Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Now and Zen

Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing is a jolt of energy straight from Mr. Electro himself. “You must stay drunk on writing so reality can’t destroy you,” Ray writes at one point, capturing in a memorable sentence the intensity of our craft. The entire book is hyperbolic and charged with such statements. Ray’s like a kid talking to us with his mouth full of pop rocks and fizzing soda and when you skim away the froth there’s plenty here to sustain any writer.

I met Bradbury about seven years ago at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where he was signing his newly re-released copy of Farenheit 451. Attending an MFA program was a distant dream then, much less one day writing a novel. I was teaching middle school and lugging around a backpack full of poems, hoping to be discovered. White-haired and Buddha-chinned, Ray was kind to me. I didn’t show him any of my poems, but I did ask him about dealing with rejection. (I was still a few months away from my first acceptance.) Ray could have dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I’m sure, by that point in his career, he’d been approached by thousands of would-be writers, but his response was measured and patient. I left his presence inspired to go on and that’s ultimately the effect I think this hyper little book will have on readers.

Like many others, Ray advocates writing every day, or “[t]aking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive till sunset.” Sometimes the book seems to oversimplify the process. “Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Then shoot him off.” Is it really that easy? With all of our terminology we do have a way of complicating the process of structuring a narrative work.

“In quickness is truth,” Ray says, suggesting the lizard as the totem animal for writers. Ray makes lists, big, brimming lists and from out of these free associations grow his greatest works. Can you recognize this novel from the list that follows? THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON. “And the stories,” Ray writes, describing these lists “began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists…”

He’s also getting somewhere important when he notes “that is the personal observation, the odd fancy, the strange conceit that pays off.” Ray advocates reading poetry everyday, noting that even if we don’t understand the words, the sense of them burrows into our brains.

“The most improbable tale,” he writes, “can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands in the middle of events.” There are echoes of Flannery O’Connor here. Like Stephen King, Ray also pushes toward our fascinations, our deepest loves. “I was in love then, with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and, at last, the red planet, Mars.”

To reveal more would siphon away the kinetic energy of this book. Zen is a collection of essays about his work and writers and fans of Ray can both benefit. If you need a jolt, pick it up and you won’t be disappointed.

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