From the Dusty Mental Archives: Zen in the Art of Writing

(Slightly edited from a post I made in 2012)

Ray Bradbury talked to me yesterday.

This came as something as a surprise, seeing as he’s quite dead. But it was a welcome surprise nonetheless – and pretty much something I’d come to expect from someone like him.

For some time I’d been searching for a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing, which has been out of print for some time.  None of the used bookstores I’d visited had any. But yesterday, while on a walk with my wife, we passed through yet another used bookstore, and yet again, no sign of Bradbury.  But as I’m preparing to leave, I realize this one not only has shelves full of books, but drawers as well. The more prolific authors out there have drawers dedicated to them, and Bradbury certainly fit that bill.

Tucked away in the back of it was a single copy of Zen in the Art of Writing.

Now, this was the kind of mini-coup that put a spring in my step the rest of the day, but it was only the beginning.  As Gill and I had an iced coffee at Tim Hortons I read the preface.

Before I continue, the last thing I want anyone to come away with is that this moment was “meant to be.” If life has taught me anything, it’s that there is absolutely nothing that is meant to be. Nothing. Life is beautiful, organized, horrible, and random, all at the same time and without contradiction.

But there is no destiny, no fate, no “meant to be” in this life unless we forge it for ourselves into our future, see as pattern recognition in our present, or piece it together as a story when reflecting on our past. To argue otherwise, to me, is an insult.

That said, this was a beautiful coincidence. Ray Bradbury stepped out of the pages, heard about the troubles I was going through, and told me what I needed to hear.

…what, you ask, does writing teach us?

First and foremost it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right.  We must earn life once it has been awarded us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

Second, writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that.

Not to write, for many of us, is to die.

We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout.  The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.  Remember that pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audience would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would be gin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

For writing allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink and digest without hyperventilating and flopping like a dead fish in your bed.

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writer, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor.  Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow.  An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.

So that, in one way or another, is what this book is about.

Taking your pinch of arsenic every morn so that you survive to sunset. Another pinch at sunset so that you can more-than-survive until dawn.

The micro-arsenic-dose swallowed here prepares you not to be poisoned and destroyed up ahead.

Work in the midst of life is that dosage. To manipulate life, toss the bright-colored orbs up to mix with the dark ones, blending a variation of truths. We use the grand and beautiful facts of existence in order to put up with the horrors that afflict us directly in our family and friends, or through the newspapers and TV.

The horrors are not to be denied. Who amongst us has not had a cancer-dead friend? Which family exists where some relative has not been killed or maimed by the automobile?  I know of none. In my own circle, an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin, as well as six friends have been destroyed by the car. The list is endless and crushing if we do not creatively oppose it.

Which means writing as cure. Not completely, of course. You never get over your parents in the hospital or your best love in the grave.

I won’t use the word “therapy,” it’s too clean, too sterile a word. I only say when death slows others, you must leap to set up your diving board and dive head first into your typewriter.

I plan on taking this advice to heart.  Thanks Mr. Bradbury.

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