Zen in the Art of Writing

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“I selected the above title, quite obviously, for its shock value,” writes Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) in his book Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, a vibrant collection of essays celebrating manifold ways we can harness the power of our imagination. “Now, while I have you here before my platform, what words shall I whip forth painted in red letters ten feet tall?”

Jokes aside, Ray Bradbury knows a thing or two about channeling our thoughts into a blank piece of paper. In the titular chapter of his book, he invites us to jump into the deep well of his knowledge on becoming a better writer.

Ray Bradbury.

The keywords to unleashing our creative genius, Bradbury tells us, are WORK RELAXATION DON’T THINK! “Impossible!” you may object. “How can you work and relax? How can you create and not be a nervous wreck?” Starting with work, Ray Bradbury writes:

Do you plan some sort of schedule for yourself starting as soon as you put down this article? Something like this. One thousand or two thousand words every day for the next twenty years. … You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. … Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, Tintoretto’s billion sketches, the quantitative, prepared them for the qualitative…. A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count — with a living creature under his knife. An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. …

Work then, hard work, prepares the way for the first stages of relaxation, when one begins to approach what Orwell might call Not Think! As in learning to typewrite, a day comes when the single letters a-s-d-f and j-k-l-; give way to a flow of words.

Rythme by Sonia Delaunay.

As you enter the steady flow of your everyday writing routine, you shouldn’t look back, but keep on moving. You are in the midst of an unfolding process, one that fails only if you give up. Ray Bradbury writes:

There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process. … 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.

So again the three signs. Put them together any way you wish. WORK RELAXATION DON’T THINK. Once separated out. Now, all three together in a process. For if one works, one finally relaxes and stops thinking. True creation occurs then and only then.

Zen in the Art of Writing, a motivating jolt of energy for our creative lives, remains a treasure trove from cover to cover. Complement with Dorothea Brande on becoming a writer.

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