Zen in the Art of Writing (2)

The October Country, the Martian ChroniclesThe Joy of Writing

In the first essay of the book Ray Bradbury cuts right to the chase and gives us what I think of as his secret-of-life for a writer:

“If I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”

Zest and gusto; two words I don’t read very often. (Anyone else hear the jingle “zestfully clean!” in their head?)

It’s worth noting here that Bradbury “warns” the writer to look to zest and gusto. Writers are often encouraged to do things, or even just told to do things. For example, have you ever heard statements like these?

“If you want to know how to tighten up your prose then I encourage you to read more Hemingway.”

“You should set a schedule to write every day.”

“You should join a writers’ group.”

“Think about using less adverbs next time.”

But throughout this essay there is a sense that in order to truly experience “the joy of writing” the writer has to live  dangerously. He talks about writing about what you “want more than anything else in the world,” and what you love and hate. He discusses the joy and humor in writing angrily, specifically in response to bad art, and encourages writers to “write out of pure indignation.”

Have you done this? Have you written out of hate? Or out of unbridled love? I have.

When it’s about love, it gets written in my journal. When it’s about hate, it’s sometimes written in an empty email, then quickly deleted; or again, in my journal. I view these writing sessions as mostly therapeutic (a word Bradbury would balk at). As I said in a previous post, writing like this is salve for a wound. When I’m writing about love, when my heart and head are full of bubbles and sunsets, the writing is no longer salve but an outlet for the boyish, fumbling prose that always accompanies infatuation.

And this is why I think Bradbury encourages us to live and write dangerously. Because no one wants their love letters and rants published, do they? (Okay, maybe some do.) But for the rest of us storytellers, we want the finest of our craft in print, not our emotional, cliche-filled first drafts. Bradbury has something to say in response to this too:

“The history of each story, then, should read almost like a weather report: Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water upon 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?”

Interesting stuff. I’ve certainly experienced writing this way during the 3-Day Novel Contest. Most of my first drafts come out in long bouts of non-stop writing. How about you? I’m about as meticulous as a fire hose when I write a first draft.

Amid all this zest and gusto Bradbury makes one other point about creating interesting characters that I think is worth mentioning here:

“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. The zest and gusto of his need, and there is zest in hate as well as in love, will fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.”

So go on! You have the secret to a writer’s life. Burn your typewriters (and laptops)! And write dangerously!



3 thoughts on “Zen in the Art of Writing (2)

  1. Brad Porter

    I really like the last excerpt about “finding” a character. I find it fascinating when a writer describes their characters as a sort of external force that they simply chase after. I feel like the marker of a solid character is that truth which seems to emanate FROM the character when in reality it is you who creating this picture out of thin air. If you can capture that sense of pursuit while writing the character, then you know you’ve got something that is true. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of movies recently in which the writer came up with what seemed like an exciting scenario and then wrote a character to try to fit inside that scenario rather than starting with a “real” person that wanted something and then seeing where that led (Limitless really felt like this to me).

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Brad – I haven’t seen “Limitless” but I think I know what you mean. I’m guilty of the scenario-based story to, and I certainly stumble upon it in movies and TV. I’ve found that when you write with a scenario as your starting point it’s just too easy to just fill in the character with someone bland or cliche’.

      During the few times I feel like I’ve created a “true” character the story comes easily, and the writing feels less contrived. But how do we get there? How do we find that “true” character to chase after?

      In defense of scenario-based writing, it seems like a lot of fictious stories find their genesis in the simple question, “What if?” (i.e. What if we went to Mars and found it was already settled? What if someone invented a car that could go back in time? What if two people fell in love over a radio show, but they live on different US coasts?) Perhaps a good follow-up question to “what if?” is “who?”

      1. Brad Porter

        I agree that scenario-based writing (or maybe starting with a scenario) doesn’t necessarily produce poor stories. But if the writer never steps away from the scenario and creates a character with wants and dreams and then places that character back into the scenario, then I think the scenario (and the plot) will always fall flat leaving the audience (reader) saying, “So what?” Sometimes I feel like the writer becomes too in love with their “cool” scenario rather than with their characters. To me, this is what separated “Unknown” from the Borne series.

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