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Zen and the Art of Writing (read)

I’m not sure Ray Bradbury would’ve succeeded as a writer in this era (2000’s or perhaps a bit earlier). Every one thinks their time is different, and in a lot of ways it is, but in no way is it more noticeable than economics. (More on that later.)

I finished reading “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury. Overall it was a decent read. I’ve read other crafting books that have assignments and practice examples with encouragements to “follow along”. This book was not that. It is a series of essays (and poetry – long form poetry!) he has written over decades, reflecting on his life and writing career.

It was highly inspirational and encouraging but after a time, it became repetitive. There’s only so many ways an author can say “WRITE! and be free.”

Here’s how I summed it up to my writing group:

  • Write all the F’ing time.
  • Read everything, everywhere, all the time. Poetry, essays, scientific journals, nature journals, watch movies, and especially read from authors you admire and want to write like. You’ll imitate at first but eventually you and the muse will help you find your voice.
  • Write some more.
  • If you chase cash (the publishing industry is heavily commercialized now, don’t you know? (He wrote that in the 1960’s). You must have passion.) you’ll make money but you’ll look back later and say, “Why didn’t I write what I wanted?”
  • Write you fool. Write.
  • Take inspiration from your own life and the people in them. Even the bad experiences can be molded into stories.
  • Are you writing yet?
  • Feed the muse and the muse will eventually get out of the way. A subconscious partnership will evolve. How do you do that? You f’ing write. Damn, I’ve said this before!
  • Be authentic to yourself. Have passion for your writing. Have a need. A compulsion to write. When it calls you, follow. Unless it means abandoning your kids. But even still, try to do it when they are sleeping.

This was halfway through the reading and nothing critical changed in his message by the end. He is consistent. And prolific. A heaping of words begets a quality after a time. To sum up his idea.

But he wasn’t just about throwing words on a page. His approach was meditative, intentional. His thinking—or non-thinking—was that when you get to the point of writing, like breathing, it becomes automatic. When you think of breathing you can labor at it. When you let go of the effort and work of writing you become free. Your muse steps back and you relax.
He was basically talking about the concept of “flow” before it hit the public vernacular.
All this is well and good and something I think he is right about. How do you get good? Practice, i.e. write.

And yet all this being said, a story he related when he sold his first novels “Martian Chronicles” and “Illustrated Man” stuck in my mind, and I couldn’t shake it.

He sold these books in the late 1940’s and says he got an advance of $1,500. Here’s the kicker. This was enough to pay for his rent for a year, expenses for living, and a down payment on a small house. Inflation is amazing! But there’s more to it than that. Oh, yeah, he also had a kid during this same year.

Even with inflation this is nowhere near enough to live on for a single person, let alone a family, in 2023, or even the last twenty years. That amount is $18,215.04! I’m not an economist but this seems off. Something else is going on here.

Now don’t get me wrong, if I sold two novels for $18k today, I’d be ecstatic, and know that royalties would be forthcoming for a while. But I wouldn’t quit my day job. Would you?

Writing is all Ray Bradbury did. According to this book, he did not have a secondary income. He put all his time and focus into writing. His advice was to do what you like and want to be as a writer and the money will come later. But if you write for the commercial or fame, you will always be lacking, creatively, emotionally, and dare he say spiritually.

What writer today with a family can do that? What writer today without a family?

I’m steering a bit away from the “craft” in this post but this can not be ignored. There is a fundamental difference between when these giants (Bradbury, Asimov, Tolkien, Huxley) were writing and now. The world is not the same. It does not have the same opportunities, pressures, and yet it has even greater ones; the internet, self-publishing, print on demand, instant global reach with social media (ugh), and a wide acceptance of science fiction and fantasy.

Even still a successful writer selling two books would be under the poverty level for the US. They just sold two books! How far would that $18,000 actually go? Starvation, living on the streets or with three roommates, does not lend itself to writing well.

I haven’t sold a book yet so what is a typical advance? Are the publishing houses of today loose with money? Are they splashing money around like a lotto-winner one week after cashing that check? Or are they even more selective? Cautious?

Okay, enough of that…

I think his core message is solid.
Work. Relax. Don’t think.

Chase not the money but the creativity. Write what you like and be true to your writing and yourself.

If you are writing, you write because you enjoy it. You have a need to be creative through words, and you have characters who want to tell their story. You write because of ideas. You write for adventure and exploration. You write to be you.

Is there any other reason?


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