I’m concurrently reading Ray Bradbury’s biography The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury (Sam Weller, 2005), his Zen in the Art of Writing (1994), and his book of short stories Quicker than the Eye (1996). I know, probably too much to take on. Zen is a gem of a book, a compilation of 11 different essays, some written decades apart so that Bradbury’s experiences come to us intricate and layered throughout his career as a writer. This is a quick read and ends with a chapter comprised entirely of poetry, reflecting its buddhist title, which reminds us to relax, meditate, and halt the constant stream of thought that often plagues our minds.
Bradbury grew up very poor and, like most writers, struggled for years before gaining recognition or finding any success in his tireless craft. He describes himself as a pimply-faced teenager who lost his virginity to a prostitute. He also admits that he was loud, boisterous and rather annoying to adults when he was an adolescent. However, he managed to grow up into one of the most adept story-tellers in the world, and certainly one of the most well-known writers in the sci-fi community–although Bradbury was always adamant that we should characterize his work as “fantasy,” not science fiction.
I have to say that I’m charmed whenever Bradbury comments on how we should approach our typewriters. I can appreciate the nostalgia of typing on one today (not to mention that there’s no distraction or temptation to log onto Facebook), but at the end of the day, they’re toys that masquerade as tools. Don’t complicate writing, don’t decorate it with shiny baubles and knickknacks…just write! I find myself creating lots of white space between paragraphs as I edit pieces just so I feel like I have some room to breathe and think as I write and collect my thoughts.
I’ve dredged Bradbury’s Zen for his most useful and inspiring tidbits for novice writers and experienced, published authors alike. No matter your age, background or goals in your own writing, we can all take something from Bradbury’s work ethic and creative philosophies. Because of this book, I may take a shot at drafting some fiction, which I haven’t done since college (and I didn’t take writing workshops too seriously then). Bradbury’s advice can really instill confidence, as he essentially tells us to stop overthinking and just feel, as corny as it may sound. It would behoove us to write any of these tips on a paper and hang it above our writing space as a reminder of why we write, how we should approach our work, and that we should remain true to ourselves and grounded in our senses and writer’s intuition.
- Write with zest and gusto. ALWAYS do this; if you don’t, you’re only half a writer, and you should reassess why you have chosen the field of writing. It requires honesty, even if your own reality differs from someone else’s.
- “Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart.” This is what we long to read, after all.
- “Run fast, stand still.” A lesson from the lizard for all writers. Mean what you do; don’t do anything half-ass. Meditate, then run like hell.
- “Lie with the dust.” Get outside your own head and become what you’re writing about. If you’re writing about memories, ghosts, and phantoms, then for god’s sake, lie with the dust!
- Make lists and practice word association. This is a form of free-writing and one of the best tips Bradbury gives, in my opinion. Some of my college students couldn’t understand the concept of free-writing, no matter how much I explained it, because most of us are guarded, we try to censor ourselves, or we think what we write or dream up is “stupid.” When I was a writing tutor, students used to say, in frustration, that they would trash their project and start all over, and I’d say, “No! Please don’t.” There’s always something that can be salvaged, recycled, or polished…yes, you’ll find that some ideas really were ghastly, but they may lead you to better ideas. I would add to Bradbury’s list by advising writers never to abandon ideas entirely, even the god awful ones.
- “put down brief notes and descriptions of loves and hates.” We can learn a lot about ourselves when we write, even when we do it without intention.
Bradbury explains that from his noun lists, he creates a “prose-poem-essay,” which then becomes a short story when a character appears and finishes it for him. Bradbury describes some parts of the writing process (“the story finished itself”) as if the creation of short stories and novels is something that can be accomplished outside of oneself, as if these pieces of art already exist and are floating somewhere in the ether, and Bradbury simply plucks it up and breathes life into it for us.
- Ponder our own “fantasies and frights.” Relive a painful memory on paper, recall the time you fell in love, describe the moon, the sky, the trees. How could things have gone differently? Take liberties–write some creative non-fiction or auto-biographical fiction.
- Recall memories–these are important. Details you think are minuscule and inconsequential may be the very nexus you need to build a story around or use to draft a poem–maybe pepper your narrative with smaller details later.
- “Read poetry every day of your life.” I’ve always had a knack for poetry. There’s never any pressure to say a lot; the task is to say a lot by saying very little. While I’d say a novel may feel like rambling or even shouting, a poem is a mere whisper; it’s a delicate ghost that can haunt you.
- “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness.” We’re pressured growing up to think, so naturally it feels uncanny for a writer to instruct us to shut off our brains and relax in order to write something good. If you do or say something foolish, someone may ask, “What are you thinking?” or “Aren’t you thinking?” Well, to unlock or access this “secret self” Bradbury references, we mustn’t shut down the engine entirely, but we should certainly take our foot off the gas. For some of us, this self can be located with the use of drugs, which I’ve always had mixed feelings about. If it improves your writing and your creative fervor, super…but why rely on a substance for inspiration? It just feels off to me. I’ve managed to publish quite a few pieces of writing without the help of alcohol, marijuana, or any other drug for that matter.
- Assault your readers’ senses. This way, they have no choice but to become part of what you have written.
- Run after what you love. Don’t spy it from afar, don’t walk in its direction, RUN after what you love.
- Don’t smother a good idea with intellect. Enough said.
- Remain childlike, not childish. Again, if you censor yourself, your craft suffers.
- “self-consciousness is the enemy of all art.”
Bradbury claims that he actually remembers being circumcised at four days old and suckling at his mother’s breast. He’s such an extraordinary man, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t tell us where he was before that. He also never learned to drive because he witnessed a horrific accident as a child in California, where he actually watched a woman die at the scene of a crash.
- “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.” Maybe we simply don’t take note of this phenomenon. Write it all down, become inspired by what you feel, and welcome it.
As an undergraduate, a professor I admired and respected a great deal told our creative writing class that there is no such thing as an original idea, that they’ve all been taken by the great writers and artists of the world. Not true–there are plenty of original ideas waiting to be discovered; if there weren’t, why would we all continue to write and publish our work? Why would new scholarship in every discipline continue to emerge year after year?
- “Let the world burn through you.” Why, you can write as many as six original ideas before breakfast! (Are we picking up on the Alice reference here?)
- “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Ah. If you’ve instilled life into your characters, or rather, if they have introduced themselves to you, no need to fret over your precious plot.
- Become a co-sharer of existence with your work. Ignore the negative connotation of the word “work”–you can become friends with work if you learn how to incorporate relaxation and how to rest your mind as you type.
Bradbury really pushes the significance of metaphor and simile. Even the way he acknowledges this is via metaphor–he instructs us never to stare at inspiration when it enters a room, but rather to listen to it, become it. I think Bradbury’s grand thesis in this really lovely book on writing creatively is to become your “Most Authentic Self,” as he explains it. Don’t bullshit, don’t wait too long to let an idea pan out, and write with a fever and a warm glow, not with lukewarm inspiration. Have the correct motives as well; write because it feels good, not because you want to become rich and famous. Bradbury considers writers who do this to be liars, and I tend to agree with him. The only way to find your own Zen is to be authentic, to write every day, and to listen closely to your shadow self rather than your nagging intellect.
Turning pages with my tongue,
Check out my latest Bitch Flicks post on the representation of female sexual desire in the film Secretary.