Zen in the Art of Writing (review)

by Bill Ward on October 25, 2008

in Book Reviews,Writing

Nothing is ever lost. If you have moved over vast territories and dared to love silly things, you will have learned even from 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 found, kept, savored, and used on some later day. To be a child of one’s time is to do all these things.

  • Title: Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Inside You
  • Author: Ray Bradbury
  • Genre: Nonfiction — Writing
  • Year: 1990 (1961 -86)

I’ll say from the start that the title and sub-title of this book is a turn-off. If, like me, you roll your eyes whenever a publisher sticks a hot buzz word on the cover of book, then seeing yet another self-help manual promising some mystical far-eastern secrets that will change your life* is an invitation to walk away. If the name ‘Ray Bradbury’ wasn’t on the cover, I would have done just that.

So, let’s talk about what this book actually is, rather than what it appears to be. It is not a unified manual on writing, but rather a collection of essays and other material from various points in Bradbury’s career. It is not an exploration of the practical or mechanical aspects of writing, for the most part, but instead reveals Bradbury’s own writing philosophy and uncontainable exuberance in an inspiring way. And it is not, really, about Zen at all — or say rather it includes Zen in a completely different way than any of those other ‘how-to’s’ that slap the word on the cover. Those books take Zen as their starting point, and see whatever process they are dissecting through its lens. Bradbury, who admits in the essay from which the title of the book was taken that he knew little at all about Zen, discusses writing through his own deep experience and reveals those truths he has arrived at the hard way — a few of which just happen to share some common threads with Zen thought. The important word on the cover of this book, then, is not ‘Zen,’ but ‘Bradbury.’

The book opens with ‘The Joy of Writing,’ which would have been a far more appropriate title for a book about writing from Ray Bradbury — a man whose passion and love for the craft is positively electric. It is an essay about enthusiasm, about the need to explore what you really care about in your work — both that which irritates and that which inspires you. Bradbury describes how giving your character one of your own strongly held beliefs and turning him loose is a great way to find a story worth telling, a story only you can tell. Such a technique is best done in a white heat of passion; as Bradbury says take today to explode, for tomorrow you can always pour cold critical water on the hot coals of your first draft.

‘Run Fast, Stand Still’ is perhaps the most interesting of the essays from a practical standpoint. Bradbury ruminates further on his somewhat Zenlike approach to a first draft — by putting things down on paper faster than your critical mind can keep up with you will arrive at a truer piece of self-expression, one more authentically yours. As a child and young man, Bradbury imitated all his favorite authors, Poe, Burroughs, Dickens, Lovecraft, and Wells, and it wasn’t until he wrote honestly about his own experiences that he found his voice. One way to get in touch with his own voice was to write in a headlong burst of enthusiasm.

Another was with word-association. Fans of Bradbury will be quite familiar with titles like ‘The Crowd,’ ‘Skeleton,’ ‘ The Lake,’ or ‘The Winds,’ stories that indeed started out as nouns in a list of concepts Bradbury dug up from his subconscious in free writing exercises. Nearly all of the ideas he generated as a young man in such a way later found themselves into stories, including many of his classics. What Bradbury found was that by taking one of these nouns he could find a story not by thinking about it, but by writing about it. By starting the day with free-writing, Bradbury began by creating an essay/prose-poem about whatever subject he had selected and invariably found that, after about a half a page of this playful and relaxed writing, he had written himself into the beginnings of a story.

A great technique, one that I’ve seen mentioned before and one that Bradbury arrived at on his own after years of working on his dream of becoming a writer. And it’s a pretty zen approach to the craft as well — active creation by doing, not thinking. In ‘How to Keep and Feed a Muse’ Bradbury creates a prescription for drawing further on the subconscious mind when he recommends potential writers read a poem and an essay every day to keep the mental muscles working and supply the mind with a broad variety of material.  He says that his own muse grew out of “a mulch of good, bad, and indifferent,” and cautions the writer never to discard a passion just because he had grown out of it. The quote at the top of this review is taken from this essay, and reveals Bradbury’s philosophy toward high art and pop culture — everything is of benefit to the writer and to the self.

“Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration . . .” is the message of ‘Drunk and In Charge of  a Bicycle.’  The nature of this book of collected essays that span the course of Bradbury’s career is that it often repeats itself, and much of the essence of this essay is explored in the preceding sections of this book. But, being Bradbury, it is still entertaining and inspiring reading. This essay and a few of the others — the prefaces to editions of Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451 — are as much about Bradbury’s life and the history behind many of his stories, as they are about writing.

The final essay on craft is the titular ‘Zen in the Art of Writing,’ an essay that originally appeared in one of those trendy ‘Zen and the Art of _______’ books. In it Bradbury demonstrates that his approach to work really does line-up with some of precepts of Zen thinking, in that he emphasizes relaxing and letting your subconscious, the ‘real you’ that is living in the moment, do the work. Work becomes play, play becomes work, and Bradbury lets his fingers do the thinking for him (a sensation I am thankfully well-acquainted with myself). None of this is possible if the aspiring writer is keeping an eye on commercial or literary success Bradbury argues, but only when the writer loses himself in the moment.

Zen in the Art of Writing is really about inspiration, which is only fitting from a writer like Bradbury who is one of the most exuberant and infectiously enthusiastic writers of any genre (just watch this video of a talk from a still sharp eighty-some-year-old Bradbury in 2001 for an idea of what I mean). It is perhaps best enjoyed in multiple sittings, dipping in to read an essay or two every couple of days or so. Fans of Bradbury’s will relish the anecdotes and life lessons from his career and, perhaps, ultimately be glad that this is not a practical how-to manual — it does not distill the magic of the Grandmaster into any sort of mechanical process or approach. Seen from that perspective, it is only fitting that Bradbury’s sole book on writing is more about maintaining one’s zest for art — and for life — than on putting words on the page.

*As opposed to actual explorations of Zen philosophy, which I find fascinating. Very few of the popular ‘Zen’ books of the past have any but a superficial and sensationalistic approach to Zen or Chan Buddhism.

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