Book review: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Book review: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Posted by Toby Knott
Picture of Toby Knott
on 20 February 2014

This is not so much a ‘how to’ book – ‘I selected the above title, quite obviously, for its shock value,’ notes Bradbury with characteristic candidness – as it is a book of musings about what it means to write and be a writer from the author of, most famously, Fahrenheit 451.

It collects a number of Bradbury’s essays and poems written over a period of 30 years and touches on why he became a writer, where he finds his ideas, the process of writing some of his books and, more generally, the joys of writing.

And that's what's so refreshing – his playful and boisterous approach. He writes about the pleasures of writing, rather than treating it like a hard slog, and he never takes himself too seriously:

Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water on the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?

But that’s not to say he doesn't have some wise words. Quite the opposite. The above quotation shows you don't have to be entirely serious to offer good writing advice.

Here's a selection of his best bits.

Bradbury's wisdom

  • ‘if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer […] For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.’
  • ‘in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses’
  • ‘From an ever-roaming curiosity in all the arts, from bad radio to good theatre, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka’s Castle, there is basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths found, kept, savoured, and used on some later day.’

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  • ‘By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse […] through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.’
  • ‘I came on the old and best ways of writing through ignorance and experiment […] I blundered into creativity’
  • ‘I’ve tried to teach my writing friends that there are two arts: number one, getting a thing done; and then, the second great art is learning how to cut it so you don't kill it or hurt it in any way. When you start out life as a writer, you hate that job, but now that I’m older it’s turned into a wonderful game, and I love the challenge just as much as writing the original, because it’s a challenge. It’s an intellectual challenge to get a scalpel and cut the patient without killing.’
  • ‘As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.’
  • ‘Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.’
  • ‘His [the writer’s] greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go.’
  • ‘Work, giving us experience, results in new confidence and eventually relaxation […] Suddenly, a natural rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.’
  • ‘if one works, one finally relaxes and stops thinking. True creation occurs then and only then.’

 Zen in the Art of Archery

The last couple of quotations betray the main inspiration of the book: German professor Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the Art of Archery, which was responsible for bringing Zen to Europe after World War II.

The chief lesson in both books is that if you practise something enough it becomes effortless and unconscious; you enter a flow state.

You need to go to Zen for the answer to your problems. Zen, like all philosophies, followed but in the tracks of men who learned from instinct what was good for them. Every wood-turner, every sculptor worth his marble, and ballerina, practices what Zen preaches without having heard the word in all their lives.

The verdict

If you like Ray Bradbury's writing and you're looking to be inspired, this makes for an excellent read. He writes with an infectious energy that you can't help but catch, which is a welcome change from the grave tone of many 'how to' writing books.

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See also: how to write

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