In 1951 Ray Bradbury spent nine dollars and eighty cents in dimes to complete the first draft of a new novel.
Driven by his children wanting to play when he was supposed to be writing, Bradbury wrote it at a furious pace in the University of California library, paying for the use of a typewriter by the half hour.
That novel was Farenheit 451.
Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays that introduces Bradbury’s thoughts on writing and contains sage advice for the aspiring creative.
Zen in the Art of Writing Summary
“My first decision about a career was at eleven, to be a magician and travel the world with my illusions…
My second decision was at twelve when I got a toy typewriter for Christmas. And I decided to become a writer. And between the decision and the reality lay eight years of junior high school, high school, and selling newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles, while I wrote three million words.”
Bradbury’s writing journey from selling newspapers on a street corner, to creating Farenheit 451, a cherished novel to this day, has always been about enjoyment,
“I write all of my novels and stories, as you have seen, in a great surge of delightful passion.”
While the literary community often views crafting stories as a tortured process, with a writer releasing his inner demons onto the page, Bradbury viewed it differently…
“To work creatively, an artist in any field must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or a fascinating adventure.”
His exuberance not only his craft, but for life in general, shines through,
“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.”
And his motivations for writing? Enjoyment aside, writing for Bradbury was an antidote to life…
“So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”
“Secondly, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that…”
According to Bradbury, you must creatively oppose the entropy of life. As such writing can be used as a form of tonic for decay.
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink, and digest without hyperventilating and flopping like a dead fish in your bed. I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.”
What Makes a Writer?
Most of us, at some point or another, question whether we should be writing at all. Often you review your work and have no idea if it’s worthy or good for kindling.
Bradbury assesses a writer’s worth differently…
“If I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”
Some of the best writers in history, he says, despite the tragedies in their personal lives, contained an animal vigour that escaped onto the page and into their work.
“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is – excited…”
And as far as creating the story you’ve always dreamed about? Where many writers get tangled in plot, character development and symbolism, Bradbury’s advice is wonderfully simple,
“What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate? Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go…”
You can imagine Bradbury, childlike at his typewriter, bashing away furiously at the keys, completely absorbed by his creations. Such is his timeless way of writing.
“Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?”
Echoing my recent effort to limit thought and engage in more meaningful action, Bradbury was a huge proponent of banishing your inner critic and pouring your subconscious out onto the page.
“ […] In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”
And as far as planning any new novel, Bradbury approached a story much like Steven King, allowing the characters to plot their own course…
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, rather than before. It cannot precede action […] so stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
In a world of three-step formulas and cookie cutter solutions, Bradbury’s method was gloriously liberated…
“You stumble into it, mostly. You don’t know what you’re doing, and suddenly, it’s done. You don’t set out to reform a certain kind of writing. It evolves out of your own life and night scares. Suddenly you look around and see that you have done something almost fresh.”
In a similar way, Bradbury cautions against becoming over analytical with your own work,
“A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with the death of a thousand analytical slices.”
But even with such a liberated writing style, Bradbury admits that he was slow to discover his unique writing voice.
“It was only when I began to discover the treats and tricks that came with word association that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation.”
He began creating a series of lists, nouns that would provide the inspiration for new stories…
“In my early twenties I floundered into a word-association process in which I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head. I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done.
It was a technique that Bradbury utilised from that day forward, and one that he advises writers to use to reveal stories hidden deep within themselves.
“…I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life. First I rummaged my mind for words that could describe my personal nightmares, fears of night and time from my childhood, and shaped stories from these.”
These lists served to remind Bradbury of his earliest loves and hates, stemming from an overactive childhood imagination, which were a treasure trove of ideas for the aspiring young writer,
“The stories began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists.”
In addition to word association, Bradbury recommends reading widely; Books, essays and poetry…
“I am not one thing. I am many things that America has been in my time. I had enough sense to keep moving, learning, growing.”
The Writer’s Muse and Creativity
Bradbury remembers listening to his father talk of his youth, when his eyes shone and he filled with passion.
You too, can probably recall many instances where you’ve spoken to someone who’s zest for a project fills you with enthusiasm…
“The Muse was suddenly there for Dad. The Truth lay easy in his mind. The Subconscious lay saying its say, untouched, and flowing off his tongue.”
According to Bradbury, we’re so busy looking outside ourselves for inspiration and ideas, that we forget the best material is already there, within us,
“The Muse […] is there, a fantastic storehouse, our complete being. All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth.”
