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Ray Bradbury’s Zen Writing

13 August, 2014
full-length, facing left, with bow drawn, abou...

The archer  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ray Bradbury started early as a writer, penning his first story when he was 11 years old. He began the habit of writing each day and kept submitting his stories to popular pulp magazines. At 22, he succeeded in getting a story published. A long writing career followed, with 27 published novels, including the popular Fahrenheit 451and 600 short stories, including the collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. His writing 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, respected author, Bradbury distilled his thoughts about the writing in a series of essays, collected in the book, Zen in the Art of Writing. I recently read it and enjoyed his enthusiasm and confidence.

The 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 in Japanese archery, which combines physical and mental skills. One day, he discovered a  ‘shortcut’ that enabled him to hit the target, again and again. However, his teacher chastised him for relying on his ‘much too wilful will’ rather than functioning within 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. Here are some of his views.

Get good story ideas

Your personal storehouse of ideas will provide your ‘individual truth’. Write about your best and worst experiences. Mine material from your childhood. Record sensory impressions and conversations.
Nearly all material can provide writing ideas:
  • Read the works of authors who write like you and the ones whose writing differs from yours.
  • Read poetry each day. Poems provide story ideas, expand your senses, and provide powerful, beautiful metaphors and similes.
  • Read practical non-fiction articles, but do so as a dilettante. Rather than trying to understand or learn, let your reading connect with your subconscious, your memories and beliefs. A travel article about an isolated beach may lead you to recall a childhood experience. Or start you brainstorming about what could happen there, and to whom and why.

Develop a rich, successful writing habit

Write daily.  In his early career, Bradbury set himself a daily target of 1,000 words and a weekly target of completing and sending off at least one short story. He suggests focusing on quantity rather than quality. When you develop a consistent, regular writing habit, you have a better chance of achieving the relaxed state that lets the words and ideas flow.
Write fast. Quick writing keeps you honest. Hesitate and you may end up letting stylistic elements subvert your story’s truth. Or you may become self-conscious and end up with stilted writing.
Write true. Move away from the conventional to find ‘honest’ ways to express emotions, such as love, admiration, excitement, hate.
Free associate. Draw up a list of words. Perhaps start with a list of nouns. Or list the titles of books, poems, and short stories. Each time you write, select a word or phrase from you list and begin writing whatever comes to mind.’Blurt’ your ideas in your first draft.  Don’t over-think. Don’t start editing prematurely.  Once you have a rough draft down, you can begin analysing and changing your material.

Write for readers’ needs

Bradbury believed that after the first draft, writers should shape their material by focusing on their readers’ needs:

  • Provide sensory richness. Help readers use their senses. Your story will seem real if you include rich sensory details—colours, shapes, sizes, smells, sounds, textures.
  • Energise your story. What do your characters want? What do they dream of doing, becoming?
    Knowing their focus helps readers understand your story’s dynamo or energy. Your characters will then develop much of the story for you. Incorporate:

    • Emotions and passions that drive your characters
    • Tensions, which come from conflicts and differences between your characters.  Bradbury writes about making characters ‘fly together in a great clang.’
  • Release. End a story with a crucial action that releases all the tension that has built up.  The action must also ring true in terms of your characters, and what they desire and need, or think they need.
Bradbury, Ray. (1990). Zen in the Art of Writing.
Herrigel, Eugen. (1953, pdf file of English translation). Zen in the Art of Archery.
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