Ray Bradbury’s 7 Rules for Writers
Ray Bradbury, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 91, is best known as an unforgettable storyteller, whose fiction spanned a wide variety of genres (sci-fi, horror, fantasy, mystery). His novels and short story collections—in particular The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes and the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 — have become library favorites, revered by school children, book-club enthusiasts, and geeks of all ages. But perhaps my favorite of Bradbury’s books is Zen in the Art of Writing, his collection of short essays on the craft of writing. Throughout the book — which is part memoir, part writing seminar — Bradbury makes several strong claims about writing and creativity, claims that I believe can serve as helpful advice, if not iron-clad rules, for the beginning writer (and for even the more advanced scribe). Here are seven that I thought stood out:
1. Write with gusto. If there was one quality Bradbury prized above all others in a writer, it was gusto. And it was a quality that Bradbury had in spades. A writer might be a brilliant stylist, his plot might be complex, his subject matter intriguing — but if the writing lacks gusto, then by Bradbury’s standards, it’s not fully alive: “[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”
2. In quickness is truth. Bradbury believed that when it comes to first drafts, don’t think, just write. Long before cognitive neuroscience proved him right, Bradbury understood the importance of short-circuiting one’s Inner Critic during the initial phase of creative work: “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” Let speed (though perhaps not the chemical kind) be your friend. Just get it down. Fast. Even if it’s crap. Don’t worry, you can always invite your Inner Critic back to the party during the revision phase.
3.Write who you are. One of the most popular (and perhaps clichéd) pieces of advice to writers is “write what you know.” But if all writers rigidly followed that rule, it would limit them to the world of everyday experience (nor would there be such a thing as science fiction). For Bradbury, a writer should draw inspiration not only from the world he lives in, but from the world(s) he can imagine, as well as from his own personal interests and enthusiasms: “Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you that makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.” A book like The Martian Chronicles undoubtedly owes something to the world Bradbury grew up in — but it owes a great deal more to Bradbury’s unique alchemy of experience, imagination, and life-long passions. Or, to put it another way: who you are is what you know. So don’t be afraid to write that.
4. Don’t write for money or fame. Not that money and fame are bad in themselves. But for Bradbury, they shouldn’t be your primary reason for writing. Indeed, he cautions that the pursuit of these twin allures has undone many a talented writer: “If only we could remember that fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.” External rewards are nice, but they must remain secondary to the internal rewards of the creative work itself.
5. Feed the muse daily. Some people find “the muse” to be an antiquated concept of artistic inspiration, but it was one that Bradbury took quite seriously. However, for Bradbury, the muse doesn’t simply offer up her services for free; instead, they must be purchased with daily, consistent effort. You must write daily, read daily, and train one’s creative muscles in much the same way as athletes train their physical muscles: “By living well, by observing as you live, by reading and observing as you read, you have fed your most original self. By training in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room” (p.45-46). A well-fed muse is a happy muse. A starved muse—well, she’ll just be pissed off, and most likely too tired to come to your rescue when you most need it.
6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic. Bradbury — who had a life-long fascination with the subconscious — firmly believed that each of us has a “dark attic” inside our minds, one filled with secrets and terrors we’re often too scared to face. But according to Bradbury, this is precisely where a writer can find his most useful material. Our fears hold the key to our originality, and only by facing that “Thing at the top of the stairs” can we ever hope to create something authentic and new. Bradbury suggests coming up with a list of nouns to jump-start this process, writing them down stream-of-conscious style: “Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’ in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night… may well come down.”
7. Surprise yourself. Many books on writing advise you to plan every detail of your story in advance. But Bradbury believed it’s better to discover your story as you’re creating it and surprise yourself. “Dandelion Wine, like most of my books, was a surprise… I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head” (p. 85). Again, Bradbury places more faith in the subconscious than in conscious over-planning. Not that he doesn’t believe in plot. But for Bradbury, plot is secondary to, and determined by, character: “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, not before” (p. 139). In short: if you want to surprise your readers, perhaps you should first try to surprise yourself. Just follow the footprints — and see where they lead.
Bonus Rule: Do the work you were born to do — and no one else’s. Towards the end of Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury includes a series of poems about creativity. One of them is entitled, “What I Do Is Me, For That I Came.” In it, he writes:
Be not another. Be the self I signed you in your blood…
I leave you gifts of Fate most secret; find no other’s Fate,
For if you do, no grave is deep enough for your despair
No country far enough to hide your loss.
A man of deep spiritual beliefs, Bradbury believed that each of us is sent here with a specific creative mandate. Our mission — if we’re up for it — is first to discover what that mandate is, then to fulfill it. To fulfill another person’s mandate — to live another person’s destiny — is not simply a mistake; for Bradbury, it is the definition of creative and spiritual purgatory. Instead, be who you are. Share your unique gifts with the world. And recognize that when you depart, there will never be another one like you.
Bradbury spent over 50 years living these beliefs. He wasn’t stingy with his gifts. He didn’t allow genres and labels and literary trends to put limits on his creativity. He did the work we was sent here to do. He fulfilled his creative mandate.
And as his fans know all too well, there will never be another one like him.
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