BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVII: ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

 

I started reading Ray Bradbury when I was very young. I’m not sure how young, but young, maybe single-digit young. How is it it took me this long to read Zen in the Art of Writing?

If, like me, you grew up as a science fiction fan, surely you must have read Ray Bradbury. He is one of the absolute giants of the genre, and one of those rare “crossover” authors who was not only recognized by the so-called “mainstream” literati, but who also wrote outside the genre. I remember being assigned to read his brilliant, non-genre novel Dandelion Wine in high school. It was the only book besides One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that I was forced to read in school and legitimately loved.

Please don’t make me jump through any more hoops to establish that Ray Bradbury is an author worth reading, and worth listening to on the subject of writing. He just is.

Zen in the Art of Writing, at least in the edition I read, clearly says on the cover: “Essays on Creativity.” This is a fair description, so please don’t expect a “how to” book. I will admit, though, to being a little disappointed in some of the content, which was drawn from various sources, including introductions Bradbury wrote for his own books: reissues of novels or new collections of short stories. The essays were also written over a number of years, the earliest from The Writer magazine in 1961 and the latest from the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of The Martian Chronicles in 1990. As such, the result is a bit of a grab-bag.

Bradbury

The above might seem like quite a significant complaint, but once you get past that choppy nature and read each essay on its own merits rather than as a part of any sort of greater whole, Mr. Bradbury has quite a lot to say on the subject of writing—mostly from what I’ll call a “top down” perspective.

Rarely if ever in the book will he get into any sort of proscriptive “how to.” What concerns him most in these essays is the nature of creativity, and how he approaches the more “unknowable” side of writing than the nuts and bolts of the craft.

There is an awful lot to learn.

In the preface, and elsewhere in the book, Bradbury implores us to write every day:

We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.

A variation of this is true for writers.

I’ve never been one of those writers who writes every day. I have to be in the mood, and I do have a lot of other work that needs to be done to keep the lights on and the wolves at bay . . . and other bullshit excuses. Bradbury has shamed me with this book—or more accurately, maybe, encouraged me to rethink that and actually do what needs to be done to carve out a couple hours every day to write. I’m not too old to learn new tricks, to form new habits, and boy, will I be a happier person in general if I can make that come true for myself. It’s advice I’ve heard and ignored before, but Ray Bradbury can’t be ignored.

BradburyBook

Like Jane Yolen did in her brilliant Take Joy, Bradbury goes back time and again to the idea that writing, for him, was not work or drudgery or something he needed to get through. He loved the act of writing. He kept that passion going for a long life and career. For some of us, this can be a difficulty. Writing becomes a deadline we have to hit, a to do list item to be crossed off. When I am writing, I love every second of it, but somehow, some wire gets crossed so that I forget that when I’m not writing, and so don’t have the “screw everything else, I’m writing” compulsion that Bradbury describes in the essay “The Joy of Writing.” That, having now identified it in myself, is something I have the power to change.

That’s two very short essays by Ray Bradbury, and I’m already committing myself to real change in my approach to writing.

See how powerful a book like this can be?

I was also gratified to see places where Mr. Bradbury and I were already in agreement. For years I’ve been advising authors to write a rough draft as quickly as possible, free of distractions like in-line spell-check and anything else that might compel you to edit as you go. I’ve also managed to make this a habit in my own writing so that now when I’m really “in the zone” I barely even glance at the screen, paying no attention whatsoever to typos, run-on sentences, punctuation in general, etc.

All that can be fixed later.

In the essay “Run Fast, Stand Still, or, the Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, the New Ghosts from Old Minds,” Bradbury writes:

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.

Agreed!

I’ve also encouraged authors to nourish our intellectual freedom. Bradbury refers to this as a Muse in the essay “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” in which he encourages us to drink in everything we can about life around us:

As we can learn from every man or woman or child around us when, touched and moved, they tell of something they loved or hated this day, yesterday, or some other day long past. At a given moment, the fuse, after sputtering wetly, flares, and the fireworks begin.

In other words: pay attention!

And Bradbury recognizes this intellectual curiosity as, often, a passive exercise, as in the essay “The Secret Mind” in which he tells of his time spent, unhappily, in Ireland and his conscious decision not to write about it, then the subconscious intrusion of his remembered, repurposed, and entirely personal Ireland into his writing some years later:

From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educate myself as best I can. But, lacking this, in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it has observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.

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.

I’ve also said, if you’re going to write science fiction and fantasy, read science fiction and fantasy . . . be a science fiction and fantasy fan. Bradbury, from “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle”:

I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

Science fiction and fantasy are valuable and not something to be grown out of. As Bradbury expanded upon poetically in the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”:

The children sensed, if they could not speak, that the entire history of mankind is problem solving, or science fiction swallowing ideas, digesting them, and excreting formulas for survival. You can’t have one without the other. No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will. No impossible dreams: No possible solutions.

So, science fiction and fantasy authors, go read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVII: ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING

  1. amoyaan says:

    Great review and I enjoyed reading the quotes from the book as well as your analysis. Some good advice here🙂

  2. Craig says:

    Great review… too bad it’s not available via Kindle or I would’ve just bought it now. Oh well, I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I’m at the book store. I have tonnes of “how to write” books and don’t like to add to my hefty collection, but this one definitely looks like it deserves a space on the shelf / hard drive.

  3. petehollmer says:

    I picked up a copy over a decade ago. Loved it. My favorite essay was “Drunk and In Charge of a Bicycle”, and the image he paints of that as a metaphor for feverish writing.

  4. Pingback: WRITE IN ECSTASY, EDIT WITH INTENT | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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