Saturday, January 24, 2004

The Art of Writing

When I first saw Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, I thought "Oh no! Not him too?" I feared that not only had Bradbury jumped on the "how to be a writer" bandwagon but also the "Zen of..." bandwagon as well. This is not to say that the spate of books by well known writers about how to write is a bad thing. I will be first to admit the guilty pleasure of buying many of them myself. It just seems like it has been an avalanche. And the whole Zen thing, well, what activity doesn't have its own Zen book? I'm not sure what this phenomena is about. Is attaching Zen to something supposed to make it more exotic, more esoteric? Is it supposed to impart a meditative and spiritual authority to something? But even in my dread that Bradbury had been sucked up into the vortex, I bought the book anyway because it was Ray Bradbury. Once I'd gotten the book home and opened the cover, it turned out to be a collection of essays and introductions that Bradbury had written through the years about writing, particularly his writing, and was first published in 1990 before the how to write craze. As for the Zen title, it was taken from one of the essays that was written in 1973. In the titular essay, Bradbury says he chose to use Zen not because he knew anything about it, but because he had wanted to get people's attention. Bradbury proved, once again to be ahead of the curve. As for the essays themselves, if you are looking for a lesson in how to write, don't bother. The essays are interesting and the reader is given a glimpse into how Bradbury writes, where he gets his ideas and what his personal theory of art is. But as a primer, better to read Natalie Goldberg. From a writer's perspective I found the most interesting essay to be "How to Keep and Feed a Muse." In it Bradbury rightly insists:

Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime. 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.
This is a far cry from what most of the writing magazines encourage their readers to do with articles about finding an unexploited niche in the market and writing for what the market wants. It is a good standard by which to both write and live life. Because the book is made up of collected essays written over several decades, there tends to be quite a bit of repetition. Sometimes I found myself saying, "yeah, yeah you said that already, say something new." But of course the essays were never written with a plan to collect them, so there is nothing to be done but to breeze past those parts until something new comes up. The best essays in the book are the ones in which he talks about writing his books. My favorite one is "Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451" in which he talks about how he wrote the book in the typing room at the UCLA library where you could rent a typewriter for a dime per half-hour. He'd drop in his carefully saved dime and start typing like a maniac. He was poor and had a family and a dime was a lot of money, he had to make it go a long way. It cost him $9.80 to write the first draft of the book. Worth every dime in my opinion. Bradbury fans will enjoy this little book. If you aren't a fan, best to skip it.