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 bottleĀ 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That gives me hope, when you consider the unpublished short stories I have that I hope someday will see the light of day: Why Are You Here So Soon?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.

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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.