Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘The Secret Mind’

Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy this chapter as much as I did previous ones. The Secret Mind deals a lot with playwriting, and, to be honest, when I first saw that, I cringed. Writing plays is one area of creative writing I’ve never really been particularly interested in. If this posting seems abridged, it’s because the chapter deals with a segment of writing that’s not really my forte. Perhaps someday when I read it again…

Be that as it may, I read the chapter anyway. Ten years ago, I probably would’ve skipped it. When it came to reading, I used to be this way: if the first few paragraphs weren’t interesting or if things dragged on after a few pages, I’d skip and skim from there.

But this time, I read. There was that little voice whispering to me, encouraging me to read. You might miss something crucial, it said.

Mr. Bradbury talks in TSM about traveling to Ireland and, as per film director John Huston’s request, wrote the screenplay for the screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Mr. B described it as seven miserable months spent on the Emerald Isle as he braved the weather and dreariness of being far away from home. After the screenplay was written and submitted to Huston (Anjelica Huston’s father, by the way), he returned back to the warmth of Southern California.

What Mr. B didn’t realize is that while he was focusing his energies on writing the screenplay and thinking of how much he loathed Ireland, his subconscious was recording the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches of Ireland and its people, culture, buildings, landscape and weather. All this information went into a memory bank inside his head, where he could draw from it and produce plays and short stories. It came to him the same way stories came to him from his visit into Mexico years earlier. As he relived memories, out came the stories.

Even as I go out and about, I try to make note of as many things as I can–people, scenarios, weather, clothing, everything. You never know what can become a story idea. The possibilities are indeed endless. It’s fun to just out and observe.

What I found fascinating is Mr. B earlier in his career had aspirations of acting and being a playwright. He writes that the plays he wrote when younger weren’t very good. How many other writers out there look back at stories/plays/novels they wrote when teens and have favorable recollections?

Over the years, Bradbury would receive letters from countless readers telling him of how his stories have been performed, like plays. This apparently inspired him to get into writing plays again, as did watching plays, seeing how poorly they were done in their frailness, lack of wit and lack of imagination and concluding he could do better.

And he wrote plays.

And did he ever.

The ideas flowed like water spewing throught he cracks of a dilapidated dam.

 Richard Zowie’s a writer who might someday try writing plays. He’s content for now writing fiction prose and blogging. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

Maybe I’ve been working too much too lately or am just getting old (I’m 37), but I thought I’d posted this chapter commentary already. I haven’t, so here it goes…

Much of this chapter has to do with what was once a taboo genre of literature. Once dubbed inferior and not worthy of being read by those who desired to read fiction, science fiction has over the years slowly gained an acceptance. Currently, the top grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is science fiction.

Mr. Bradbury starts off this chapter with a reference to a poem of his about a boy in a semi-animatronic museum in the future. The boy stumbles upon Plato, Euripedes and Socrates.

Kids, Mr. B asserts, became teachers early on in this first time in history as they moved art and teaching “back in the form of pure illustration.” Sci-fi gives us a chance to ask “what if” and be creative.

When I think of some of my favorite sci-fi movies and books, I think of the “What if?” questions they answered…

What if man could design a pressurized space craft to enter into Jupiter and explore its oceans? (Ben Bova’s Jupiter)

What if artificial intelligence took over the world, lost a critical battle to humans and then invented time travel to try to kill the human resistant’s leader’s mother before he was ever born? (The Terminator)

What would it be like for humans in deep outer space with nothing to do but do scientific research? (Frederick Pohl’s Starburst)

What would happen if a corporation’s greed for profits almost allows a hostile lifeform to take over a ship and destroy the crew? (Alien)

What happens when robots do the unthinkable and start thinking for themselves? (Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc.)

I wasn’t born until 1973, so I was pretty surprised to learn that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no science fiction in school curriculum and few in any libraries. Even up to 1962 it was difficult, according to Mr. B, to find anything written by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred van Vogt or Bradbury.

