Book review: Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
"...at heart, all good stories are the one kind of story, the story written by an individual man from his individual truth."
I recently read Ray Bradbury's essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing—one of 43 books I read last year, thanks to my reading plan, which included ditching social media in the evening for ebooks!
I loved many of these essays. Bradbury is clearly a master of his craft. He has done a great deal of deep thinking about the nature of ideas, inspiration, writing, and stories, and it shows in these essays.
Bradbury digs into writing as play, how to generate ideas, discussions of methodology, musings on the role of science fiction and fantasy in society, explorations of how he went from collecting story matter to composing stories, the nature of work, and not a few suggestions offered off hand as writing prompts. It's not an especially long book, but there's plenty of wisdom to dig into.
Getting ideas and writing prompts
To write, you need to fill up on life first. Bradbury recommends reading, lots: poetry, essays, short stories, novels, anything and everything. It's okay if some of it seems like trash later, because It can hold the truth too. It can give us texture too.
This is, essentially what I wrote as well in my earlier essay, good ideas don't grow on trees. First, get the material for your ideas by reading, talking, living, collecting experiences—both your own and others'.
"The Feeding of the Muse then, which we have spent most of our time on here, seems to me to be the continual running after love's, The checking of these loves against one's present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naive ones to more informed ones, from non-intellectual to intellectual ones. Nothing is ever lost. If you have moved over vast territories and dared to love silly things, you will have learned from even the most primitive items collected and put aside in your life. From an ever-roaming curiosity In all the arts, from bad radio to good theatre, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka's Castle, there is basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths to be found, kept, savored, and used on some later day. To be a child of one's time is to do all these things."
Once you have collected enough, you use it to create.
"We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."
Sprinkled throughout the essays, Bradbury recounts ways he has come up with story ideas. One way was to make lists of nouns that were provocative to him in some way or another. And then,
"I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it."
Often, when he did his kind of exercise, it became a new story.
Writing as play; writing in flow
In one essay, The Joy of Writing, Bradbury explains how writing—especially writing a first draft—ought to be fun, full of zest and gusto. The writer ought to be swept up in loving and hating, in the feeling of emotion, in order to create better stories.
Bradbury wrote because he loved writing:
"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."
He believed all his favorite authors, painters, poets, and musicians also created out of joy and love:
"They all knew the joy of creating in large or small forms, on unlimited or restricted canvases. These are the children of gods. They knew fun in their work. No matter if creation came hard here and there along the way, or what illnesses and tragedies touched their most private lives. The important things are those passed down to us from their hands and minds and these are full to bursting with animal vigor and intellectual vitality."
While Bradbury doesn't use the terms, it's clear that he means the process of writing should be playful and sincere, and should involve the experience of flow. Peter Gray, for example, has estimated that 80% of his writing is play.
You can tell Bradbury means flow from another essay, Zen in the Art of Writing, in which he says creativity is a combination of three things: work, relaxation, and "don't think". In work, you write; you get in a rhythm. Then the body takes over: you relax into the work. And then you aren't thinking—you're doing. Which sounds exactly like a state of flow.
The importance of writing practice
Bradbury also knew the secret to writing.
"But how did I begin? … I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen."
The secret is practice. As I have written about before, the secret to getting better at anything is to practice.
Bradbury's suggested practice schedule: 1000 or 2000 words a day for the next decade. A short story a week for the next five years. Put in the work. Mastery takes a long time. (According to Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive, mastery takes continuous effort and time over at least a decade.) Once you've put in the time, you'll have the experience necessary to produce quality work.
"Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.
All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of concise declaration.
The artist learns what to leave out."
For most of the past year, my own daily word count goal sat at a mere 200 words a day, which seems small compared to Bradbury's thousand words. But I suppose he was not a mother with three small children.
That said, this book of essays and Bradbury's ambitious word count goals were inspiring. I'd been hitting my daily goal for nearly 10 months prior to reading this book. I hadn't felt like I was in danger of not making it, even on the occasional day when I was about to go to sleep and I remembered that I needed to write 200 words. So, I increased the count to 300.
Then I got a book deal. I increased my daily word goal further. Now, I'm aiming for 420 words: 200 on anything, 220 book-related (perhaps an oddly specific number, but based on the number of words I already had and my timeline for the book, that was a reasonable amount to ensure I stay on track.)
I appreciate reading about writing (e.g., read my review of The Art of Nonfiction). I learn new things every time. I find inspiration.
If you are a writer—of fiction in particular, but being any kind of writer at all will do—Bradbury's essay collection is not one to pass up.
"What do you think of the world? You, the prism, measure the light of the world; it burns through your mind to throw a different spectroscopic reading onto white paper than anyone else anywhere can throw."