When I read obituaries of interesting people, I go looking for their work. I discovered the folklorist/anthropologist Americo Paredes this way — read his great work, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and kicked myself for not realizing that this gem of a man was teaching at the University of Texas when I was an undergraduate.
Ray Bradbury’s obituary was accompanied by a number of essays of appreciation by a wide spectrum of readers. I’d read Bradbury, of course, and in fact had just read his lovely essay in The New Yorker when the news of his death came. So initially I didn’t go out looking for his books, but rather indulged myself in reading the appreciations.
One of those mentioned Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays Bradbury wrote between 1961 and 1990. I had never read any of Bradbury’s writing advice, so I got it from the library.
And was completely blown away.
It wasn’t just his practical advice that hit a chord — though there is plenty of useful information in these essays. Rather it was his sheer joy.
Ray Bradbury loved being a writer and that joy comes through in every one of these essays. It’s an irrepressible joy. He wrote some dark fiction and I’m sure he had bad days just like everyone else, but his work made him happy. How many of the rest of us feel that way about our work?
Here are a few things I gleaned from this book:
- The true meaning of “write what you know”: Bradbury remembered experiences from his childhood — from his fear of the thing at the top of the stairs to going to the carnival — and collected experiences from his friends and family. He made lists of things that affected him — “the lake, the night, the crickets, the ravine” — and let his subconscious work on them. All those things made their way into his stories, not as direct retellings of something that happened to him, but as the core of a story that might be set on Mars.
- Write every day, and don’t assume everything you write is a masterpiece, especially at first. Bradbury famously wrote a story a week for a number of years. He got to the point where he was selling enough of them to make a modest living, but since he’d started as a teenager, he’d written a lot of words before then.
- Write what’s important to you, not what is considered commercial at the moment. Or, as he puts it, “Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.”
- Don’t avoid writing the work you love because it’s not “literary” enough. “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.”
- “WORK RELAXATION DON’T THINK FURTHER RELAXATION”
The advice, even out of context, is useful, but I strongly recommend reading the book to get the full flavor. It inspired me and reminded me of why I write and what I’m really trying to accomplish. After all, I did set out to be a writer because there were stories I wanted to read that hadn’t been written; why should I waste my time writing anything else?
Bradbury’s advice won’t necessarily bring you fame and fortune as a writer, though he certainly got famous and was able to make his living writing what he wanted to write. It will, however, give you guidance on how to become a writer and how to write what’s important to you.
The library’s going to want this book back, but I already ordered a copy for myself and several to give to other writing friends. I know I’m going to want to read it again. And again. And again.