Why was this? I defer to Mr. B, since he was an adult and aware back then. He believes the perception then was that facts and not fiction were worth reading. Fantasy literature was considered escapist and a waste of time.

But inevitably, kids grew more and more curious and wanted to read these books. This led to an explosion. Sci-fi flooded the market. Instead of being confined to pulp fiction magazines or paperbacks in dime stores, sci-fi graduated to hard cover and was soon in libraries and first-hand book stores.

More importantly, according to Mr. B, sci-fi brought with it new ideas that then turned into advances in technology. People read these books and get ideas. Perhaps someone long ago read Jules Verne’s book about traveling to the moon and thought, “Why can’t we travel to the moon?”

This is one reason why I’ve grown to love the fantasy science fiction rather than the “hard” science fiction. Hard bores me. I’ve tried to read a few of these books and am amazed: unless you have an advanced science degree in physics or engineering, you’re often lost. Too often far too much time is devoted to technical information while the story line is left to wither. I like the stories that ask “What if?” and let the imagination take them where they will.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer who likes reading science fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Just this Side of Byzantium: Dandelion Wine’

I’m not an expert in Byzantine-style of writing, but from what little I gather, it’s a very ornate style of writing. It sounds like a style very different from Ray Bradbury’s. Some have asked me how I’d describe Mr. Bradbury’s style, and, again, I think Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

That being said…

When I was younger and an even worse writer than I am now, I often would try to write fiction using strict outlines. I think it came from the times I’d occasionally get 15 minutes at church to preach miniature sermons. I’d take a story idea, outline it and then write according to the outline. Whenever possible, I’d employ alliteration.

Don’t misunderstand–there’s nothing wrong with writing by outlines. If you’re a very organized person, perhaps it’s the best way to go. In many ways (especially in my journalism and freelance writing careers) I still like to do that as a way to have a starting point that points towards a faint, distant, illuminated end of the tunnel. But there are many times when writing fiction where it’s sometimes best to go with the flow and write as the spirit moves you. Let your imagination guide you.

Mr. Bradbury notes that even at an early age his preferred style of writing was word asociation. Take a story, write down as many words that come to mind and then write the story based on the word list. Before this, he used to “beat, pummel and thrash” an idea into existence. He believes that word association allows you to write faster as the ideas flow much better.

To illustrate this, he explains the term “Dandelion Wine”, which he would use in a collection of his published short stories. Dandelions sprout in the spring (as they will very soon do here in Michigan), and each dandelion represents a fascinating story idea. As for the wine, oenophiles tell us that the best wine is properly aged. Take a story idea and allow it to age, breathe and build up color, aroma and flavor in a cask and then in a bottle and soon you have a story that people will pay good money to read.

That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon? (a young man commits suicide out of despair, gets to heaven and sees how God could’ve richly used him had he not ended his life on a lark); God’s Final Call (a young man raised in a Baptist church knows he’s not really saved and has a decision to make: become a Christian or ignore God one last time); Dear Billy, Sincerely, Billy (a time travel story involving bullies, new opportunities and receiving a letter from yourself in the not-so-near past). Perhaps these dandelions will someday soon turn into very fine wines.

Mr. Bradbury notes how some critics who, aware of his humble childhood and some of the perceived ugliness of that area of Illinois (such as the trains, boxcars and smell of coal) wonder how he could convey excitement about these. It’s all about perception, he reasons. A carnival or railyard deemed ugly by a dignified, stuffy Byzantine person is, to a Midwest boy who grew up in the 1930s a paradise.

To Bradbury, his humble surroundings were Byzantium: a wonderous, exotic, beautiful place very ornate and rich to him.

Finally, Mr. Bradbury talks about the pear-shaped, red, white and blue-striped paper balloons filled with hot air during 1925 Fourth of July. They floated and seemed to have a wonderful, mysterious life of their own. I wonder if these balloons were the inspiration for his short story The Fire Balloons (which can be found in his book The Illustrated Man).

