A series of evocative nouns
I was at a Thanksgiving potluck when my friend Adam taught me how to write fiction. I brought a salad of diced cucumbers, figs, tomatoes and kiwi. I had not planned on having the kiwi in there. ‘Sour’ and ‘foul’ were not adjectives with which I wished my salad to be described, but at half the price of nectarines, I was happy to include them in the mix. Adam brought homemade guacamole, made from avocado smashed with garlic, parsley and onion. Ours were the only two dishes that did not come in shades of beige: Nate brought frozen mushroom ravioli and John, a frozen spinach quiche. These were cooked to a powder yellow and a mustard tan, respectively, by the time we were ready to eat. It was near the end of our meal, the point in time when my paper plate began to absorb the stains of limp kiwi fruit and tomato excrement, when I mention to Adam that I wanted to start writing. Adam visibly perks up, erecting in his chair. ‘’You know,’’ he says, in his customary soft, staccato tone, ‘’I designed a method to help people write stories, when they have trouble coming up with ideas.’’
Not having ideas is actually the one problem with writing that I do not have. A vague understanding of grammar, a vocabulary dependent on shift-F7- these are very real problems. Ideas, I have in abunNatece. I have analyzed the trends of our culture and two things have become apparent. The first, people love the environment. They buy organic food and pour toilet water over their heads to raise money for ALS. Second, people love erotic fiction. They long to be spanked by a business executive and have violently painful sex with a vampire-or at the very least, read about such activities and salivate at the thought. Combining these two concepts would most certainly yield a national best-seller! My novel would tell the love story between a tree spirit and a young woman. Long story short, a shaman gives a tree temporary human form so that the tree, as a human man, can make a cure (using his intimate knowledge about nature and plants) for a debilitating disease, the very same disease that the young woman suffers from. Under unique circumstances, the young woman and the tree-man meet and they fall in love over several chapters. The young woman discovers the tree-man’s tree identity under erotic circumstances. It is raining heavily in a forest and, because of how these things work, the tree-man begins to sprout flowers uncontrollably from his body. The young woman, flush with excitement and intrigue, reaches over to touch his blossoming body. She has never seen anything so beautiful in her life. ‘’No-don’t…touch…me!’’ The tree-man commands with a strained voice. ‘’I don’t…want you to…see me like this!’’ ‘’It’s ok,’’ the young woman whispers. She reaches over and strokes the tree-man’s arm. Flowers explode in bursts of pollen and gold sparkles. The tree-man’s limbs transform into branches and erect into the night sky. Then things get really erotic. Verbs like ‘’pulsate’’ and ‘’protrude’’ would be used in relentless repetition-but I will stop there, so as not to give too much away.
Sometimes though, it is helpful to have alternative means to generate ideas, in the event that the ones you generate by your own devices prove to be unfruitful. I’m intrigued by this method Adam has designed. ‘’How does it work?’’ I ask.
‘’Well, I will need a piece of paper. And a pen!’’ Adam says, as he clears the table with mechanical efficiency. Adam describes himself as a man who is ‘’into things that demand passion and intelligence’’. One of these things is inventing games. We played one a year ago, a story-telling card game where there are no real winners or losers. It was a fun game despite of and because of this fact. As he had an intimate relationship with the creation of games, Adam took the playing of games very seriously. A group of us had met weekly to play the board game Diplomacy over the course of six grueling months. Each player controls a country on a gigantic map. Through a series of dice rolling and negotiations with the other countries, you try to gain new territories each week, marking your conquests with color coded ships and fleets. Whoever takes over the world, wins. We played in partners. I was on team Yellow Turkey with Adam. Adam was the brains of the operation, and I was the one who drew cartoons on paper napkins. The start of the game was marked by an aggressive attack on Turkey by team Red Russia. With Adam’s tactical prowess and my agreement with his every suggestion, we survived every attack.
We reached a point where Russia’s continued attack on us would actually cause them to lose their territory, but continue to attack they did. Adam was disturbed by this behavior. It did not compute. ‘’But, this doesn’t make any strategic sense! Why would they do this?’’ Emails were sent to team Russia, explaining in a series of if-then statements how their actions would lead to their own demise. And yet, Russia continued to attack. Adam, after calculating all the possibilities, concluded that it must be a personal vendetta against us-‘’There is no other explanation!’’ There actually was another explanation, one I received over lunch with team Russia, or as I liked to call them, my friends. I tell them how Adam was distraught over their behavior and was certain they had a disturbing, secret agenda. ‘’Honestly, ‘’ my friend shrugs, ‘’we attacked you guys at first just ’cause we thought it would be the easiest country to take over…but when we realized it wasn’t gonna work, I dunno-we figured we might as well keep going, since we already started.’’ In all his computations, Adam forgot to include the variable ‘human logic’.
It made sense then, that Adam’s writing game would not be conveyed by simple verbal instruction. It would demand thoroughness, a paper, a pen, probably a flow sheet, and table space the size of a Diplomacy board. ‘’First, choose a type of story you want to write.’’ Adam begins. As Halloween was approaching, we naturally decide on ‘Horror/Mystery’. ‘’Ok, ok, great! Now, think of three to five evocative nouns. Five usually works better, but- we can start with three.’’
