Zen in the Art of Writing – according to Ray Bradbury


In this great essay, Ray Bradbury gives us four words of advice that are essential for writing, or any kind of creativity:




‘Work’ is self-explanatory. ‘Relaxation’ means getting into the Zone and letting the writing write itself. And ‘Don’t Think!’ means not second guessing yourself or interrupting the flow of Relaxation. There’s more to be said about this, so I’ll let Ray Bradbury explain in his own words, excerpted from Zen in the Art of Writing:

“By work, by quantitative experience, man releases himself from obligation to anything but the task at hand… The writer must let his fingers run out the story of his characters, who, being only human and full of strange dreams and obsessions, are only too glad to run.

Work then, hard work, prepares the way for the first stages of relaxation, when one begins to approach what Orwell might call Not Think! As in learning to typewrite, a day comes when the single letters a-s-d-f and j-k-l-; give way to a flow of words.

So we should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process. …”

“But work, without right thinking, is almost useless. I repeat myself, but, the writer who wants to tap the larger truth in himself must reject the temptations of Joyce or Camus or Tennessee Williams, as exhibited in the literary reviews. He must forget the money waiting for him in mass-circulation. He must ask himself, ‘What do I really think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate?’ and begin to pour this on paper.

Then, through the emotions, working steadily, over a long period of time, his writing will clarify; he will relax because he thinks right and he will think even righter because he relaxes. The two will become interchangeable. At last he will begin to see himself. At night, the very phosphorescence of his insides will throw shadows long on the wall. At last the surge, the agreeable blending of work, not thinking and relaxation will be like the blood in one’s body, flowing because it has to flow, moving because it must move, from the heart.

What are we trying to uncover in this flow? The one person irreplaceable to the world, of which there is no duplicate. You. …”

“It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by money in the commercial market. It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes. …”

“Now, I would like to believe that everyone reading this article is not interested in those two forms of lying. Each of you, curious about creativity, wants to make contact with that thing in yourself that is truly original. You want fame and fortune, yes, but only as rewards for work well and truly done. Notoriety and a fat bank balance must come after everything else is finished and done. That means that they cannot even be considered while you are at the typewriter. The man who considers them lies one of the two ways, to please a tiny audience that can only beat an Idea insensible and then to death, or a large audience that wouldn’t know an Idea if it came up and bit them.

We hear a lot about slanting for the commercial market, but not enough about slanting for the literary cliques. Both approaches, in the final analysis, are unhappy ways for a writer to live in this world. …”

“What is the greatest reward a writer can have? Isn’t it that day when someone rushes up to you, his face bursting with honesty, his eyes afire with admiration and cries, ‘That new story of yours was fine, really wonderful!’

Then and only then is writing worthwhile. …”

“The time will come when your characters will write your stories for you, when your emotions, free of literary cant and commercial bias, will blast the page and tell the truth.

Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.

So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart, do.

Contemplate not your navel then, but your subconscious with what Wordsworth called ‘a wise passiveness.’ You need to go to Zen for the answer to your problems. Zen, like all philosophies, followed but in the tracks of men who learned from instinct what was good for them. Every wood-turner, every sculptor worth his marble, every ballerina, practices what Zen preaches without having heard the word in all their lives. …”

“Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for fifty years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is LOVE.”

Image: Photo by Alan Light

14 thoughts on “Zen in the Art of Writing – according to Ray Bradbury

  1. I dig that bit about writing till your insides glow and throw long shadows on the wall. That’s stunning. Thank you kindly for this very useful inspiration. BTW. I put a little something together on the Yonaguni site recently. I’d love for you to take a look. If you could give it a reblog too, that would be much appreciated. I’m keen to keep this issue alive.https://sharmarama.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/underwater-city-at-yonaguni-japan-the-search-continues/


      1. Much appreciated. I’ve only had a chance to read one of his short stories and it was awesome. I loved it. He wrote a couple of screenplays too didn’t he?


  2. I love the comments about plot – “let your characters….do.”

    You might be surprised how similar the process is for music. I started composing music for our “teaching” videos – 4 to 7 minute videos about the brain (not yet up on our website) last February. I think it took me at least 4 months of “work” (and relaxation, and especially, not thinking) to let the notes (the “characters’) do – or better, to let them be.

    I had to work it out so certain chords or sounds would occur EXACTLY at 1 minute, 32 seconds, or some other precise moment. Initially, the only way I could do this was to sketch out a precise number of measures (musical divisions of time) and somehow hope that the chord or melody would occur at the right time.

    occasionally it worked out but it always sounded planned or just “dead.” So I tried, instead, improvising with the video. I’d allow a theme to emerge and would record the entire 4-7 minute theme. Almost invariably, there would be moments within the theme where it “just happened” to work out that important points in the melody coincided EXACTLY with something occurring in the video that needed to be emphasized.

    To this day I’m still amazed at how beautifully the timing works out when I just “let it be” – though i’m still tempted at times to work it out mathematically (but even then, there’s really no rules. Sometimes it does – at least for part of the composition, work out just right to figure it out by number – then I have to know when to let that go and allow something else to emerge)

    What a magical process!

    (and actually, for the text for our website – though by no means do I consider myself to be a “writer” – it’s very similar, only in this case we have web page length to be concerned about instead of timing – and Jan tells me she has similar magical synchronous moments where the videos just “come together” as well)

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  3. He must ask himself, ‘What do I really think of the world …

    Err. Ray Bradbury doesn’t really believe all that stuff about Martian colonies and alien civilisations and crashed astronauts wandering around in eternal rain does he?

    I mean, that’d be pretty kooky.

    Liked by 1 person

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