On June 6, 2012, the writing world suffered a loss: Ray Bradbury died. This was not exactly a tragedy — the man was ninety-one, after all — but many of us felt a pang nonetheless, because Bradbury was such a writer’s writer: He was a writer other writers loved. And he had a lot to say on the craft. To honor him, I’m going to cobble together some of his writing wisdom here for you, along with my thoughts. (The italicized quotes are from Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing.)
I know you've heard it a thousand times before. But it's true — hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don't love something, then don't do it.
There's a myth out there that you're either born with the Writing Gene or not. As Bradbury indicates here, this is simply not true. While there are personality traits that lend themselves to the writing lifestyle (more on this below), good writers are made, not born. Behind every bit of beautiful prose is a sweating author. This is a good news/bad news scenario: the good news is that the art is accessible to anyone who’s willing to put in the sweat equity. The bad news is that you are not an exception, and you will have to work just as hard as everyone else.
To the question “what does writing teach us?” Bradbury answers: 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 from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.
|The highly autobiographical "Dandelion Wine"|
I read Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to my son last year, and it was clear that Bradbury had some mortality issues — a common affliction for writers. Writing, for him, clearly was a comfort in this way: perhaps not an attempt to achieve immortality, precisely; but a way to milk every drop out of life he could, by living it and then reflecting on it.
How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or your real hatred somehow got onto the paper? When was the last time you dared release a cherished prejudice so it slammed the page like a lightning bolt? What are the best things and the worst things in your life and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?
Print that out and tape it to your computer monitor. Read it every day. Act on it.
Another story about me and my dog took more than fifty years to surface. In "Bless Me, Father, for I Have Sinned," I went back in time to relive the beating I had given my dog when I was twelve, and for which I had never forgiven myself. I wrote the story to at last examine that cruel, sad boy and put his ghost, and the ghost of my much-loved dog, to rest forever.
What a writing prompt. Try it now: Recall some personal failure, something for which you've never forgiven yourself, and write it down. Make it a story. What was that person-who-was-you, but whom you hardly recognize for the appalling way she behaved, thinking?
|Does this Muse look hungry to you?|
It is my contention that in order to Keep a Muse you must first offer food. ... Through a lifetime, by ingesting food and water, we build cells, we grow, we become larger and more substantial. That which was not, is. The process is undetectable. It can be viewed only at intervals along the way. We know it is happening, but we don't know quite how or why. Similarly, in a lifetime, we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. Into our subconscious go not only factual data but reactive data, our movement toward or away from the sensed events. These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows. This is the storehouse, the file, to which we must return every waking hour to check reality against memory, and in sleep to check memory against memory, which means ghost against ghost, in order to exorcise them, if necessary.
This fits my view that the curious person, the observant person, the self-aware person, is a natural writer. These are the personality traits I referred to above: Natural writers are observers: of others, of themselves, of the world. Writers find everything a little bit quirky, and feel compelled to examine those quirks a bit more closely. When we do this, we feed the muse.
Another quote from Bradbury's, along those lines: We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
|The Martian Chronicles|
Bradbury on the merits of speculative fiction: The children guessed, if they did not whisper it, that all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way. ... There will always be problems. Thank God for that. And solutions. Thank God for that. And tomorrow mornings in which to seek them. Praise Allah and fill the libraries and art galleries of the world with Martians, elves, goblins, astronauts, and librarians and teachers on Alpha Centauri who are busy telling kids not to read science fiction or fantasy: "It'll turn your brains to mush!"
And then from the halls of my Museum of Robots, in the long dusk, let Plato have the last word from the midst of his electro-machine-computerized Republic:
"Go, children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upside down. Knock the soot off my brain. Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and run and build."
"Run boys! Run, girls! Run!"
And with such good advice, the kids will run. And the Republic will be saved.
When I was a child, sci-fi and fantasy were still considered not-real-fiction, something kids and slightly-embarrassed adults read. A few books snuck into the classroom, if their authors had achieved enough gravitas: Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, for example.
Slowly, slowly, speculative fiction titles are finding their way onto assigned-reading lists: Lois Lowry's The Giver is standard, for example, as is L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. My daughter was assigned Asimov's I, Robot, and her classmates were assigned Bradbury's own Fahrenheit 451. They key seems to be "old." If a book has stuck around for long enough, it attains "real book" status and teachers will assign it.
But where, I ask you, is Harry Potter? Why is The Hunger Games not assigned reading? How about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a cautionary dystopian at least as relevant as anything Orwell wrote? Speculative fiction is not only much more fun to read than high-lit (in many cases, anyway), it explores Big Themes with more gusto, and in a clearer way, than often overly-subtle literary fiction. Especially for young people, speculative fiction should occupy a good percentage of their shelf space and their reading time: that's how we'll raise enthusiastic readers and, dare I say, better thinkers.
I will let Bradbury have the last word: