Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 10, 2011

INTERVIEWER : Do you do much rewriting?

 THORNTON WILDER: I forget which of the great sonneteers said: “One line in the fourteen comes from the ceiling; the others have to be adjusted around it.” Well, likewise there are passages in every novel whose first writing is pretty much the last. But it’s the joint and cement, between those spontaneous passages, that take a great deal of rewriting.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly curious about and fascinated by the mechanics of writing. My fascination is especially around the creative process ingrained in it. From the fairly large body of writing about writing, interviews by writers, and literary criticism that I have read over the past four years, I am coming to realise that a writer enters a mysterious zone while at his work and dives deeply into the sea of his sub-conscious to bring forth pearls of reality and his particular understanding of the world he lives and operates in. This process of dredging appears to be involving both his inspiration and his perspiration.

To the question of what happens to a writer or what does she go through when she is at work, the emergent responses are as varied and as diverse as the number of writers one interrogates. The more accomplished these writers, the more fascinating the insights. Two books that I have read in the recent past that deal with craft of writing are Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating With The Dead” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Zen In The Art Of Writing”. Both are absorbing and joyous reads and deal with diverse, complex and unplumbed aspects of writing. They also simultaneously reflect the enormous understanding, scholarship, love and insight these two accomplished and world class writers have about their vocation. The former is a collection of six lectures delivered by Margaret Atwood at Cambridge University as part of the Sir William Empson lecture series while the latter is a collection of 12 essays by Ray Bradbury written at various points of time in his long, rich, fertile and impressive career as a writer

In reading, as in life, one ought to be extremely careful of unfounded biases and prejudices. These slants not only set one on mistaken paths till terminated in graves but also divert us away from the riches that one can rejoice in. This happened with me with respect to the genre of science fiction. I entertained this ignorant notion that science fiction is esoteric and alien to the core questions, predicaments and concerns of human beings. As a result I neglected this genre completely and also wore this attitude on my sleeve with a minor sense of pride. In some sense, I have been saved from my self-created biases by the reading of Ray Bradbury’s collection of stories in “The Illustrated Man” (Thank God for that !!). It is while reading this collection that I became aware of the existence of his book on writing and grabbed it with both hands. The reading experience needless to say was rich and rewarding

The single biggest appeal of these essays is the ability to outline points of view on writing which are not only genuine, passionate, insightful, scholarly, backed by vast experience but are also full of generous advice and a large hearted eagerness to share these insights with younger writers or for that matter anyone who ever cared about the vocation of writing.

The twelve essays can be broadly classified into two buckets. Into the first bucket one can place essays like Drunk and in charge of a bicycle, Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451, Just this side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine, The Long Road To Mars, Shooting Haiku in a Barrel – these in a way are autobiographical in nature explaining the manner in which some of his most well received novels, short story collections and plays have come into existence. The last essay especially talks about Bradbury’s re-initiation into playwriting and his views on the idiosyncrasies and creative processes around scriptwriting for movies.

 The second bucket consists of essays that deal with the creative process of writing and deserve a closer merit. These are an absorbing bunch which is so lucid and insightful that I read them again and again for the sheer joy they gave me. In the opening essay titled “The Joy of Writing”, Bradbury grapples with the basic question of the purpose and relevance of writing and clarifies it brilliantly when he says:

And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation. So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all. Secondly, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

In this same essay Bradbury offers some wonderful advice to writers of all hues, shapes and maturity which only a writer of his caliber has the privilege to offer:

Thomas Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava. Dickens dined at a different table every hour of his life. Molière, tasting society, turned to pick up his scalpel, as did Pope and Shaw. Everywhere you look in the literary cosmos, the great ones are busy loving and hating. Have you given up this primary business as obsolete in your own writing? What fun you are missing, then. The fun of anger and disillusion, the fun of loving and being loved, of moving and being moved by this masked ball which dances us from cradle to churchyard. Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig bladders labeled Zest and Gusto. With them, traveling to the grave, I intend to slap some dummox’s behind, pat a pretty girl’s coiffure, wave to a tad up a persimmon tree.

