Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury said he wrote 1000 words a day, and submitted stories on Saturday that he began drafting the preceding Monday. Judging by the sheer volume of his published work (27 novels, 600 stories, scores of plays and radio/television/movie scripts), I have no reason to doubt these claims.

While he is remembered as a master of the science fiction and horror genres, Bradbury resisted those labels during his career, as he found them dismissive and limiting. He is not known for his non-fiction, but his 1994 collection of essays on writing is a valuable read for any aspiring writer, regardless of genre.

Written over several decades, mostly as prefaces to his novels and short-story collections, the essays are more autobiographical than critical. You learn a lot about Bradbury’s career — formative childhood experiences in Waukegan (a mid-sized city in northern Illinois where, coincidentally, my wife and I owned our first house) and Los Angeles, early efforts and eventual successes at writing, investing $9.80 in typewriter rental fees while drafting the story that eventually became Fahrenheit 451 — and to the author’s credit, Bradbury’s prose rarely descends into solipsism or self-congratulation.

One of the more poignant moments in this collection comes in “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle, ” where he recalls an experience of his nine-year-old self:

Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

As he explains more fully in “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” he would eventually move on from the Buck Rogers strips, but even as his aesthetic judgement matured, he saw a continuity from his early love of the comics — “The constant remains: the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on.”

Other gems in this book include his observation in “On the Shoulders of Giants” that science fiction, routinely derided as escapist entertainment, is rather “an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.” The titular essay is an extended and well-crafted examination of the relationship between work and relaxation, both of which are essential to the writer. Bradbury claims writers must become partners, not slaves, to their work, and that only by doing something as insane as clacking out a thousand words, each day, can writers release their inner truth: “Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.” Call it writing as metaphysics, a theory that probably wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but is nonetheless inspiring.

I may never achieve Bradbury’s level of productivity, but I’m confident he would advise me not to worry about word count. His essays are about joy and discovery, and how writers, by following their passions, can realize their ambitions.

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