Book Review: Zen in the Art of Writing

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My goal this year (among many other goals) is to read a writing book once every two months. So, six total. Not doing terribly when I finished the third, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing in June. (Actually, that’s completely on track. I am completely not on track with most of my other reading goals.) I started this one while at the writing conference in May and then dragged it out a little bit, though the main drag-out was in the reviewing. For some reason, I have been super slow with reviews this summer.

As I mentioned, this is the third writing book I’ve read this year, and also the third “writing classic.” After Stephen King’s On Writing and Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, I don’t know what I was expecting. It seems to me that one of the things the writing classics have in common is their uniqueness. I’m sure you can find lots of writing books that are the same ol’, but King’s, Lamott’s, and Bradbury’s all have such fresh voices and different approaches to the art of writing, to the teaching of it, and to the writing about it. Bradbury’s Zen is not really a cohesive book as much as a group of previously-published essays composed over the many years in the nineteenth century during which he was prolific. Bradbury is very, very excited about writing, and his approach is much more emotional than technical, more dealing with the heart and fire of the author than her grammar or even technique.

While he wrote a lot and in various genres and forms, Bradbury is known for his science fiction that has crossed over into the classics genre. You may recognize these titles: Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man (and others), not to mention short stories like “The Veldt” and “There Will Come Soft Rains,” any of which you might have had to read in high school. Overall, he wrote more than 600 short stories and a number of essays, and he had a lot to say about his world and the world of the possible futures. His strong opinions extended to writing and Zen not only reveals those opinions, but also some interesting insight into his writing process and what happened behind the scenes to inspire and produce his famous works.

I haven’t read that much Bradbury, but I am a fan of The Martian Chronicles and “The Veldt” has stuck with me my whole life. Not that you have to be a fan to enjoy and/or learn from this book. And don’t even think about sticking your nose up in the air about it (or about Stephen King’s writing book) just because he’s written speculative fiction. The point is 1) he’s written well and 2) he’s been there. A lot. I found Zen to be a good read, worth it for a writer at any point in their career (though it would be good to know these things early on). It is, at times, uneven, which makes sense because it is a compilation of essays written over decades. There is even an instance or two where he contradicts his own advice, but it’s forgivable because we have all done that and people (and their opinions) change. I felt I could have done without the poetry at the end. The point is that writers should write like they mean it, should enjoy it, should seize the day and live to the fullest and embrace the present. He’s one of those writers (they are legion) who believe that stories write themselves, if only the author will get out of the way of the characters. At least he has an explanation: the subconscious built on the memories of your youth.

So dive in, one essay at a time, and absorb Bradbury’s enthusiasm. If you’re a writer, you’ll probably enjoy his rather poetic language, his zeal, his wisdom, his glimpses into the life of one of the century’s most famous writers. I know that I did.

QUOTES:

“The list [of distractions] is endless and crushing if we do not creatively oppose it” (pxiv).

“These are the children of the gods. They knew fun in their work” (p3).

“This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate!” (p7).

“I was learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone…” (p19).

“What the Subconscious [is] to every other man, in its creative aspects becomes, for writers, The Muse” (p33).

“You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him, as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day” (p37).

“Trains and boxcars and the smell of coal and fire are not ugly to children. Ugliness is a concept that we happen on later and become self-conscious about” (p82).

“I ask for no happy endings. I ask only for proper endings based on proper assessments of energy contained and given detonation” (p118).

“We never sit anything out. / We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. / The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out” (p120).

“Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come” (p145).

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations” (p152).

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