I don’t read many books about writing (the Craft is better learned by Doing than by Studying), but I recently read two such texts. I was hoping for a bit of a jump-start with my own writing, which has tailed off as the school year dominates my life.
The first book was a collection by Ray Bradbury titled Zen in the Art of Writing. The book is not one cohesive essay, but rather a series of essays he wrote about creativity throughout his career. Some focused on particular projects (“Investing Dimes” is about the composition of Fahrenheit 451, “Just This Side of Byzantium” is about Dandelion Wine), while others explore his more general ideas about where creativity comes from, and about his writing process. The playfulness and nostalgia that is evident in his fiction also comes through in his nonfiction; one can almost see him grinning and hopping from one foot to the other as he composes. He engages in some “woo-woo” writing mysticism. The idea of the writer as a magician who can create amazing Somethings out of Nothing is a common one. Readers believe it because writing fiction seems like a confounding art: “How did he even THINK of that, much less write it?” Writers believe it because we like to think we’re tapping into something pretty special and unique when we compose.
My only real objection to Bradbury’s collection is the title. As a student of Zen, I find myself annoyed by pop culture’s appropriation of it to mean “anything mystical or illogical.” While there are some concepts in the essays that conincide with Zen principles (one must let go of Art in order to capture it), for the most part, Zen has nothing to do with the content. “On Creativity” or simply “The Art of Writing” would have been more appropriate, but tacking “Zen” on something can boost sales, right? The title actually comes from the final essay, in which Bradbury explains how writing can be an expression of Zen principles. A little closer, but in the essay he offhandedly confesses that at the time he wrote the essay, he had learned about Zen two or three weeks previous. So essentially, he says, “I’ve spent a lifetime writing, and I just learned this other thing that’s sort of like it, so now I’ll write on it as though I am some sort of expert.”
Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the few books I have read several times. It is the book that first pushed me from “I like to write” to “I want to be a professional writer.” The first part is an autobiographical sketch that highlights aspects of his life that led him to writing. The second part contains his thoughts– all very practical and applicable, and invaluable for a new writer– about the craft. And the third part was written after his horrific accident in 1999, when he was nearly killed by an out-of-control van. The book affirms the power of writing to make life worth living, but he never claims it to be mystical or magical.
In fact, he doesn’t dramatize writing at all. King’s attitude is very workmanlike– he says writing is not much different than laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. This aspect of his attitude has always appealed to me. A writer (unless he or she is one of the few, freakish geniuses out there) isn’t born a brilliant wordsmith. A writer works, and works, and works. As a writer whose work ethic is greater than his inborn talent, I take this to heart. A writer gets better by writing, and writing a lot.
So while Bradbury and King come to their treatises with much different views, they actually unite on one single, all-important point. To be a good writer, one must write. King emphasizes this point while Bradbury tends to bury the fact that he wrote 1000 words a day for twenty years when he was starting out. But reading these books back to back did the trick– I’m squeezing in minutes of writing time now, even if don’t think I can afford to. On notepads at home, sitting on the train to work, getting up at an even more inhuman hour of the morning, whatever it takes. I will do what I must to serve the Craft.