction in him. The words on their own may have sounded innocuous to anyone else. Words like BODY, LAKE, CARNIVAL and DOLL. But to Ray the words personified events in his life and more relevantly, changes in his perception as he was growing up.

When he had a small notebook full of these words, he would then take one at random and write a short piece based on his personal reaction to the images and emotions triggered by them.

Hey presto, his work became, he says, more original overnight.

Original because his work became more honest, more uniquely “Ray Bradbury”, he says. One of the first tales he wrote using this technique was “The Lake”, a story that is still republished to this day, almost forty years later.

He said that the practice of writing down all the words he found evocative helped him to establish in his own mind what kind of writer he was. The list helped him to see patterns in his own preferences. In short, the pages of words in his notebook became the template for his “style” – his own unique way of perceiving the world.

He said what was interesting to him was that this list of words is still a source of inspiration to him to this day. Thirty years after he’d written down the list, he still plunders it for short story ideas!

So, as I said, the list became his own source of inspiration and originality at the same time. Certainly nothing to be sniffed at for a writer.

I don’t know about you but this sounds like a fabulous idea – and one that may have already occurred to you. I remember being seventeen and writing down titles of books I would one day write.

I also wrote down snippets of dialogue that appealed to me. Phrases that still work their way into my stories, even now.

So if you’re ever worried that you don’t know what kind of writer you are, try this exercise:

Make a list of 200 words you like the sound of. Words that uniquely move or inspire you, or fill your head with images and emotions.

And when you have the list, study the words. Look for patterns.

You may discover you’re not quite the kind of writer you thought you were.

Plus, you’ll have a deep, ready store of inspiration.


 I didn’t know this practice could be so inspiring and valuable. Years ago, I began filling 3 x 5 notebooks with new and interesting words I came across while reading books or the dictionary. Yes. I read the dictionary. It starts with my searching for the meaning of one word and the next thing I know, I’ve read three or four pages. Anyway. I write down the words that grab me, look them up and record their meanings, origin and history.

Yet, some words cling to me, tugging at my heart when I am writing, calling our, “use me, use!” and sometimes I do.

It never occurred to me that those words may have been indicators of the kind of writer I am. I see Mr. Bradbury’s point and I’m going to pay attention to the words in my old notebooks and the new words I collect.

If you are a writer, surely you love words. But do you collect words – write them down and explore  their origin and history? 

If you collect words, you don’t only have inspiration in your notebooks but indicators of the kind of writer you are at heart. 


6 thoughts on “Words lead to inspiration and the writer you are at heart

  1. Sistergirl,

    Let me know how it goes. I don;t recall you inspired me to collect words but ray Bradbury took it further by allowing the words he collected, to show him who him his writer's heart.


  2. I've never collected words, especially with this intent. What a wonderful suggestion, especially to start a beautiful journal solely for this purpose. It seems like a great personal reference to have. Ray Bradbury wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Dandelion Wine. There is so much truth in that story. Cheryl, if you haven't read it, I recommend it.


  3. Joanne,

    It is quite enjoyable indeed. Yes. Yes. Yes. My personal reference.

    I have that book in my Amazon Wish List but I'm holding off buying book for a couple months – saving for an exercise machine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s