Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury (Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994. 176 pp)

With over five hundred published works to his name, Ray Bradbury is one of the heavyweights in American literature during the 20th century. Born in Illinois, Bradbury’s family moved to California when he was thirteen. He graduated from Los Angeles High School and did not enter college. Drawn to writing from an early age, Bradbury attended the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meeting many of the influential writers in the region. Bradbury began writing professionally by publishing stories in magazines. As his stories encountered praise, Bradbury began writing longer works. As they say, the rest is history. Bradbury’s best-known books are The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. For his contribution to literature worldwide, Bradbury received the National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the National Medal of Arts in 2004. He died in 2012.

If I Could Give You Some Advice

The greatest advice ever received for creative types: get out of your head. Here’s when I learned it.

Setting: graduate school, 2010.

Problem: adequate grades on my papers. How could I improve?

Solution: stop editing your papers while you write. Get it all out on the page. Go play a game of golf. Then put the editor’s hat on.

This recommendation contains so much truth. In fact, the creative side of your brain competes with the editing side. When you try and write a sentence as well as edit that sentence, it slows you down, not to mention how it kills your creative process.

My words, sentence, and ideas have never been the same.

While I read Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays called Zen in the Art of Writing, I continually circled back to my memory of the day I received this important piece of advice.

Bradbury’s essays, written over the decades, expand on his writing process and his general philosophy toward creativity.

The essays offer tips and pointers for aspiring writers; they highlight his process, elaborating on how he conceived and executed some his most famous work; they find a muse and nourish it.

For anyone considering writing as a career or even a hobby, Zen in the Art of Writing is a must read.

Personally, I found Bradbury’s insights on creativity incredibly apropos. As someone who dabbles in creative writing, Bradbury’s advice rings true.

The pieces that emerge in the consciousness most presciently include:

1. Stark Contrast

Your characters need to have a clear internal motivation. Something needs to inspire them beyond all else; something needs to create intense fear.

“The loud, the passionate voice seems to please most. The voice praised in conflict, the comparison of opposites. Sit at your typewriter, pick characters of various sorts, let them fly together in a great clang. In no time at all, your secret self is roused. We all like decision, declaration; anyone loudly for, anyone loudly against” (43).

The writer must not leave anything in the middle.

Above all in this contrast, the rules must be clear for the reader. Lead them well. Bradbury notes,

“If I were to advise new writers, if I were to advise the new writer in myself, going to the theater of the Absurd, the almost-Absurd, the theater of Ideas, the any-kind-of-theater-at-all, I would advise like this:
Tell me no pointless jokes.
I will laugh at your refusal to allow me laughter.
Build me no tension toward tears and refuse me my lamentations.
I will go find me better wailing walls.
Do not clench my fists for me and hide the target.
I might strike you, instead.
Above all, sicken me not unless you show me the way to the ship’s rail” (117).

So, be hot and be cold and keep the reader in the know about where it’s going.

2. List the Wisps of Ideas

The mind is an emotive place. How often do you hear a note or phrase in a song and you immediate transport to a time long since passed. That note embeds an entire idea with sights and smells developing a world in your memory. These wormholes into our past can develop deep creative reservoirs.

In Bradbury’s case, he kept a notebook with words.

“It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights” (19).

These words came to life with the memory of distinct scenarios and characters. “Joy” might connect to a time when your mother gave you a gift out of the blue. That moment can create a character with intense motivation if you play out why the gift was given and what emotions the mother might embody in such an action.

A list of words might not be the precise creative cue for everyone, but it details a clear point around creativity. We all have wormholes to intense memories. How can you harness those instances and use them for creative means?

3. Burn Hot —Just Write

And finally, just like the advice received in graduate school. Set aside time to write, and do it consistently. Don’t worry about its quality. That will happen later.

“The history of each story, then, should read almost like a weather report: Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate” (7)!

Write, write, then write some more. That is the key to creativity. Some days will be difficult. Some days will be magical. No matter what you write, it will be horrible. That’s ok. The most inspired ideas go through a laborious editorial process before they see the light of the publishing day.

So stop reading this review and go write.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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