How much do you read?

If there’s one dream I have as a writer, it’s being able to write full-time for a living. I’d love nothing more than to be able to write fiction, be a journalist, blog and write columns and essays full-time without the need for a second job.

Many successful writers, when asked the secret to their success of writing for a living, will tell you that any successful writer must do two things daily: read and write. Some writers will spend several hours churning out thousands of words of fiction, blogs, columns, essays, journals before settling down later in the day with some great books. And perhaps a few magazines.

I am envious of those who can maintain a heavy book-reading workload. Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes himself as a slow reader but somehow manages to read scores of books annually. Wow. It makes you wonder what he considers to be a fast reader. Maybe, perhaps he had in mind the older brother of one of my friends. Andy told a reporter once that his brother, Peter, could read about seven books per week.

Not per year or per month. Per week.

I am in awe and honestly wish I were like these people. One of my goals in life, both as a writer and as someone who wants to learn about the world, is to become someone who’s “well read”.

So far in the past year I’ve read four books that I can remember. One was a biography on Jim Morrison, another was Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing while two were novels by science fiction writer Ben Bova. I am currently finishing up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and plan next to read a collection of Bova’s short stories. After that, who knows? Whatever catches my fancy.

It is, of course, best to discipline yourself as a writer to read daily. By reading, you get an idea of what flows, what works and what doesn’t flow and what doesn’t work. Sometimes terrible prose can not only teach you how not to write, but it can also inspire you (“Hey, if this person can get published, so can I!”).

Perhaps this evening, when I get done blogging, I’ll do a little reading. Besides the two books I have checked out at the library, I have more than 100 books at home that I have yet to read.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Done reading ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ by Ray Bradbury

Well, except for the segment called …On Creativity. Perhaps I’ll read those poems someday when I purchase a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing. At this stage, the poems just didn’t work for me.

It’s only fitting that the last essay on writing in this book is called “Zen in the Art of Writing”. Mr. Bradbury says he chose the title for the shock value, as a way of getting more readers. Until recently (he wrote this essay in 1973), he didn’t know what zen meant. I imagine that in 1973 (the year of my birth), people were far less open to the idea of Zen Buddhism than what they are now in 2010.

I’m not a Buddhist, nor am I a follower of far eastern religions. While I hear the word “zen” frequently used I still had to look it up since I didn’t really know what it meant. From what I gather (and this is subject to change based on what a few friends who’ve studied Far East cultures might say), zen is the idea of enlightenment following a period of study or concentration. Hence, Zen in the Art of Writing is about studying writing and meditating on what you’ve gathered and coming to a period of enlightenment.

For many, Mr. Bradbury believes they have writing all wrong. Writing is not about writing solely to make money or to appease snooty critics (please, oh please do NOT get me started on how some filmmakers worry about whether or not they’ll get Roger Ebert’s coveted “Thumbs Up”). It is about learning the science of writing (grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structures) and then the art of writing (developing your own style).

In Bradbury’s experience, writing is a three-step process: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think.

First, you work.

This, no doubt, is a major letdown for those excited by writing. I’ve been writing for most of my life, professionally for the past 10 years. Let’s face it: it takes work to write. Mr. Bradbury notes that surgeons practice on countless cadavers to prepare for an operation on a live person. An athlete will run miles and miles to prepare for a 100-meter race. A sculptor will practice chiseling countless rocks to prepare for that masterpiece on one slab of granite. Myself, I’ve written many short stories over the years (most of which are unpublishable) and am working on short stories and a novel in hopes of achieving a fiction writing career someday. For every column I write, there are the countless ones I’ve started and thrown away. There have even been those I wrote, completed and then didn’t publish.

We never quit learning to be writers (I imagine Mr. Bradbury would admit that at 88, he’s still learning how to write), but once you’ve put in enough countless hours of blood, sweat and tears and have worn down enough keyboards, pens, pencils and have cut down enough trees to produce paper and notepads, you finally reach the stage of relaxation. This is when writing evolves to where you can put it out without having to put in so much rudimentary work. Specifically, it feels natural and fluid, not so laborious.

Remember the first time you rode a bike? It felt awkward. But as you rode more it grew to where it was easier, and you could relax rather than worry about falling off all the time.

After work and relaxation, you reach the “Don’t Think” stage of writing. This is an advanced stage of Relaxation. At not thinking, it doesn’t mean you put things on autopilot and watch the words magically appear on your screen, out of your typewriter or on the piece of paper as your hand magically writes. Instead, it means you’ve written for so long that you can let the ideas flow and you can write using the basic principles and styles you’ve learned without having to think of them all the time.

