Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

This volume brings together an assortment of essays written by the author at various points in his career. It’s not really a writing guidebook, more a random collection of wise autobiographical observations. You won’t find anything on punctuation and grammar in here. If anything, the chief subject is inspiration.

These are essays which were not originally intended to be placed in a single volume, so there is a degree of overlap at times. One topic that is mentioned more than once is a major turning point in Bradbury’s life, when he wrote a short story called “The Lake.” This story was semi-autobiographical, in that it tells of a little girl whom the author remembers wading into a lake and never coming out again. He wept after writing it, and realised that for the first time ever, he had written something beautiful. It was a turning point because it was the first time Bradbury had written from the heart.

I didn’t agree with everthing Bradbury had to say. For instance, he is very fond of the idea of writing one thousand words per day, every day. He belives that being super-productive is the way to go, constantly churning out more and more work. In contrast, I believe that a writer should limit himself to writing what he believes is his most excellent material. I also believe there is great benefit in going for long periods without writing, granting the imagination space to develop ideas before commiting them to paper. (I had the idea for Chion at least four years before I wrote it, and it’s three times the novel it would have been, had I rushed things.) Bradbury is, however, stating what has worked for him, rather than laying down definitive strategies for all writers.

I find it difficult to believe Bradbury’s claim that he always writes with passion – that’s it’s more like play than work. That’s not a criticism; I see it as something to aspire to. In many ways, it reflects the kind of creativity I remember being capable of when I was in my late teens – something I partially lost when I got older. Maybe something I need to try and reclaim.

I didn’t find Zen in the Art of Writing as inspirational as Stephen King’s On Writing, but it’s still a useful book for a writer to have in his arsenal. I came away from it feeling refreshed, with renewed passion to write from within myself and a determination never to end up a hack.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

In the near-future society in which this novel is set, houses have been fire-proofed. Guy Montag, the protagonist of the story is employed as a Firemen. You might wonder what need there is for a Fireman in a world were buildings can’t burn. Notice the capital “F.” The Firemen in this story don’t put out fires; they start them. And 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. Books are outlawed. In fact, anything that promotes deep thought in any way is forbidden.

We all feel, to one extent or another, the tendency to put up mental barriers against harsh truths of life. In Fahrenheit 451, it’s not the people who make this choice to seek happiness in ignorance; it’s the government enforcing it as a way of life. The medium of television is popular, as it is the most immediate means of filling the population to the brim with mindless soap opera and high octane news. Everyone’s busy doing nothing and thinking nothing.

Guy Montag, who has taken pleasure in burning many a secret library in his career, takes the risk of stealing a book and sneaking it home. So begins a passion for learning and a painful ascent out of the soulless existence that everyone thinks is normal life. It’s not long before he’s a fugitive on the run from the law.

I first read Fahrenheit 451 about fifteen years ago, and what strikes me most on this second read is how much closer the real world has come to the world portrayed in this story. On an asthetic level, the novel tells of people devoting entire walls of their living-room to television screens; home cinema, anyone? More worryingly, though, have you ever given serious thought to the quality of content in television today? We have soap operas rehashing the same old tired extremes. Toss in a few marriage break-ups, murders, gay relationships, maybe even a sex change operation to keep the viewers glued. We sit and watch this nonsense like it’s a reflection of real life, failing to realise that all it amounts to is a room full of script-writers trying to find new ways to tickle our emotions. Let’s not forget our chat shows. I used to enjoy the occasional debate, but more and more all I see is “I’m the father of your sister’s baby” or some other ridiculous theme. Then we have our reality TV shows, the majority of which traffik in misery. Okay, I’m ranting; you can see I have a problem with the way TV broadcasting is done. But let’s face it, how many of us come home from work in the evening, switch on the box and watch a load of drivel? What amazes me is that Fahrenheit 451 was first published fifty years ago, when TV was new and largely unaffordable, and yet Bradbury’s grasp of the medium’s potential for manipulation is striking.

This is an important novel that causes you to look inside yourself and examine what makes you tick.