Opening yourself up to new experiences will feed the muse and provide more material for you creative endeavours.
“Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events. These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows. For it is in the totality of experience reckoned with, filed, and forgotten, that each man is truly different from all others in the world.”
Bradbury admits that it takes practice to uncover this limitless source of story potential and that paying attention to your environment is paramount.
“The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse. By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.”
Even though the stories are there, waiting to be found, most writers know the difficulty of tapping the deep well of creative wisdom. Even when you’ve found the Muse, she can be a fickle mistress.
“You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, ‘Well, to hell with you.’ And the cat says, ‘Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.’ Then the cat follows you out of curiosity: ‘Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t love me?’ Well, that’s what an idea is. See? You just say, ‘Well, hell, I don’t need depression. I don’t need worry. I don’t need to push.’ The ideas will follow me. When they’re off-guard, and ready to be born, I’ll turn around and grab them.”
Bradbury’s Writing Habits
Most writers are obsessed with the routines of the greats. In truth, many of the best writers keep wildly different routines.
While that’s true, Bradbury never had a problem with his work ethic, writing an astonishing 1000 words a day from when he was 12 years old.
“All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of ‘The Lake’, I would soon let them out. If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.”
According to Bradbury one of the main reasons he was such a prolific writer, was to earn enough to live and support his young family.
And in writing so much, he was able to refine his methods, which don’t rely on fancy literary techniques, rather the adoption of gloriously messy action…
“If anything is taught here, it is simply the charting of the life of someone who started out to somewhere – and went. I have not so much thought my way through life as done things and found what it was and who I was after the doing.”
Success as a Writer
Many wannabe writers struggle for the attention they feel they deserve. They toil at their writing desks every day, unsure if their hard work will ever be well received, a fact that didn’t escape Bradbury.
“A sense of inferiority, then, in a person, quite often means true inferiority in a craft through simple lack of experience. Work then, gain experience, so that you will be at ease in your writing, as a swimmer buoys himself in the water.”
And while many writers work for commercial gain or posterity, you can tell that Bradbury was so immersed in his storytelling that for him, writing a captivating novel would have been reward enough.
“I believe one thing holds it all together. Everything I’ve ever done was done with excitement, because I wanted to do it, because I loved doing it.”
Today, we’re so conditioned to expect rewards in our one click, instant gratification society, that we often forget about the work itself. Bradbury cautions against writing for the wrong reasons,
“Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime. Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are – the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.”
Indeed Bradbury was damning of writing under false pretences and not staying true to the story…
“It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by money in the commercial market. It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes.
Although he wasn’t dismissive of rewards, he sought them for the right reasons.
“If only we could remember, fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.”
Bradbury goes on to suggest a formula for any aspiring writer; Not a hollow get-published-quick promise, but a sustainable method to hone your craft,
“WORK. That’s the first one. RELAXATION. That’s the second. Followed by two final ones: DON’T THINK!”
He insists that writers have to show up and do the work first. After all, he was perfecting his writing from the age of 12..
“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone, quality can come.”
And as much as learning what to write, Bradbury suggests it’s more about knowing what to avoid,
“All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favour of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out.”
This kind of mastery can only come through many failures initially. No-one starts with an instinctive knowledge of how to wield their subconscious to balance the perfect story.
“Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.”
Like entering the flow state, Bradbury says that with enough work, a writer will come to view his exertions as relaxation.
“Work, giving us experience, results in new confidence and eventually in relaxation. The type of dynamic relaxation again, as in sculpting, where the sculptor does not consciously have to tell his fingers what to do […] Suddenly a natural rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.”
Finally, through this process, Bradbury says the writer is able to disengage his thinking mind. He reminded himself how important this was by writing on his typing board the words, DON’T THINK!
Finding Your Flow
By entering the flow state, Bradbury was able to stay true to himself as a writer…
“There is only one type of story in the world. Your story [….] at heart, all good stories are the one kind of story, the story written by an individual man from his individual truth.”
Honesty shines through in Zen in the Art of Writing, just like Bradbury’s other tales.
“Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime.”
And in the natural periods of doubt and self-criticism that we all endure intermittently, it’s reassuring to know that great authors like Bradbury encountered the same problems.
“When it is a long damp November in my soul, and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares.”
Maybe it’s time you did the same.
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