I recently came across this article, which seems to have been one of many I found when researching the life and works of sci-fi great Ray Bradbury. The source is Open Culture, an online magazine dealing with cultural and educational media. And like many other publications, they chose to honor the passing of Bradbury by publishing a series of articles which dealt with the man’s monumental influence on science fiction and writing in general.
This particular one deals with his 2001 keynote address at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea, where he treated audiences to the benefit of his accumulated wisdom by boiling it down into 12 tips. As a newbie writer, I can tell you that many of these spoke to me as if they were written with me in mind! That’s the true mark of a great and relatable writer though, isn’t it? Their words somehow seem to transcend the page and all distance between you and get you right at your core.
And even if you’re not an aspiring writer, or an established one, I recommend reading through this list and digesting some of these nuggets. Their value goes beyond mere writing, I tells ya! But don’t take my word for it, read them yourself:
- Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. He waited until the age of 30 to write his first novel, Fahrenheit 451. “Worth waiting for, huh?”
- You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to imitate your favorite writers, just as he imitated H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.
- Examine “quality” short stories. He suggests Roald Dahl, Guy de Maupassant, and the lesser-known Nigel Kneale and John Collier. Anything in the New Yorker today doesn’t make his cut, since he finds that their stories have “no metaphor.”
- Stuff your head. To accumulate the intellectual building blocks of these metaphors, he suggests a course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archaeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”
- Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you. Do they make fun of your writerly ambitions? He suggests calling them up to “fire them” without delay.
- Live in the library. Don’t live in your “goddamn computers.” He may not have gone to college, but his insatiable reading habits allowed him to “graduate from the library” at age 28.
- Fall in love with movies. Preferably old ones.
- Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.
- Don’t plan on making money. He and his wife, who “took a vow of poverty” to marry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still never got around to picking up a license).
- List ten things you love, and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later — also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.
- Just type any old thing that comes into your head. He recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”
- Remember, with writing, what you’re looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, “I love you for what you do.” Or, failing that, you’re looking for someone to come up and tell you, “You’re not nuts like people say.”
Rules one and two are especially important to me right now. I began trying to write novels and found the process overwhelming. Today, full-length novels constitute the majority of my unfinished works, cluttering up my inbox folder and making me feel like I’m a slow writer. Bah! Who needs that? Rule two is like gospel; though you may have writer’s you wish to emulate, do not try to be better than them. It will only lead to unfair comparisons and rob your work of originality. It put’s me in mind of what the poet Basho Mastsuo said: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the masters, but seek what they sought”. That’s right, I read a poem, try not to faint!
The rest all blend together for me in that they all ring true. If they could be boiled down into one simple rule, I’d say it would be “do what you love, and screw the rest!” Best advice I ever got, from J.M. Straczynski of all people (creator of Babylon 5). As long as you’re doing that, you can do no wrong, and your natural passion and dedication will yield results, sooner or later. And if it doesn’t, who cares? For in the end, its about you and not what others think, right? Thought money, fame and recognition are kind of sweet…
Until next time, RIP Mr. Bradbury and here’s hoping myself and my colleagues can acheive a small iota of the respect and recognition you did in your lifetime. I promise that we will stick to short stories for the time being, and that we won’t try to beat you, even if we do try to emulate you 😉