Ray Bradbury on Writing Your Obsessions

“Yell. Jump. Play. Out-run those sons-of-bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it.” – from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Essay on Creativity

I recently left my job to write full-time. I’m now in the beginning stages of writing a novel, and said novel is going to be weird as hell. Some people probably won’t take it seriously even if it gets published, and I’m trying to be okay with that. Recently, I’ve been focusing on reading and listening to authors who write weird shit because it makes them happy, or at least less miserable. Joey Comeau, Carmen Maria Machado, Rios de la Luz, and others write genre fiction that is beautiful, funny, strange, moving. They give me permission to do the same.

When I’m developing writing ideas, I try to focus on my obsessions–the images and ideas I can’t get out of my mind, things that are incontrovertibly a part of who I am, even if they don’t really make sense or even seem very respectable as writing ideas. Some of them are small, some big. Some of them are silly, some serious. But they’re mine, and I would be remiss not to write from them and to them and through them.

Recently, I’ve read two writing books that have backed me up on this, and elevated this process from permitted to mandated. Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 2016) and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity (Joshua Odell Editions, 1994) both offer reflections on the experience of writing fiction in genres that have often not been taken as seriously as strict “literary” fiction has. I grew up on Bradbury; I’ve never read a word of Percy’s fiction. Both writers offer plenty of useful advice (with Percy’s book skewing more toward practical craft advice and Bradbury’s more toward encouragement), and both have the same thing to say about those who won’t take your writing seriously if it’s genre fiction: screw those losers.

“I did rise and run. I learned that I was right and everyone else was wrong when I was nine. Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.

For, you see, it is all mulch. If I hadn’t stuffed my eyes and stuffed my head with all of the above for a lifetime, when it came round to word-associating myself into story ideas, I would have brought up a ton of ciphers and a half-ton of zeros.” – Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing

On the subject of writing what you like, and according to what obsesses and bothers and fascinates you, the science fiction great has this to say:

“If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avent-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.

“Irritations and angers aside, what about loves? What do you love most in the world? The big and little things, I mean. A trolley car, a pair of tennis shoes? These, at one time when we were children, were invested with magic for us. During the past year I’ve published one story about a boy’s last ride in a trolley that smells of all the thunderstorms in time, full of cool-green moss-velvet seats and blue electricity, but doomed to be replaced by the more prosaic, more practical-smelling bus. Another story concerned a boy who wanted to own a pair of new tennis shoes for the power they gave him to leap rivers and houses and streets, and even bushes, sidewalks, and dogs. The shoes were to him, the surge of antelope and gazelle on African summer veldt. The energy of unleashed rivers and summer storms lay in the shoes; he had to have them more than anything else in the world.

So, simply then, here is my formula.

What do you want more than anything else in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate?”

This is advice every single writer–especially the fiction writer–needs to hear. Figure out what you love and what you hate. Make lists. Makes lists of images that obsess you, interests you can’t shake even if they don’t make sense, irrational fears, anything that sticks in your mind. And then write from those images and ideas. Give yourself permission.

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