Ray Bradbury on Zen and the Art of Writing (1973)


The pro­lif­ic Ray Brad­bury, author of Fahren­heit 451The Mar­t­ian Chron­i­cles, and many oth­er works both inside and out­side the realm of sci­ence fic­tion, appar­ent­ly suf­fered no short­age of cre­ativ­i­ty. Pro­lif­ic in his fic­tion writ­ing, he also proved gen­er­ous in his encour­age­ment of younger writ­ers: we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured not just his twelve essen­tial pieces of writ­ing advice but his secret to life and love. He even wrote enough on the sub­ject of writ­ing to con­sti­tute an entire book, the col­lec­tion Zen in the Art of Writ­ing: Essays on Cre­ativ­i­ty. In the 1973 title piece, Brad­bury, hard­ly known as a Bud­dhist, explains his use of the term zen for its “shock val­ue”: “The vari­ety of reac­tions to it should guar­an­tee me some sort of crowd, if only of curi­ous onlook­ers, those who come to pity and stay to shout. The old sideshow Med­i­cine Men who trav­eled about our coun­try used cal­liope, drum, and Black­foot Indi­an, to insure open-mouthed atten­tion. I hope I will be for­giv­en for using ZEN in much the same way, at least here at the start. For, in the end, you may dis­cov­er I’m not jok­ing after all.”

He breaks down his own idea of zen in his writ­ing process by first ask­ing him­self, “Now while I have you here before my plat­form, what words shall I whip forth paint­ed in red let­ters ten feet tall?” He paints the fol­low­ing, and after each we include selec­tions from the essay:

  • WORK. “It is, above all, the word about which your career will revolve for a life­time. Begin­ning now you should become not its slave, which is too mean a term, but its part­ner. Once you are real­ly a co-shar­er of exis­tence with your work, that word will lose its repel­lent aspects. [ … ] We often indulge in made work, in false busi­ness, to keep from being bored. Or worse still we con­ceive the idea of work­ing for mon­ey. The mon­ey becomes the object, the tar­get, the end-all and be-all. Thus work, being impor­tant only as a means to that end, degen­er­ates into bore­dom. Can we won­der then that we hate it so?”
  • RELAXATION. “Impos­si­ble! you say. How can you work and relax? How can you cre­ate and not be a ner­vous wreck? [ … ] Tense­ness results from not know­ing or giv­ing up try­ing to know. Work, giv­ing us expe­ri­ence, results in new con­fi­dence and even­tu­al­ly in relax­ation. The type of dynam­ic relax­ation again, as in sculpt­ing, where the sculp­tor does not con­scious­ly have to tell his fin­gers what to do. The sur­geon does not tell his scalpel what to do. Nor does the ath­lete advise his body. Sud­den­ly, a nat­ur­al rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.”
  • DON’T THINK! “The writer who wants to tap the larg­er truth in him­self must reject the temp­ta­tions of Joyce or Camus or Ten­nessee Williams, as exhib­it­ed in the lit­er­ary reviews. He must for­get the mon­ey wait­ing for him in mass-cir­cu­la­tion. He must ask him­self, ‘What do I real­ly think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate?’ and begin to pour this on paper. Then, through the emo­tions, work­ing steadi­ly, over a long peri­od of time, his writ­ing will clar­i­fy; he will relax because he thinks right and he will think even righter because he relax­es. The two will become inter­change­able. At last he will begin to see him­self.”
  • FURTHER RELAXATION. “We should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two sto­ries writ­ten in our first year as fail­ures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a mov­ing process. Noth­ing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a les­son to be stud­ied. There is no fail­ure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tight­en up, become ner­vous and there­fore destruc­tive of the cre­ative process. [ … ] Isn’t it obvi­ous by now that the more we talk of work, the clos­er we come to Relax­ation.”
  • “Have I sound­ed like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feed­ing on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for fifty years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing. Be prag­mat­ic, then. If you’re not hap­py with the way your writ­ing has gone, you might give my method a try. If you do, I think you might eas­i­ly find a new def­i­n­i­tion for Work. And the word is LOVE.

You can read much more about Brad­bury’s method of work­ing, relax­ing, not think­ing, and relax­ing fur­ther still — and his thoughts on the joy of writ­ing, keep­ing the muse fed, estab­lish­ing a thou­sand-or-two-words-a-day habit, and “how to climb the tree of life, throw rocks at your­self, and get down with­out break­ing your bones or your spir­it” — in the book, Zen in the Art of Writ­ing: Essays on Cre­ativ­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

The Secret of Life and Love, Accord­ing to Ray Brad­bury (1968)

Ray Brad­bury: Lit­er­a­ture is the Safe­ty Valve of Civ­i­liza­tion

Ray Brad­bury: “The Things That You Love Should Be Things That You Do.” “Books Teach Us That”

Ray Brad­bury: Sto­ry of a Writer 1963 Film Cap­tures the Para­dox­i­cal Late Sci-Fi Author

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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