Using the bicycle principle, how many of us really think of how we pedal and maintain balance? We’ve done it for so long that it’s almost automatic.

Mr. Bradbury recalls when he first began writing, he wrote for quantity. As he became a better writer and started to write publishable work, he evolved from producing quantity to quality. Experience yields good writing.

How do writers lose their way? Mr. Bradbury believes it’s from pursuing fame and fortune. The same rings true for other professions: one professional actor once told me that if a person’s motivation for becoming an actor is for fame and fortune, don’t bother.

A writer, Mr. B, should see themselves as a prism and should focus on beaming a new light into the world. Develop your own style that’s different from others.

This book, hence, is “zen” in that these essays are what Ray Bradbury has learned about writing. Someday, I hope to read it a few more times and add it to my library.

Next, I’ll be splitting my time between three books: short story collections by Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova and the book The Sacred Romance. I will probably blog about the latter on my Richard’s Two Shekels blog.

Richard Zowie is a writer, blogger and aspiring fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

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.

Ray Bradbury’s ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘How to Feed and Keep a Muse’

For those of us who are writers, the description of a muse can be as diverse as how world cultures and religions define God(s). For some, a muse is an English teacher with some crisp British accent admonishing us to not waste time but to get down to business and to write. Others think of a muse as a gentle encourager. (“Come on, you don’t really need to watch another rerun of Frasier, do you? Hmmmm?”). For those who like to write stories delving into seedy or sassy subjects, perhaps their muse is some sort of dominatrix who cracks the whip anytime they’re not diligently putting words on paper. (“Get writing! WOO-PSSSSSSH! Now!!!)

The muse’s job is simple: to encourage us to write and to inspire us to write. In some cases, such as looming deadlines or story ideas that began to fade or grow too stale if neglected too long, to order us to write.

No, this Papermate Dynagrip isn’t my muse, but it is my favorite of the non-click Papermate pens.

Mr. Bradbury talks about muses and how to feed and keep them. It’s a very difficult task. His view of a muse is of some painfully shy Greek goddess. Hold her too tight, and she’s gone. Hold her too loosely and she zooms away. A writer needs a happy balance.

He believes it’s a mistake for a writer to focus excessive attention on the muse themselves, comparing a muse to specks in an eye membrane that can cause vision to become a little cloudy. Instead, a person should focus on the big picture and see things clearly.

How does one feed a muse? Mr. B suggests doing things that should come across seasoned writers as very obvious: read as much as possible; write as often as you can (at least 1,000 words of fiction writing a day). Besides these two things, become a sharp observer of the world. Take in sights, smells, sounds, tastes, touches. Use these to become a better writer and to make your writing come alive.

We have originality, Mr. Bradbury reminds us. No two people see the same event in exactly the same way. I suspect this applies even to identical twins to a strong extent.

When we write, our muse wants us to write in passion and in truth. Mr. B recalls his father’s stories of traveling in Arizona (back when it was a U.S. territory) and Minnesota and how his dad spoke truthfully and passionately. It really makes me think that when creating a story character, you should do your best to describe the world from their viewpoint–even if you normally would disagree with that person. Show their drive and their determination. And when you describe a story, do so in a determined way that gives the reader (who may have never traveled to that location) a great idea of what it’s like.

In short, Mr. Bradbury says, the muse is a fantastic storehouse of our complete being where we store our memories, interests, observations, interactions–all the tools we need to become a great writer.

Furthermore, he suggests these also to feed a muse:

1) Read poetry daily. In fact, some of Mr. Bradbury’s stories come from poetry he’s read. I remember the short story The Exiles, published in The Illustrated Man, begins with witches reciting a poem as they brewed a concoction inside a cauldron.

2) Read books of essays. We presume this would be books beside the one I’m currently blogging about. Mr. B believes these can help the sense of smell and hearing when writing.

3) Novels, short stories

4) Comics

These are all designed to help you learn the tools you’ll need to become a good writer.

Mr. B also says a person should: “Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime;

“Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from waht you are–the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensible to others.”

Furthermore, feeding a muse means taking long walks at night in the city or town, or walks in the country at day and long walks through libraries and bookstores.

Mr. Bradbury believes that writing a thousand words daily will help your muse to take shape and will exercise your creativity and storytelling muscles. By doing this, by living well, and practicing close observation, you will have fed your muse well. Just as an athlete frequently exercises to stay in shape, a writer must write frequently.

Finally, what’s my idea of a muse? At this stage of life, she looks a lot like my wife, Jennifer, and she gently but firmly encourages me that getting published as a writer helps pay the bills and is a step closer to my dream job: fiction writer.

Richard Zowie’s been a writer for 10 years and has several unpublished fiction short stories. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

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.