Writing like Ray Bradbury
“When I started writing seriously, I made the major discovery of my life—that I am right and everybody else is wrong if they disagree with me. What a great thing to learn: Don’t listen to anyone else, and always go your own way.” -Ray Bradbury
I recently visited my friend’s apartment in NYC and stumbled across his floor covered wall to wall in index cards. We all have a novel kicking around in our head. His just happened to be outlined on the floor. Blue and green for major characters, pink for flashpoints in the plot.
“Here is where the novel will end, with the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said, proudly pointing to the bubblegum pink notecard by his radiator.
It made me feel sheepish. Had I been lackadaisical about my own writing process this entire time?
Later that evening, I holed up in a cafe and found myself returning to the timeless advice I’ve collected over the years from one of my favorite writers, Ray Bradbury. Sharing some wisdom from a master of the craft in the hopes it might inspire your own quarantined writing frenzy:
Follow a reading program
What you’ve got to do from this night forward is stuff your head with more different things from various fields. I’ll give you a program to follow every night, a very simple program. For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That’ll take you ten minutes, 15 minutes. Then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry. Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap. It’s not poetry! Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost. One poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights. From various fields: archaeology, zoology, biology, all the great philosophers of time, comparing them. Read the essays of Aldous Huxley, read Lauren Eisley, Read essays in every field. On politics, analyzing literature, pick your own.
Read as many short stories from the turn of the century as you can, but stay away from most modern anthologies of short stories, because they’re slices of life. They don’t go anywhere, they don’t have any metaphor. Have you looked at The New Yorker recently, have you tried to read one of those stories? Didn’t it put you to sleep immediately? They don’t know how to write short stories.
But that means that every night then, before you go to bed, you’re stuffing your head with one poem, one short story, one essay—at the end of a thousand nights, Jesus, you’ll be full of stuff, won’t you?
Quantity creates quality
The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.
A novel has all kinds of pitfalls because it takes longer and you are around people, and if you’re not careful, you will talk about it. The novel is also hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay sharp for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it. Let them be magnetized to it, drawn to it, and then cling to it.
Whatever it is—whatever it is, do it! Sure there are going to be mistakes. Everything’s not going to be perfect. I’ve written thousands of words that no one will ever see. I had to write them in order to get rid of them. But then I’ve written a lot of other stuff too. So the good stuff stays, and the old stuff goes.
The intellect is a great danger to creativity because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things instead of staying with your own basic truth—who you are, what you are, what you want to be. You must never think at the keyboard—you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.
Learn from the lizards.
Run fast, stand still. What can we writers learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth.
What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it? Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, aren’t you? You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying, ‘I don’t like you anymore.’ You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for. If you have writers’ block, you can cure it this evening by stopping what you’re doing and writing something else. You picked the wrong subject.
The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. Write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.
Most short stories are too long. It’s important to get out of your own way. Clean the kindling away, the rubbish. Make it clear.
Practice word association.
Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer.
It was only when I began to discover the treats and tricks that came with word association that I began to find some true way through the minefields of imitation. I finally figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up, as it were, by your own delights and despairs.
Whatever you do, don’t write towards a moral.
Trying to write a cautionary story is fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you’re doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, you can see yourself out.
Write for yourself and no one else.
You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them.
Fall in love and stay in love. Do what you love, don’t do anything else. Write because you love to do something. If you write for money, you won’t write anything worth reading. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun at it. Ignore the authors who say, “Oh my god, what work!” No, to hell with that. It is not work when you love it.