Back to Basics, Part 1 – What Would Ray Do?

There comes a time in the life of a writer when the keyboard is made of lava and every keystroke burns.

There may be a thousand reasons for this—it might be the rejection that broke the camel’s back, or an all-consuming project that sapped the author’s mojo longer than could be sustained. It might be a personal tragedy, or a personal victory. It can happen after the fiftieth failed query or the first award nomination. Whatever the catalyst, we find ourselves suddenly in crisis, unwilling or unable to write, mind and fingers shackled by fear and self-loathing, wincing at the light of the computer monitor as the cursor blinks its contempt.

It was several weeks into such an episode that I found myself traveling for work, alone with my thoughts for eight long interstate hours. I spent the first two hundred miles scowling deeply at the scenery, despising every wildflower that wouldn’t find its way into a story, every driver whose motives for cutting me off were more profound than that of any of my protagonists. I thought about the stories I’d written in years past, the ones that I’d finished and sold, and scolded myself for not doing it again, right now, every day, tonight! I thought about the project that had consumed so much of my time and energy the previous year, and imagined my creative self as a train that has struck an anthology and gone fatally off the rails. I thought about my friends, of their seemingly unshakable work ethic and their magnificent accomplishments, and wished I could be more like them.

I dragged myself through every kind of emotional mud, sometimes in tears, sometimes in nihilistic resignation, until along about the fifth hour when the core of the problem finally hit me: I was taking myself way too seriously.

I asked Siri how to get to the nearest Target. In a Sacramento suburb I bought a cheap spiral notebook, brightly colored ballpoint pens, soup, and dinosaur stickers.

It was time to lighten the hell up, and learn to write all over again.

***

The most important book on writing in my collection is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. You’ll find no discussion of active verbs or character archetypes in its pages. What you will find are essays filled with the exuberance and passion that he brought to everything he did, from science fiction to city planning. That was his secret (which was no secret at all)—love. In his final years when he spoke publicly at writers conferences, he talked of writing love letters to his passions. When I’m feeling lousy about my work, my skill or lack thereof, my career (or lack thereof), eventually I return to Zen. I always finish it feeling like I just got a big hug from dear Uncle Ray, and everything’s going to be all right.

This time I finished my reading of it in a weekend, marking passages that struck close to home. I also read it with an eye for instruction. What would Ray do?

That’s what I aim to find out. I’m going back to basics, using what guidance I can find in this book that has so often given me comfort in the past. If you’re up for it, you’re welcome to come along for the ride.

Zen in the Art of Writing is available at Powell’s City of Books and basically every other bookstore everywhere, as it should be.

Next time: Part 2 – Your Pinch of Arsenic

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  • Kim Switzer

    I adore Zen in the Art of Writing. I haven’t read it in ages, though. This was a great reminder that it’s about time to re-read. Oddly, I’ve been in a keyboard-is-lava slump lately, and I’ve been creating a list of masters to read to inspire me, and Ray Bradbury is on there, yet I didn’t think about rereading Zen.

  • Merc

    I’m looking forward to this series a lot–and this is a great start. I feel like this is perfect timing, because I’m trying to find a way to start again as well. 🙂

  • Tracie W

    Thanks, Christie. You’re my hero.

  • I’ve been pillorying myself too lately, thinking about how many months it’s been since I’ve written — despite the fact that I’m still struggling with my depression, leaving me without much emotional or physical energy to write. It’s frustrating, and it makes my novel feel like an unexploded bomb hiding in the computer and on my Kindle. I know I need to be patient while I get my work life back on track and fill up my creative well, but it’s hard to do. 🙁 I’ve never read Bradbury’s Zen, but it sounds helpful. I’ll have to look for a copy… and I look forward to reading more in this series. (Thanks for sharing — it always helps to know you’re not alone.)

  • Matthew Sanborn Smith

    If it makes you feel any better, my work ethic is extremely shakable. People mostly only hear from me when things are working.

    “Zen” is awesome, and so is, “If You Can Talk, You Can Write,” which is also about not taking yourself seriously. The author, Joel Saltzman, writes about breaking his seven year writer’s block by talking on paper. He says of the results, “It wasn’t Ernest Hemingway. Hell, it wasn’t even Ernest Goes to Camp,” but it got him writing again.