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.

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‘Zen in the Joy of Writing’ chapter ‘Run Fast, Stand Still’

Actually, this chapter had a much longer title, but I didn’t want to cause my blog to crash due to too long of a title.

As a writer, there are times to run very fast and other times to stand very still. Running fast is what you have to do when you get a great story idea. In fact, that’s why I almost always have a pen and notebook on me at all times–even when I shower.

Ok, I’m kidding about having those in the shower.

You do get what I’m saying: nothing stinks worse than to be some place, observe something and come up with a great idea for a story, book, magazine article, column or blog posting. When this has happened to me and I’ve been without pen and paper, more times than I care to admit I’ve forgotten them later.

When you have the idea, Mr. Bradbury says, write down everything you can. Omit nothing. Assume everything’s vital, even thoughts that make no sense.

I like to visit the FBI’s website and study the 10 Most Wanted list. A year ago, I started wondering what would happen if one of the men on the list were ever recognized during their ventures of trying to live off the grid. Then Writer’s Digest had a prompt about a tragedy happening at a local swimming hole. Writing down a few notes about a character loosely based on Robert William Fisher, I came up with the short story Final Swim at Poesta Pond. It didn’t win, but it was an enjoyable story to write.

Mr. Bradbury adds that when taking things slow, use it to observe and develop a style. Read, read, read. Read what’s popular, read what’s not, read what you don’t necessarily like. Read heavily in the genres that interest you and work to develop your own style. Pay close attention so you can see how good writing’s done and why bad writing’s bad, and also to avoid doing what’s already been done.

One must wonder if actor Darryl Hannah loves to write. Rumor has it, she loves to sit in public places and observe people. Actually, not only is there nothing wrong with this, but Hannah’s habit is one a good writer should also do. Observing people, what they say, how the say it, how they look, how they dress, their mannerisms, is an excellent way to sharpen your description skills as you write. Of course, you must do this in a way where the police or an overprotective boyfriend doesn’t come up and demand to know what you’re doing!

Sometimes, Mr. Bradbury notes, good–perhaps even great–writing stumbles upon you. You write and you’re done before you even know it. He remarks that a few stories took hours to write. Wow. Considering this was in the day before word processors, this is remarkable. It makes me wonder if one of my favorite Bradbury short stories, Marionettes, Incorporated, was one of these: the story flows so well and reads so fast it seems like it must’ve flown from the typewriter. It can be as easy as one to four thoughts that are written very quickly. Write it fast and worry about revisions later.

Mr. B also encourages prospective writers to read the greats of literature and from that to develop their own style. Shakespeare, Coleridge, Poe, Hawthorne, Cather, Alcott, Lovecraft, Bradbury (he doesn’t mention his own name, but I’d certainly throw it in there), Asimov, Pohl, Turtledove, Milton, Faulkner, and, more recently, King, Crichton and one of my new faves, Bova.

Finally, in this chapter Mr. Bradbury observes that life experiences can make great story ideas. A terrifying ride on a merry-go-round when he was a child eventually led to his masterpiece novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. A childhood fascination with skeletons led to his short story Skeleton (a fascinating mix of suspense, thriller and dark humor).

Next, we’ll blog about Mr. Bradbury’s observations on muses.

Richard Zowie’s a writer who hopes to add this book to his collection someday. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.