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.

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Thoughts on the ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘The Joy of Writing’

Please keep in mind that this is not a critique of Mr. Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing. This blog posting is simply what I’ve gathered from the book and how I think I can apply it to my own fiction writing career. It’s also my motivation to finish this book and to move onto others.

I’ve often wondered how to best describe Bradbury as a writer to those unfamiliar with his work (my two favorite Bradbury books are The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451). Perhaps Stephen King said it best: with Mr. Bradbury, everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

“The Joy of Writing” chapter

Mr. Bradbury believes it’s imperative to write with zest and gusto. Writing should be pleasurable, so have fun with it. This type of mentality helps a person put out 2,000 or so words a day. If you find it a burden, then you may have a problem. The same rings true for other professions. To be a successful chef, Gordon Ramsay has said you must a passion for cooking. Actors have told me that getting in front of a camera or on stage requires a love for performing; if your motivation is fame or fortune, forget it.

What should a person write about? Things that you love or hate. One example Mr. Bradbury references is seeing a photo in Harper’s Bazaar that used Puerto Ricans in the background as “props”. Upset by this, Mr. Bradbury wrote a short story where a Puerto Rican man taunts such a photographer by always appearing in his photographs and making some type of gesture that ruins the picture. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King recounts working at a mill and hearing a crazy story about how giant rats lived in the cellar of a decrepit building. Wheels spun and soon King wrote the creepy short story Graveyard Shift.

Sometimes we write about our fears. One short story I’m working on focuses on one of my worst fears: having an automobile breakdown in the summer heat in the middle of nowhere. The main character is on the run from the police but has his car break down in one of the more rural areas of the country: West Texas.

Sometimes, Mr. Bradbury feels writing a story can be as simple as finding a character who wants or doesn’t want something with all their heart. Give them orders, let them go and follow them and write what you see happening. Darn the outlines and character profiles, full speed ahead!

Writing also requires a person to read voraciously and diversely. Books, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. Myself, I suspect much can be learned even by reading bad prose. You learn how not to write and what doesn’t work. For me, what comes to mind is one particular sci-fi novel written by a scientist who simply wasn’t a good writer. Another involves a curious delve into trasy western paperbacks where the methaphors are so bad they’re comical. Obviously, this is best kept at a minimum while energies should be focused on good writing and what does work.

Finally in this chapter, Mr. Bradbury reminds us that life is indeed very short. Write. A writer writes now. Procrastination is the death of writing. This is indeed something I can relate to: my twenties flew by and now, at 37, I’m beginning to wonder what happened to my thirties. If only we lived on a planet like Pluto, where the days are six days long instead of a measly 24 hours.

Up next, the chapter “Run Fast, Stand Still”.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer. He’s worked as a journalist and columnist and also blogs and writes fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.