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who blogs, works in journalism, writes fiction and essays. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘Investing Dimes: Fahrenheit 451’

It cost Ray Bradbury $9.80 in dimes back in 1950 to write The Fire Man (which would later become Fahrenheit 451) on typewriters at the UCLA library. In today’s money, that may not seem like much. About $10 in quarters will do laundry for the Zowie family for about a week. But 60 years ago? It must’ve seemed like a small fortune.

Why the trouble? Mr. Bradbury and his wife Marguerite were married with children and were doing what so many do in the first decade or so of marriage: struggling to make ends meet. They couldn’t afford an office for him to work in, so he set up his typewriter in the garage. His daughters liked to go out there and play, and according to Mr. B, he would choose playing with his daughters to working. And since much of the Bradbury family income came from fiction writing…

So, a Plan B had to be implemented. At the University of California at Los Angeles library, typewriters could be rented for a dime per half hour. So, he went and typed. And typed. And typed. In nine days, he had 25,000 words–the makings of a solid short story. I’m sure to some this may seem extreme, but when it comes to writing, you have to be someplace without distractions. Distractions can be the death of great writing. Much is made about Jack Torrance chewing out his wife in The Shining for interrupting him while writing, and Melvin Udall made no friends getting angry at his neighbor Simon for doing the same. While the admonishments were handled poorly, I can sympathize with both of Jack Nicholson’s characters.

For the benefit of those not familiar with Mr. Bradbury’s work, let me summarize Fahrenheit 451: Guy Montag is a futuristic fireman, except that he’s not a fireman the way we’d define it. Instead of putting out fires, he uses fire to destroy books and the houses where they were stored. All books were banned, from the Holy Bible to the Quran and from Mein Kampf to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each book offended someone, and society felt that with no books, there would be more order and fewer occasions to offend. Montag, like so many in literature, becomes curious about books and starts privately wondering if banning them is such a great idea after all. He rebels, starts storing books at his house and eventually is forced to burn down his home. After turning his flame thrower on his chief, Montag escapes into the underground and meets people working feverishly to memorize and preserve the great works of literature. The book ends with him wondering what the future holds for society.

I understand that in the Wall Street Journal Opinion journal back in 2003, Mr. Bradbury denied his book was an attempt to predict the future. Instead: “I was trying to prevent it.”

Writing this book, Mr. B reports, inspired him into an explosion of reading and writing as much as he could. Besides the thousands of books lining the shelves of the Bradbury home, he wrote in countless genres: short stories, books, essays, plays, screenplays and even poems. One such story he mentions in this chapter is one where he uses a time machine (a favorite science fiction theme of mine even though I personally don’t believe time travel is possible [and even if it is possible, it would create far more problems than it would solve]) to visit and encourage Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde in their final hours.

Mr. B decided a few years down the road to write what turned into a two-act play and revisit the characters from F-451 and see what they were up to. Among the things discovered was that the fire chief actually had a large treasure trove of books. Having the books isn’t illegal, he tells a flabbergasted Montag. Reading them is.

It seems that $9.80 in dimes was a reasonable investment for a book that would make 20th century readers think long and hard about the consequences of banning books.

Richard Zowie is a writer and active blogger. Post comments here or drop him a line at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘Drunk and in charge of a bicycle’

Zowie! Lots of fascinating information in this chapter. I will write as I understand. Once again, faithful reader, please take it for what it’s worth: me, a writer, writing about the great Ray Bradbury and writing how Mr. Bradbury’s wisdom applies to my own life.

Mr. Bradbury starts by talking about a letter he received at 33 from Italy from 89-year-old American art historian Bernard Berenson. The historian, who would pass away five years later, commended Mr. B for his ability to put “flesh” into writing and how much he enjoyed its fascinating nature. This letter made Mr. B realize writing doesn’t have to be difficult, agonizing, dreadful or terrible. Those who view writing these ways and only these ways, no doubt, lack the talent and passion to be great writers. Myself, I love to write. I can’t explain it, but I’ve always loved putting words down on paper or (right now) onto a computer screen. I love to create stories and characters.

