Bradbury’s list and Aronofsky’s diary
When Ray Bradbury was in his early twenties, like many aspiring young writers, he had trouble finding his own voice. In an attempt to break out of that rut—in which he wrote a lot of derivative science fiction that even he characterizes as “abysmal”—he stumbled across a technique that he describes in Zen in the Art of Writing:
I began to make lists of titles, to put down long lines of nouns. These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better self to surface. I was felling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trap door 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 Trap Door. The Baby. The Crowd. The Night Train. The Fog Horn. The Scythe. The Carnival. The Carousel. The Dwarf. The Mirror Maze. The Skeleton.
A few of these titles generated ideas for stories that Bradbury wrote up almost at once, while others didn’t go anywhere for decades. But he would periodically revisit the list to see if any of those words would spark a train of thought, and he was also systematic about it, picking a phrase from the list at random and then writing a kind of prose poem or essay on that subject. More often than not, halfway through, he would find that it had turned into a story. And he continued to consult that list for the rest of his life.
He wasn’t alone, either. Last year, in a New Yorker profile of the director Darren Aronofsky, the writer Tad Friend tossed off a detail that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since:
In the mid-nineties, Aronofsky wrote down ten film ideas he wanted to pursue. All six of his films have come from that list, and all have been informed by his early years.
The italics are mine. Aronofsky has referred to this list before, most notably in an interview with Slashfilm that appeared a few years earlier:
The Wrestler was my idea. When I graduated film school…one day I wrote a list of ten ideas for films in my diary. And one of them was called The Wrestler. When The Fountain shut down the first time, I started to think about it.
A list of movie ideas that included the seeds of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Noah reflects a singular creative personality, and it also points to a hidden structure in the career of a director who has often seemed so thrillingly unpredictable. And as I wrote on a blog post on the subject last year, many writers have a similar bucket list.
What really strikes me about the list now, though, is that these six films aren’t the only ones that Aronofsky was once contracted to direct: they’re just the ones he happened to finish. When you look back at his career, you find that his name has been attached at various points to all kinds of unlikely material: an adaptation of the children’s book Sector 7, a Batman movie, the film that later became The Fighter, a RoboCop remake, The Wolverine, a pilot for a television series called Hobgoblin, and more. If none of them ever got off the ground, at least not with his involvement, this isn’t particularly surprising: the résumé of any director whose name isn’t Christopher Nolan will inevitably include a number of unrealized projects. But it’s revealing that of the six films that Aronofsky has actually seen to completion, every single one of them came from that initial list. This tells us something about the role of passion in bringing a story home—Aronofsky tends to finish the projects in which he has the greatest personal stake—and, perhaps, about the talismanic significance of making such a list in the first place. Aronofsky isn’t the only director, successful or otherwise, to put together a list like this; I suspect that most film school graduates have done much the same. Simply making the list doesn’t guarantee that these ideas will go anywhere. But not making the list all but guarantees that they won’t.
And the crucial point here is that the act of making these lists is also what allowed Bradbury and Aronofsky to find themselves. When Bradbury glanced over the words that he had generated, he was reminded of things about his own inner life that he’d forgotten: his fascination with carnivals, with freak shows, with old people. He writes: “If you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.” And I have a feeling that Aronofsky used his own list to identify the common threads that link his varied output as a director, notably an interest in obsessive outsiders struggling, and often failing, to find human connection. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to devote a notebook or diary page to this kind of list, even if you don’t think you’ll get to some of those ideas for years. (It’s particularly useful for those working in fields where it’s easy to get distracted by opportunities arising in the meantime, as has occasionally happened to Aronofsky.) And it helps to write them all down for real, even if you think you won’t forget them. A life in art, like any life, can change us in ways we can’t predict, and if you haven’t made your list, you may not remember who you used to be—or the stories that person once hoped to tell.