Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

The front cover of this book reads, "Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius within You." (Okay, so it's really my old version of the book with the subtitle; the new edition doesn't have it) It makes the reader think it's a how-to book about writing, or, perhaps worse, a self-help book. Thankful, it's neither. The essays included in this volume (including one with the title "Zen in the Art of Writing") are Bradbury's reflections on his writing career, his inspirations, and his advice based on those experiences.

Several essays tell of his experience writing one or another book, e.g. Fahrenheit 451 (written under the demanding deadline of a dime-per-half-hour typewriter in the basement of the Los Angeles library) or Dandelion Wine (the resurfacing of his youthful experiences in Sandusky, Ohio). Scattered throughout the essays are bits and pieces of the origin of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The full story of Mr. Electrico (a carny he met as a child) gave me chills.

A lot of his inspiration comes from ideas long buried in his subconscious that bubble up when he just sits and writes about a simple word or idea, like "The Lake" or "The Old Woman." He doesn't draw so much on his experience as much as he lets it pop out of his imagination or his subconscious or his Muse or whatever you'd like to call the creative genius that lives inside. In the essay "How to Keep and Feed a Muse," he talks about how his best stories come flying out willy-nilly, almost uncontrollably, when he begins to type about a certain situation or person. Often a character follows their own path to the end of the story. Life experience often fuels these stories. Sometimes they are unexpected experiences, like those from the six months he lived in Ireland while writing Moby Dick for John Houston. More surprising are his memories from childhood, even very early childhood (like his circumcision!) that are inspirations for stories.

Bradbury's advice is rather simple but subtle and requires a certain spirit and commitment to accept. As I've mentioned, he often recommends writers to work from what they know but to let that come out spontaneously. He often uses a word association to begin (like "The Lake" or "The Old Woman") and then writes. An hour or two later, a story suddenly is completed. The trick is to be open to what comes to you. And to have lots and lots and lots of practice writing. He says he started writing a thousand words a day in his teen years and has pretty much kept it up. It was only after years of imitating other admired authors that he found his own voice when he became less self-consciously a word smith and just let stories pour out of him. A role for word-smithing comes later, but the initial genius comes unreflectively or in a fire-hose spurt that you either catch in a bottle like magic or stand back and admire but also lose when it's over. For Bradbury, being a writer means finding your inspiration, your joy, and letting it out on a page.

This book is an excellent inspiration for people who want to be better writers. The concrete examples from Bradbury's career make a fine foundation for seeing the importance of life experience and the value of commitment to the task and the openness to what comes.

SAMPLE TEXTS (because who can have just one quote from Bradbury?)

"What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? 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." [p. 13]

"Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasure. Sometimes it is a little hard to tell the trash from the treasure, so we hold back, afraid to declare ourselves. But since we are out to give ourselves texture, to collect truths on many levels, and in many ways, to test ourselves against life, and the truths of others, offered us in comic strips, TV shows, books, magazines, newspapers, plays, and films, we should not fear to be seen in strange company." [pp. 41-42] He goes on to cite "Lil Abner," "Peanuts," "Prince Valiant," Charlie Chaplin, Aldous Huxley, Tom Swift, George Orwell, Tarzan, and C.S. Lewis, among many others.

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