10 Books Project: Thoughts on Zen in the Art of Writing

Image by Gerhard Bögner from Pixabay

So if I’m being honest, I had never heard of Zen in the Art of Writing or any of the essays in it before encountering it on the list I’m using for my project. It wasn’t the only book on the list I wasn’t familiar with but it was the only one by Ray freakin’ Bradbury.

I tend to think of Ray Bradbury’s work as Required Reading, like the kind of thing that’s liable to show up on a high school summer reading list or maybe a college course syllabus. Which is ironic, considering how in at least one of the essays here Bradbury goes on and on about how teachers and librarians don’t appreciate the value of genre fiction like the stuff he writes.

So. Hmm.

Anyway, in reading this book, I had a couple of takeaways, some of which are related to my research project and some aren’t.

Gusto and zest but grammar and mechanics still come first

What charmed me about this book was the almost childlike glee with which Bradbury talks about the act of writing. There’s not a lot here in the way of practical advice but you can tell this is a guy who loved what he did. In particular, he talks about the importance of writing with gusto and zest.

But he also cautions: “all of this is primarily directed to the writer who has already learned his trade, has put into himself enough grammatical tools and literary knowledge.”

It surprises me how often learning grammar and mechanics is placed first and foremost in discussions of what you need to learn in order to write. Stephen King talks about a writer’s toolbox, which is mostly grammar and mechanics. In Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, whole chapters are devoted to the subject. And then, of course, there’s The Elements of Style.

On the one hand…yeah, obviously you need to know how to construct a sentence correctly or at least well enough that your meaning doesn’t get lost. On the other, it just seems so fussy to me.

Maybe it’s just that I’m the kid who, when it comes to grammar and mechanics, tends to play by ear. I have no idea why the comma goes where it goes, I just know that it goes there. Probably.  Maybe.  If I had had to learn how to diagram a sentence properly before anybody would let me write a story…I probably never would have written any stories. Which may be no great loss to anyone but myself, but still.

Writing is male

Okay, look. I know that in the various times Bradbury was writing these essays, it was the normal and accepted thing to use “he” as the generic term for a person. It doesn’t usually bother me when I see this in texts that are considered “of their time” and there are a few places where Bradbury does refer to, for example, “lads and lasses” who want to be published in magazines.

But Bradbury refers to the writer as “he” so often that it does start to feel like he’s making an assumption, especially when other generic people he mentions (the Muse, the librarian, the teacher) are referred to pretty deliberately as “she.” As a woman reading the book, I wasn’t offended, exactly, but I did feel a bit…excluded.

I mean, even E.B. White edited later editions of The Elements of Style to be more balanced in terms of gender and that was originally written way before any of Bradbury’s essays.

Not a lot on research, but librarians get a starring role

The closest Bradbury comes to talking about research is when he mentions revisiting some of the real life places from his childhood that inspired some of his stories, which feeds into the trope of writers mining their own life experiences for inspiration. He refers to this as “looking in for ideas rather than looking out.”

Still, he probably talks more about libraries and librarians than any other writer on the list. Which is to say, he mostly seems to love libraries for giving him access to the work of writers he later wrote about himself. Also for their relative quiet, I guess. Interesting to note: according to Wikipedia, Bradbury willed his personal library to the public library “where he had many of his formative reading experiences.”

One essay in particular talks about how teachers and librarians didn’t find value in science fiction and fantasy until they learned about it from the children they work with. Which…I guess is fair? From a post-Harry Potter standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that there was in fact a time when librarians heavily favored classic literature and looked down their noses at the type of writing Bradbury did. Historically, though, librarians have struggled with the question of whether libraries should be about Important Books only or if popular works should be part of the collection, too. That’s pretty much what Bradbury is commenting on here.

These days, librarians would probably put every book on their shelf if they could, but there’s no room or money for that. So they only purchase what people are most likely to check out because circulation numbers are one of the main metrics libraries use when they’re made to justify their own existence. That’s the big irony here. Before, libraries weren’t likely to have Bradbury’s work on their shelf because it was considered genre fiction rather than classic literature. Now a lot of them probably don’t have it because it’s considered classic literature rather than popular fiction or a current bestseller. Although it still shows up on a lot of summer reading lists, so it’s more likely a library will carry it than, say, Les Miserables.

A writer’s life

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about his writing routine at the time the book was written. In my post on that book, I complained a little bit about how the writing routine he describes is one of someone who is successful enough and has the means to write full time. Why don’t any writers ever talk about what their writing routine looked like back when they probably had to fit their writing into the cracks of their day, between shifts at work and family responsibilities?

I had some hope that Bradbury might give some insight, albeit insight from a 1940s perspective, before his own success. But it turns out he decided to go the starving artist route. He devoted himself to writing and if he didn’t make money off of his writing, then he didn’t make money.

I have to wonder how his wife felt about that.

He mentions her a couple of times but never gives much insight into the sacrifices she might have had to make in order for him to pursue writing. I feel like that wouldn’t fly today. Even Stephen King, writing from the perspective of the late 1990s or early 2000s, stops long enough to appreciate his wife for making it possible for him to write Carrie in the 1970s.

Still, Bradbury wasn’t a starving artist for long. He makes a pretty big deal about how quickly he became successful. Also, his wife must not have minded any hardships from those early years too much. According to Wikipedia, they were married 56 years before she passed away in 2003.

The least textbook-like writing book

Of the 10 books on the list, Zen in the Art of Writing is probably the least like a textbook. There’s not a lot here in terms of writing advice that’s concrete, that can be applied to the writing process in any practical way. If this book gets assigned as a text in writing classes, I’d be interested in knowing more about what role it plays in the overall course given the lack of more practical advice. That said, it’s overall a generally sweet book with its romantic notions of the writing life from one of the more legendary writers of our time, so I’m glad I had an excuse to learn about it and take a look.


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