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.