 In a glowing essay titled “How To Keep and Feed a Muse”, Bradbury deals with the aspect of intellectual nourishment needed for the sub-conscious and urges all aspirants to read with abandon including poetry, essays and novels. Especially on poetry he has some very valid and deep observations:

Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile

 He explains how his own gluttony for reading material of diverse kinds, movies and wandering circuses and carnivals helped him write some of his popular stories much after the impressions have been absorbed by his sub-conscious

Bradbury along with Asimov, Clarke, L. Frank Baum, Heinlein, Van Vogt, and Sturgeon had come to be recognized as one of the greatest science fiction writers of the world. However, this recognition had not come to him and these writers easily and naturally following the merit of their output. In the essay “On the shoulders of the giants”, Bradbury pays a tribute to the children of America for having recognized and restored the proper place of science fiction in popular imagination. The then prevalent attitude towards science fiction is extremely well outlined when he says:

 Among librarians and teachers there was then, and there still somewhat dimly persists, an idea, a notion, a concept that only Fact should be eaten with your Wheaties. Fantasy? That’s for the Fire Birds. Fantasy, even when it takes science-fictional forms, which it often does, is dangerous. It is escapist. It is daydreaming. It has nothing to do with the world and the world’s problems. So said the snobs who did not know themselves as snobs. So the shelves lay empty, the books untouched in publishers’

 And the resurrective impulses of children are also equally well portrayed

 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

 In the essay “The Secret Mind”, Bradbury deals with the core question of what is good writing and what should a writer aim to do? I especially liked the simple yet comprehensive sweep of his views. Consider this:  

Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all. Here’s how my theory goes. We writers are up to the following: We build tensions toward laughter, then give permission, and laughter comes. We build tensions toward sorrow, and at last say cry, and hope to see our audience in tears. We build tensions toward violence, light the fuse, and run. We build the strange tensions of love, where so many of the other tensions mix to be modified and transcended, and allow that fruition in the mind of the audience. We build tensions, especially today, toward sickness and then, if we are good enough, talented enough, observant enough, allow our audiences to be sick. Each tension seeks its own proper end, release, and relaxation. No tension, it follows, aesthetically as well as practically, must be built which remains unreleased. Without this, any art ends incomplete, halfway to its goal. And in real life, as we know, the failure to relax a particular tension can lead to madness.

There are seeming exceptions to this, in which novels or plays end at the height of tension, but the release is implied. The audience is asked to go forth into the world and explode an idea. The final action is passed on from creator to reader-viewer whose job it is to finish off the laughter, the tears, the violence, the sexuality, or the sickness. Not to know this is not to know the essence of creativity, which, at heart, is the essence of man’s being.

 In the essay “Zen in the art of writing” one gets some wonderful advice on the how to go about writing, the need for hard work, commitment and his own views on art and the artistic approach. I especially enjoyed this:

Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration……The artist learns what to leave out……His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.

 Work and imitation go together in the process of learning. It is only when imitation outruns its natural function that a man prevents his becoming truly creative. Some writers will take years, some a few months, before they come upon the truly original story in themselves. After millions of words of imitation, when I was twenty-two years old I suddenly made the breakthrough, relaxed, that is, into originality with a “science fiction” story that was entirely my “own.”

 Each of the dozen essays is written with verve and abandon which anybody who is even remotely acquainted with Bradbury’s writing will recognize immediately. There is a grand confidence in the content, deep understanding of the writing process, genuine sympathy for the aspirant writer and above all a transcendental love and commitment to the vocation of writing. One can read these essays not only for their insights but also to acquaint oneself with the thought processes of a lively, successful and bubbly artist who forms and lives by his own rules. Truly engaging and entertaining

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