What of the title of this chapter, Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle? Mr. B describes it as something once put in an Irish police report. By being drunk and riding a bicycle, you have no idea where you’ll go next. The trip is one half terror and one half exhiliration. Building on this idea, Mr. B’s career stemmed from childhood fascinations with monsters, skeletons, circuses, dinosaurs and, not surprisingly, the planet Mars. Hence the short stories like The Fire Balloons (another favorite of mine) and the short story collection The Martian Chronicles.

Mr. B’s love of science fiction (which, granted, isn’t necessary the often-incredibly-boring “hard” science fiction that frequently focuses far too much on technical details and not enough on great story lines) originated from his love of Buck Rogers comics. Under peer pressure he got rid of his comics and then feeling empty, built up his collection again.

Mr. B then talks about stories he’s written and how, under enough inspiration and with enough keywords, images to work with. It took him two hours to write The Veldt, the very first short story in The Illustrated Man. The lions from that story? They came from library books Mr. B read when he was 10, from circuses he attended when he was five and from a 1924 Lon Chaney film he saw in his youth.

Mr. B then talks about his memory and how he remembers a) being born, b) being circumcised, c) nursing at his mother’s breast. Wow. My earliest memory? I was three and I remember being on a porch, sticking something into my mouth that tasted sweet (I’d later learn it was sugary) and crying as two girls (whom I’d later learn were my older sisters) walking into the woods. My own birth? My own circumcision? No memory of them whatsoever. From his earliest memories became the basis of a short story The Small Assassin that Mr. B wrote when he was 26.

It was at a carnival in 1932, around 14 years earlier, that Mr. Bradbury began his writing career. While at a carnival, he sat in on a performance of Mr. Electro, who took his Excalibur sword and tapped various children on the shoulders. He got to the young Bradbury, did the same and said, “Live forever!”

This lit a fire of inspiration within Bradbury that has never been quenched. Mr. B even got to talk to Mr. Electro a great deal.

With this, Mr. B spent the ages 12 to 23 often writing well past midnight in a day when computers didn’t exist. I imagine he must’ve used pencil and paper and typewriters, writing countless odd themes. Many of these stories would later appear in the short story collection Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles. It reminds me of the long hours I’d spend writing stories on a computer. Most of them unpublishable, but the more you write the more you develop creative and literary muscle.

Bradbury’s hard work paid off. He became noticed and worked for the director John Huston on a screenplay and later did work for Disney and even wrote an essay to reintroduce the book 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. What made all this possible? His love of things that fueled his imagination.

Furthermore, Bradbury talks about the 1-2 times he’s based on story on something that actually happened to him: The Next in Line (a trip he took to Mexico) and McGillahee’s Brat (a trip to Ireland).

At the time of his meeting Mr. Electrico, Mr. B liked to write 1,000 words a day and found this rate would allow him to write one short story per week. Things finally started to click and his story writing turned into professional-grade writing.

The motivation? Having a wife and kids. Living a very modest lifestyle. It was once said that he and his wife, Marguerite, had occasions early on where all they had in the bank was change. Man, I’ve been there. I can’t tell you the times I’ve told my wife the financial news: our checkbook is balanced but we have very little in the account.

It’s interesting how some stories evolve. Bradbury’s short, short story Black Ferris turned into a screenplay which became the iconic thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes.

In short, Mr. Bradbury’s stories reflect his growth through life. Some take years to write and some have taken mere hours.

Makes me hope for the day I can make my entire living writing fiction. I can think of no greater joy in life.

Richard Zowie’s a professional writer and has one published short story to his credit: Love, Solomon. To read this story or to make a comment, post here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.