Storycrafting 10: Free Association

Posted on October 24, 2019


In his book Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury famously discussed his “noun list” writing technique. It’s been regurgitated many times. I first read about this in the preface to either Something Wicked this Way Comes or Dandelion Wine when I was 12, and of course forgot it for a good 40 years. Bradbury believed that powerful stories come from the subconscious, and since most of my work comes from dreams, I must concur.

I’ve recently started using this technique myself, specifically when I have a deadline and am blocked, or if I’m writing a story to market. I’m slightly less rigorous than Bradbury, not constraining my list to nouns, but listing anything that comes to mind. I’ve done this twice now for the Seattle Stories of the Sea competition, the first year writing my entry at the bar waiting for my turn, the next year at dinner the day before. Here is the one-sitting story I Shot Muldowney. In this case the “associations” were 3 or 4 snippets that came to me. If you click on the feature image, you can see the entire “outline.” Forty-five minutes later, I had my story. And, it was good enough to sell.

Mr. Bradbury used to do this every morning when he awoke, and he was a prodigious short story writer, publishing almost 600 in his lifetime. I’m still oscillating on my “process,” and right now it’s more tools in a box than a set way of working. Honestly, my brain is so full of ideas all of the time, I have more trouble picking one of them to work on than coming up with them, but I find this technique useful when I’m looking for a scene or plot point. I guess my process is a combination of rough outline, writing into the dark, and free association.

So I might get an idea for a story, (or in the case of I Shot Muldowney, a title, which I had for over a year before I ever wrote a word) specify the beginning, middle, and end, and begin writing. Then tomorrow I’ll read today’s writing and if I’m not sure how to make the next transition, I’ll just free associate 5 or 6 things and go from there.  Recently, I got into an Christmas horror anthology, Christmas Kills, and I was searching for story ideas. I heard this violin piece, Witch of Harlem, and the story behind it – a short story generator in itself. From there I wrote:

  • Witch of Water Street (a street in my home town dating back to 1625)
  • Christmas witch
  • Colonists
  • Fire
  • Sea Captain
  • Accident
  • Blizzard
  • Yule
  • Cupboard
  • Preacher
  • Oath

From which I generated a story about a colonial healer woman who lives alone in the woods, finds an injured hunter in a blizzard, and heals him. For this act of kindness, a mob turns up at her house and burns her out. She flees to town were she can get no succor, until the last house on Water Street where a sea captain takes her in an hides her in the witch’s cupboard behind the chimney while every house in town burns but his. And then, well, it gets horrific, but I won’t give that away here.

You could argue that it’s not exactly free association since I often “seed” my stories by having a topic or market in mind. I’d concede that. as this is about technique and not semantics. But however you label it, it took me way too long to embrace this incredibly simple and powerful technique, and I urge you not to follow my folly. Sit down, close your eyes, make a list, write the story, and share it with me!


Posted in: Fiction, Writing