On Books

Reading, writing, and Ray Bradbury on looking after the muse

Reading is one of the great pleasures in my life. As a kid, a good Christmas was measured by the size of the pile of books under the tree. And the best summers included plenty of time lying around in the shade reading those books.

So, now, when I’m planning a trip I load my Kindle with must reads. I expect that on the plane, train, or bus I’ll be reading. I anticipate hours in cafes, by rivers, or at the beach – kindle in hand – and me transported to another time and place. And yet, whenever and where ever I travel, particularly overseas, despite my preparation, despite an abundance of time waiting in bus stations and airports or sitting on boats and in cafes, I spend almost all of that time gazing at my surroundings. I don’t need or want to be transported somewhere else. I don’t need or want new ideas or ways of looking at the world; there’s plenty to challenge me in the simple tasks of working out where to eat, sleep, and how to get there, especially when I don’t speak or read the language. That doesn’t mean on our next trip (hopefully to Mynamar in a few months time, fingers crossed) I won’t be loading up my Kindle again. Of course I will. It’s a link to home, to my usual life. And best of all, in the unlikely event that I’m bored the solution is near to hand.

One of the great compensations of returning home for a while is resuming my reading life. And this includes reacquainting myself with old favourites. Currently, Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is at the top of the pile. The collection of essays from the master story teller is one of only two physical books I bought last year but, good news for Kindle lovers, from May 21st it’ll be available from Amazon’s Kindle Store.

Each essay is a cure-all for writers block which does, on occasion, strike – as it did earlier this week, for a day or two, after I received some negative feedback about my blog. It was an unreasonable and personal attack – that’s all I’m saying about it.

Thank God for Bradbury. In the twelve months I’ve owned this book I’ve dipped into it many times. Reading and re-reading many of the essays.

I’ve read the first essay “The Joy of Writing” four, maybe five times. Bradbury’s love of life and writing jumps from those pages straight into my heart. I think he’s telling his reader to grab hold of life and to write about it, without fear. He argues that the greats did just this:

Thomas Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava. Dickens dined at a different table every hour of his life. Moliere, 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.

When I read this essay for the first time I realised I’d discovered a writer on writing whose experience of the business of living was likely similar to my own – barring the obvious differences of culture, gender, and time. Bradbury’s voice is filled with an energy which encourages and invigorates me. And, if you’ve read Fahrenheit 451 you’ll know this already, he doesn’t flinch from the brutality of life. He says:

Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig-bladders Zest and Gusto.

Why not indeed.

Another favourite is “Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451”.  I reflected on the novel Fahrenheit 451 as I wandered around the Grand Palace in Luang Prabang. This classic novel was one of two books I read while I was in Laos a couple of months ago. (The other was Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness. If ever there was a case of the wrong book, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, that was it. I’ll have to re read it, now that I’m home, before commenting with any more depth.)

Bradbury discusses the practicalities of writing F451. The only quiet space he could find at that point in his life was the library where he paid a dime per half hour for use of the typewriter. A circumstance that drove him to write quickly and efficiently. He also discusses the underneath stories for the key characters who within a few pages, okay, actually screens on a kindle, I came to love. The book itself is bleak. It was heartening to read that in Bradbury’s imagination Clarisse survives.

The penultimate chapter “Zen in the Art of Writing” is filled with observations that beg to be highlighted and shared here. It could be described as Bradbury’s essential guide to the writing life. He identifies three core components: Work, Relaxation, and Don’t Think.

By work, he means writing practice, the development of a writing habit, the business of putting word after word down on the page until you have a story.

Quantity, he says, gives experience. From experience alone comes quality.

Relaxation, or another way of describing it, unconscious competence, is when a writer establishes a natural rhythm and no longer has to think deliberately about the skills required to create the story.

Too much thinking can wreck everything. Too much, maybe any thinking about the type of feedback I received this week destroys the muse. It’s not that Ray Bradbury is saying don’t think at all. Rather he says be judicious about what you think, when you think, and how you think. Wise, wise advice. In all this there are two simple sentences which restored my muse:

There is only one type of story in the world. Your story.

Thank-you Ray Bradbury.

photo by Alan Light [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ray Bradbury 1975

Tell me, how do you look after your muse?

22 replies »

  1. My favorite Bradbury short story is “There Will Come Soft Rains.” There are two versions, because he rewrote it, but I like the first better. I met Ray Bradbury twice–once at the Santa Barbara Writer’s conference in the early eighties and then at the pre-showing of a film based on one of his books..whose name escapes me right now. I saw him outside during the break and related to him the irony of the fact that the version of Fahrenheit 451 that my sister was teaching had been censored and altered! This seemed such an irony to both my sister and me, but he sort of brushed me off as though I was annoying him. I was rather crushed as he had always been one of my favorite authors.

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  2. Jill, I’m sorry to hear about the unfortunate incident with an Internet Troll. I’m taking it that you did not give the creature what they were wanting and replied back?

    Like you I can’t read when on holiday, because all I want to do is people watch, because it gives me ideas for writing and short stories. For me, reading is best done just before going to sleep, tucked up for the night ahead.

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  3. Aaahhh, Zest and Gusto–two good life companions. I will have to check out these essays. I haven’t read Bradbury in years. By the way, I just finished one of your recommended books, “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” and loved it. But I threw down “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” (before I discovered your blog) in disgust before I finished. I enjoy–well, maybe enjoy isn’t the best word–books about Japanese occupation and prison camps in WWII, but couldn’t take the love story in this book. It seemed ridiculously and awkwardly contrived. Maybe I should give it another try.
    Sorry to hear that you had negative feedback on your blog. Unfortunately, you cannot avoid the trolls of the world. Keep writing.

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    • Hello pagedogs, Ha! You’re right, enjoy doesn’t seem quite the right word but it might be the best word. Your comments about The Narrow Road to the Deep North are interesting. For me, without the love story, the book would have been unremittingly bleak. If you do check out the Bradbury essays I’d be interested in what you think of them. Thanks for the encouragement, too. I appreciate it – a lot.

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  4. Thank you, I will look up Zen in the Art of Writing. How I look after my muse: sit outside and just look and listen to everything. I’m looking forward to your posts from Myanmar.

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    • Thanks HN, Myanmar is a few months away – our southern spring, all going well. I have to say sitting outside and looking and listening is a pretty darn good way to look after your muse.

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  5. I think I was affected early on by the writers I chose to read. Rod Serling, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury are the authors whose books I borrowed frequently from the library and among my first purchases. I fell in love with the stories they told and the way they told stories. I haven’t read “Zen in the Art of Writing” but I’m adding it to my list. Thanks!

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