I had spent the earlier part of the evening convincing my friend to bring his friend over to our potluck. I knew nothing about this friend of a friend except that he works in the oil industry, which was all I needed to pique my interest. ‘’Is he single?’’ He is single. Gold dollar signs scroll across my mind, dingdingdingdingding!! in rapid succession.
‘’OIL!’’ I exclaim.
‘’Oil? Um. Ok.’’ Adam says hesitantly. ‘’But, is that really, evocative, to you?’’
Yes-very much so.
“Well, um, ok.’’
With Adam’s permission, I write OIL at the top of the page.
‘’Ok, let’s think of another one.’’ Adam says.
I think of oil. I think of a cargo ship in a stormy night. I think of metal barrels of oil and money and cocaine.
‘’CAN!’’ I exclaim. Adam shifts nervously in his chair. ‘’But…again, is that, really evocative, to you?’’
I didn’t know where this game was headed, but I suspected I was losing.
‘’The goal is to think of nouns that are evocative,’’ Adam re-iterates.
With the flashing money demanding my attention, I had missed most of Adam’s instructions. I said the first noun that came to mind without considering if it was indeed evocative. Truthfully, I intended to say BARREL but another word just slipped out. That wasn’t going to stop me though from defending my choice with staunch defiance-I might as well keep going, since I started already. I was even a little offended that my choice was not well received. I could have gone with the more obvious choices- ‘’PENIS! BLOOD! CHAINSAW!’’ but what fun is writing a story when you already know how it’s going to end? CAN was evocative in its mystery. CAN had promise.
‘’Think of all that you can do with CAN!’’ I implore. ‘’Garbage CAN….CAN…CAN Natecers…’’ I run out of examples, but I think I’ve made my point.
‘’Well, ok.’’ With Adam’s permission, I write CAN to the right of OIL.
‘’OK, let’s think of one more.’’ Adam instructs.
‘’Oooh! How about, nefarious?’’ Nate chimes in. Nate had said ‘nefarious’ six times that evening, explaining that he had a strong affinity for the word. I do not know what ‘nefarious’ means but I pretend to understand, calibrating my response to match my friends’ reaction to the word. From their facial expressions, I deduce ‘nefarious’ is a combination of stinky, sexual and suspicious.
Adam’s eyes dart nervously around the table. ‘’’Ok, but, nefarious is not really a noun. You could, for example, use a noun that could describe something, or someone, who is nefarious. But, you can’t use nefarious on its own.’’
Disappointed, Nate pauses to think. ‘’Ok. How about…Oh I know!’’ he exclaims, ‘’A Mexican drug war!’’
‘’Oh, that’s a good one!’’ John says.
The corners around Adam’s mouth stiffen. ‘’Ok, but, we need nouns. A Mexican drug war describes a situation, but, we need a noun.’’
Nate sighs. ‘’I feel like I’m failing at this activity!’’
‘’No, no!’’ Adam reassures quickly, ‘’You’re doing great! Just- try to think of a noun.’’ We were not doing great. Adam couldn’t accept the reality of the situation-he created a game, and his friends were too stupid to play it.
After three more attempts (TILE-not evocative enough, BLOOD-too obvious, SMUGGLING CONTRABANDS-not a noun), we decide on CANADIAN BLOOD SERVICES. It wasn’t a great choice-‘’Ok, that’s…fine. But, something more specific would probably work better, for example, the president of the Canadian Blood Services,’’-but it was something Adam could tolerate. The approval was lackluster, but it meant that we could move on and forge ahead to the game’s end, which was what really mattered at this point. The final stages of the game progress quickly. We are told to describe connections between the different nouns, relationships between them rooted in conflict. Adam explains that by adding details in how the nouns relate to one another, and by answering the questions that arise from these details, one can easily develop a great story. I am pleased with how easily OIL and CANADIAN BLOOD SERVICES both relate to CAN so naturally-‘’You can put oil in cans. You can put blood in cans.’’
Adam speaks. ‘’Well, ok. But, an oil can is, quite literal. For instance, when I think of oil, I think of a slick, person- a swindler, or, a corrupted business man.’’ I nod. I draw an arrow from OIL to CAN. I draw another from CANADIAN BLOOD SERVICES to CAN. I label each arrow with a descriptor for the relationship-‘’goes into a’’.
We brainstorm awhile longer on how these nouns could relate to one another, some suggestions more brilliant than others. The game comes to a close, and we thank Adam for teaching it to us. Adam’s game this time had real winners and losers: there was Adam, and then there was us.
‘’It’s interesting to think,’’ John muses, ‘’that great literature could come about not by a profound stroke of inspiration, but by something like this, a somewhat stochastic process of random idea generation.’’ I imagine a young J.D. Salinger balancing a wilted paper plate on his lap, shouting between mouthfuls of doughy pasta as my friend Adam draws arrows between evocative nouns-“PROSTITUTE! RED HAT! DUCKS! ” It was a sobering thought. I convince myself that writing fiction is an inspired process, that John and Adam had it all wrong, and that J.D. Salinger probably would not have attended potlucks anyway.