Advice from a Master of Fantastic Tales

Ray Bradbury was a prolific writer—of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, essays, and poetry. As one title in this collection of essays asserts, “Doing is being,” you are what you do. What Bradbury did was write—at least 1000 words every morning throughout his life. As he describes it, this wasn’t work so much as play. He loved writing; it was his favorite thing to do and by his own definition of being, he was a writer first and last.

More celebrations of writing, and exhortations to write than instructions in the art, these essays do describe how Bradbury wrote and do offer some advice to would be writers. His writing process was essentially — discovery. He sat down at his typewriter—his frequent allusions to that wonderful word machine make me wish I still had one—to see what was on his mind in that moment, and started putting words on paper in a process of free association. Words led to other words and phrases and out of that stream of consciousness settings and characters emerged and the characters led him into their stories. He acted as medium or channel, not editing, not worrying about typos, spelling, or grammar, like a hound finding the scent of a story and pursuing wherever it led. Craft—editing, polishing, structuring—all happened over as many subsequent drafts as needed to finish the work. In his early career, he saw the editorial drafts as drudge work. In later years, as he mastered word and story crafts, he took more pleasure in that work.

What tips and advice does he offer, other write every day? Here, in no particular order, are the notions and ideas I took away from this first reading (I expect to reread it for inspiration any number of times):

Live in your body and pay attention. The myriad mundane details of life are a sea of sensory information. Attend to the people you see every day and the strangers you encounter. They are all characters in countless stories. Study your surroundings. They are all settings in which stories can and do play out. Observe. Render your observations as words.

Note fleeting ideas–words, phrases, and seeds of story. Keep a list and revisit it from time to time to see what might have sprouted over time. 

Feed and heed your Muse. A child of the twentieth century, Bradbury locates and identifies that source of ideas and inspiration in his creative unconscious mind. Feed it generously with books, films, series, music, art, and experience. It’s all grist for your unconscious creativity and may surface in surprising combinations as free associations that drive your conscious creativity. I would add–be mindful what you ingest As we are what we eat, for good or ill, we are also, what we read, and watch, and hear. Let your input be appropriate to your desired output. When your Muse does whisper in your inner ear, pay heed. Honor your Muse by paying attention. Write those whispers, however fragmented, and make them your secret sacred sutras to be pondered for direction and inspiration. 

Mine your personal story. Bradbury says that most of the characters in his many stories were drawn from the family, neighbors, and townspeople of his midwestern youth. They not only populated his idyllic “Greentown” novels (Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer) but also the colonists and Martian ghosts of his Martian Chronicles. We are all stories that too often we feel are too dull and prosaic to be worthy of literature or escapist fiction. Bradbury’s writing shows how the glorious can be mined from the ordinary and the oft repeated advice to “write what you know” doesn’t preclude using what you know best—your own story—as the basis for literature, even fantasy and science fiction. Bradbury lived in Ireland for six months while writing the screenplay for John Houston’s MOBY DICK. He found scant enjoyment and inspiration, so he thought, in the experience. Over subsequent years, Irish characters and settings emerged in his associative writing process that flowered as short stories and plays.

When writing stops being fun, step away from it. Give it a rest. Don’t struggle. Leave it to your Muse and play at (maybe write) something else.

Write for pleasure and the simple joy of writing. Write what you want to read. Don’t try to be literary; simply write as well as you can. Don’t write for the market, for money or fame. Write for the joy of writing. 

There’s more gold in these essays than I have recalled, and I may have contaminated some of Bradbury’s gold nuggets with my own rumination. I’ve ingested his words, fed them to the Muse and look forward to further amusement as they ferment and sprout in whispers that will drive my own play. 

The Starless Sea

Erin Morgenstern crafts a story-labyrinth

What’s your story, the one you live by, the one you are living—the one you tell yourself to live? We are all stories and we live to consume stories from and about others. Sometimes, we write and read a story about story and story telling. It’s a venerable genre and a difficult one to try, as writer or reader, requiring a sensitive touch lest it cease to be fiction and veer toward something drier, airier, pedantic. “The Starless Sea” is a story about story and story telling—a very ambitious and very complex story with other stories nested within it on multiple levels, almost like a video game.

Video games are another form of story telling. Games outsell books (and movies) worldwide. More people play stories than read them.

Erin Morgenstern has said that she immersed herself in video games while writing her books, especially this one, and it shows heavily, some say too heavily, in the book’s complex structure, which intertwines several non-linear plot lines through which characters wander in loops—lost in time and place, confused, and frustrated (as are some readers). 

All storytelling is (or can be) immersive. Narrative stories tend to be linear, sometime multi-linear. By words (or images) alone, they immerse the audience (reader) in an interior imaginative experience. The narrative storyteller controls the story line, leading the audience (reader) through the story along a singular path to a single end. Greater complexity places greater demands on the memory and imagination of the audience.

A game is a story structured for active participation by the audience (player) who enters into the story and directs branching story lines by taking actions and making decisions. Games immerse the reader in an exterior spectacle and sound. Digital art informs the player’s experience of story in a game. In a game structure, the storyteller sets the stage and characters, and plots multiple paths (story lines) for the audience (player) to follow to one or more endings. Each player directs and affects the storyline, climax, and resolution by choosing alternatives. Games are non-linear by design. Games, especially computer-based video and VR games can be complex because the game manages the complexity for the player.

In “The Starless Sea”, Ms. Morgenstern attempts to render the exterior complexity of a video game within the interior imaginative experience of the reader. In lieu of digital sights and sounds, she deploys dazzling descriptions, creating images and situations that can induce the waking dream state sought in all storytelling. The game space includes our “real” world but plays out mostly in an immense, seemingly infinite “underground” world devoted to stories and books rendered in myriad scribed media, housed in libraries of every kind, all surrounded by a mysterious starless sea. Time and space are mutable. The burden of managing that complexity falls heavily on the reader. For some readers, including me, that is a delight. Others may think she would have served this story better by designing and building it as an actual game.

“The Starless Sea” IS a game wherein the player (the reader) must solve the mystery of what’s going on in all these stories. What’s the back-story? Who are these characters and how do their stories relate? What is the meaning of the symbols–crown, key, sword, and bee—that figure so prominently? What about the cats and owls? Who or what is the Owl King? Some of those answers are provided and some not so clearly. You may need to read the book more than once to figure it out and I suspect, like a game, it has as many explanations as readers.

Most ambitiously, the story addresses the capital-M Mystery of story itself. What is it? How does it shape its audience? How does it shape the “real” world? The book is layered with nested manifold metaphors and similes that amuse, bemuse, beguile, and maybe irritate the reader at every turn of phrase, page, and plot.

Stories come to life in the telling—quicken within us or do not. We are drawn to follow the tale—spell bound, enchanted, entertained—or not. “The Starless Sea” did cast a spell upon me, did enchant and entertain and I was reluctant to see it go. I can no more provide a precise recap of its story and stories than I can for a dream. I expect / want to dream it again.