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Thursday 14 August 2014

Ray Bradbury’s Zen Writing

Ray Bradbury started early as a writer, penning his first story when he was 11 years old. He created the habit of writing each day, and kept submitting his growing number of stories to the popular pulp magazines. At 22, he finally succeeded in getting a story published.

A long writing career followed, with 27 published novels, including the popular Fahrenheit 451, and 600 short stories, including the collections, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Through his writing, Bradbury helped shift the focus of sci-fi from the monsters from outer space to the scarier monsters within ourselves and our society.

Years later, as a famous and respected writer, Bradbury distilled his thoughts about the writing craft in a series of essays, later collected in the book, Zen in the Art of Writing. I recently read it and enjoyed the enthusiasm and confidence that came through in his writing.

The book’s title is based on a book, Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher. While teaching in Japan in the 1920s, he took lessons to master Japanese archery, which combines physical and mental skills. One day, he discovered a  ‘shortcut’ technique that enabled him to hit the target, again and again. However, his teacher chastised him because this outcome was the product of having ‘much too wilful will’, rather than aiming to reach a state of being ‘without purpose’, in the zen of the moment.

In his essays, Bradbury, like a zen archer, focuses on process rather than product.

Writing and story ideas

Dig into the personal and true to find your ‘individual truth’.  Delve into your personal ideas storehouse to write about your best and worst experiences, items from childhood, sensory impressions, conversations. Look for ‘honest’ ways to express emotion—love, admiration, excitement, hate.
Be a omnivore reader. Nearly any material can provide writing ideas. Read the works of authors who write like you, as well as those whose writing differs from yours. Read poetry each day. Poems can provide story ideas, expand your senses, and give you examples of powerful, beautiful metaphors and similes. Find story ideas in practical articles. Don’t try to understand everything in an article. Be a dilettante, letting your reading connect with your subconscious, memories and beliefs. Reading a travel article about an isolated beach may lead to you recalling an important childhood experience or brainstorming what could happen there, and to whom.

Establish a rich writing habit

Write daily, aiming for quantity rather than quality. A consistent, regular writing habit lets you achieve a relaxed state, where the words flow. In his early career, Bradbury set himself the target of writing 1,000 words each day, plus completing and sending off at least one short story each week.
Write fast in order to write honestly. Hesitation causes writers to trade truth for style or let self-consciousness creep in.
Free associate by drawing up a list of words (e.g., titles or nouns), selecting one word from the list, and freewriting.
‘Blurt’ your ideas when writing your first draft, without over thinking or editing prematurely.

Turn a first draft into a polished story

  • Shape your material in terms of what matters to readers.
  • Sensory richness. Make your story feel authentic by including rich sensory details:  Colours, shapes, sizes, smells, sounds, textures.
  • Character and dynamo. What do your characters want? Dream about? Knowing this puts the dynamo or energy into your story. When you know this, your characters will develop much of the story for you.
  • Emotion. Highlight your characters’ emotions, passions.
  • Tension. Incorporate conflict, opposites.  Make characters ‘fly together in a great clang.’
  • Release. Finish the story with a crucial action that releases the tension you have built.  The action should ring true in terms of your characters, their desires and needs.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury Joshua Odell Editions

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