Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Review: Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of WritingZen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One-quarter interesting anecdote.

One-quarter self-indulgence.

One-half helter-skelter explanation of how a writer could work.

Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing fails miserably if you are a writer or a teacher looking for professional guidance, a few pointers, an exercise to hone your skills, or feelings of simpatico. A collection of essays, each uses one of Bradbury's flagship stories as the backdrop of what should be a useful central message.

Ok, it is interesting that for a stretch he pumped dimes into typewriters at the public library just so he could find a quiet place to write.

It is interesting to read his explanation of how to "feed and keep a muse" as he puts it.

Also interesting that he found a good way for him to work so that he could unlock the subconscious: he created lists of nouns, anything which came to his head, and began writing. He did this everyday. The nouns at times emerged from the deep recesses of his brain tissue, experienced long ago in adolescence and buried for centuries. He didn't know how they would work or what they would inspire, but each day became a journey of nouns which led him into stories.

An example is his short story The Veldt. He imagined a time when we could travel anyplace in the world by dialing it up on monitors (Internet?) and entire rooms in our houses would be devoted to this. All of the walls would be screens from ceiling to floors, perhaps 3-D, perhaps holographic imagery. Then one day the technology goes too brings realism to the floor...we can feel the heat of Egypt...and we can smell the marjoram and hibiscus...and then the technology malfunctions. A dead carcass appears on the floor. Dad walks into the "TV room" to tinker with the technology just as a lion leaps from the walls and gnaws dad to shreds--as his two children watch while sipping tea.

Reading this collection of essays just reinforces the fact that the man is a master of the craft. Reading it was indeed entertaining and fascinating, because I have always been a fan of Bradbury. Reading this book made me want to go back read his novels and short stories again, so I suppose his publisher enjoys Zen in the Art of Writing because it is an effective commercial for his fiction.

His advice can be boiled down to the following basic points: Read everything you can, especially poetry; Don't give a rip about critics; Live a good life; Write everyday; Listen; Be open to your subconscious; Don't write for money. I understand--they are all salient ideas--but he spent so much time explaining how one of his stories serves as a good example of one of these topics that he never really offers much which is unique. The book strikes me as something more useful to a Bradbury fan and not as much for a student, teacher, writer...

I'll draw a parallel. Sometimes great coaches of kids (or great teachers) do not make great coaches/teachers of colleagues. Sometimes someone with a gift can't really explain how they do it beyond the basic bricks which can be found in dozens of other sources. You turn to a legend and you don't always receive the Rosetta Stone as a souvenir. As a football coach I stumble across coaches who function similarly in clinics. College and high school coaches from across the nation gather in hundreds of venues in the off-season to share ideas, teach, and demonstrate how they accomplish certain objectives. Some are great clinic speakers and leave you with tangible things to bring back to your own kids to show them and practice and use. Not every kid is a Division I athlete and learning how to make a very average football player better is the art of the coach. Others, too many, stand in front of the room and tell us that an idea exists, draws some squiggly lines on an overhead, show a quick video or two of world-class athletes executing IT perfectly in action, and then the crowd is thanked for paying attention. So often coaches leave those sessions in particular scratching their heads and asking, "How do I teach my kids do that??? or even "How do I teach myself that!"

I feel this way about Zen in the Art of Writing. Save the $7.99 in the United States and the $8.99 in Canada and spend it on a collection of Bradbury short stories instead. You'll learn more from the master...THAT is his classroom...and you'll enjoy it.

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