Annotation: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing is not precisely a book about writing. Rather, it is a book about being passionate about what you do. While there are tips and tricks to writing and writing well, it is rather superfluous to the overall value of the book. In my eyes, where the book is most valuable is in encouraging you to be passionate. We have emotions, and yet so much of our academic lives are spent subjugating those emotions in a misguided attempt at objectivity. It is like a breath of fresh air to not only be told it’s okay to get angry or excited, but to be encouraged to do so.

The book is broken up into several essays, written over several years for various other reasons, collected into one book. As such, there is a bit of repetition in his subject matter (he comments on several of his stories several times through several different essays, often saying almost exactly the same thing), which can largely be forgiven. It really only irks when the points of repetition essentially boil down to some personal horn tooting on the case of the author (which kind of jives with what I’ve heard about Ray, namely that he is a very nice person but not all that modest about his talents). None of the repetition really harms the core of any of the essays, so no harm done, I suppose.

I thought about responding to each of the essays, but decided it would be more fun and rewarding to point out the parts that really struck me. In the essay “On the Shoulders of Giants”, Bradbury talks about the Science Fiction Explosion:

[…]and placed a gentle bomb on teacher’s desk. Instead of an apple it was Asimov.
“What’s that?” the teacher asked, suspiciously.
“Try it. It’s good for you,” said the students.
“No thanks.”
“Try it,” said the students. “Read the first page. If you don’t like it, stop.” And the clever students turned and went away.
The teachers (and the librarians, later) put off reading, kept the book around the house for a few weeks and then, late one night, tried the first paragraph.
And the bomb exploded.
They not only read the first but the second paragraph, the second and third pages, the fourth and fifth chapters.
“My God!” they cried, almost in unison, “these damned books are about something!”
“Good Lord!” they cried, reading a second book, “there are Ideas here!”
“Holy Smoke!” they babbled, on their way through Clarke, heading into Heinlein, emerging from Sturgeon, “these books are — ugly word — relevant!”
“Yes!” shouted the chorus of kids starving in the yard. “Oh my, yes!”
And the teachers began to teach, and discovered an amazing thing:
Students who had never wanted to read before suddenly were galvanized, pulled up their socks, and began to read and quote Ursula LeGuin. Kids who had never read so much as one pirate’s obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more. (Bradbury 102-103)

This piece right here is precisely what I’m talking about when I say that Bradbury’s writing is passionate and bordering poetic. It also strikes a very strong chord with me, on many levels. For one thing, I was one of those kids growing up, but in a later wave with a different fight on their hands. I had the side of the teachers now, and instead I was up against the other students, trying to convince them to just try it, and if they didn’t like it, they could throw the book in my face. I can count the number who actually took me up on my suggestions on one hand. A different but related chord is that the essay explains and encapsulates my feelings about science fiction so well. Science Fiction in so many ways should have stuck with an earlier moniker: Speculative Fiction. The genre is filled with ideas and notions and questions and ideals, some of which become reality, but that’s really superfluous to the nature of the genre. It’s the IDEAS that are important. And, for me at least, it is the challenge of Humanity.

The next most striking and invaluable essay for me was the title essay: “Zen in the Art of Writing”. It is one of his more straightforward essays, dealing with a (somewhat) more technical part of writing, namely how to do it. The entire essay can be summed up in one line: “WORK – RELAXATION – DON’T THINK – FURTHER RELAXATION” (Bradbury 144). The rest of the essay just explains that statement. What it comes down to is this: writing is WORK, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is craft in addition to art, and that is the structure of writing, and the act of writing itself. That said, if you are stressed out, your work will be stressed as well — it will not flow, and it will not be nearly as honest as you likely want. Likewise, if you let yourself think about what you are writing, you censor yourself: get it OUT THERE, you can always censor it later — chances are, once it’s out, you’ll be glad it is, no matter what your censor tells you when you’re writing it. Which brings us back to relaxation: ideas are from a deep part of your mind, and it takes being relaxed and receptive to get them to the surface. It’s where the “Zen” in the title becomes slightly less of just a turn of phrase. A major principle of Zen is an acceptance and receptiveness to one’s surroundings. Writing is very Zen.

The third and final essay I’m going to write about is “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”. There is always talk about a “writer’s muse”, talk that never seems to get anywhere, mostly involving some people arguing against any outside source, and others citing divine inspiration. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. Bradbury seems more in the camp of citing the Muse as our subconscious. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the essay is very valid regardless of which “camp” you belong to. It is worth noting that in either camp, there is the agreement that a muse must be fed. It needs experiences to grow from and work with, and life is its food of choice. It must also have an outlet, however: whether the work is good or not or feels particularly inspired or not, you need to write to keep a muse. Or paint, or sculpt, or any other creative medium — take your pick, the fact remains the same: if you are not willing to let the muse speak through you, then the muse will stop trying to. Of this I am absolutely certain, speaking from first-hand experience. You don’t even realize how important the interplay between yourself and your muse IS until it’s gone, whether through abuse, or neglect.

Zen in the Art of Writing is definitely worth reading. I would recommend happily (and have) to anyone willing to spend the few hours necessary to read it (it is not precisely long, weighing in at 176 pages in trade paperback size… I read it in less than a day). Those looking for a how-to book on writing should look elsewhere… and then come back when their priorities are in order. After all, what is the point in knowing how to write if you have nothing to say?

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.