I don’t have much to offer in the way of food, unless you want to share a leftover grilled cheese sandwich and vegetable crudites, I do, however, have a terrific book for you to read. Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing. The book is about the pleasures of writing and it’s one of the best books I’ve read on the craft. The author’s enthusiasm is infectious, and one walks away dazed with the breezy possibility that writing can be a celebratory act, instead of a chore. If you haven’t read the book yet, you’ll want to soon.
I keep thinking about Ray Bradbury hunched over a typewriter popping dimes into the machine as the clocked ticked. He wrote Fahrenheit 451, this way, and referred to it literally as a dime novel.
It was spring 1950. He and his wife, Marguerite and their two daughters lived in Venice, California, not because it was the hip place to be rather it was all they could afford. He wrote in a makeshift office inside the garage. The space had worked up until that spring when his daughters. The girls were old enough by then to interfere with his writing as they sang and tapped on the garage window panes before he went out to play along. This, of course, meant no money coming in so after looking around for an alternate office space, he found a place in the basement of the library at UCLA where he could rent one of the old Remington or Underwood typewriters seated in rows at a dime a half hour. He dropped his dime in and wrote like mad until the clock ran out. Nine days later, he wrote 25,000 words (2,778-ish words a day which is 1,1778 more than he averaged in a day) and finished the first draft of the novel.
I think he was onto something, when money and time are at stake, one learns to simple get out of the way and get the words down much like the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) style, except with a fire under your ass.
In his early twenties, Bradbury came up with a word-association writing prompt that he used for the rest of his life. He got out of bed every morning, walked to his desk, and put down any word or series of words that occurred to him. “I would take arms against the word,” he wrote, “or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh down the word and show me its meaning in my own life.”An hour or two later, he wrote a new story from beginning to end. If it works, why not I say.
On Friday morning, I sit up in bed still thinking about Bradbury’s dedication to writing. I write down the first phrase that comes into my head, the return, then I rush off.
Luke and I run errands in the morning, a trip to the post office and library, and on the way home I see a single maple tree adorned with blond leaves curled like fists out the car window. In opposition, the surrounding trees are slight and completely withdrawn. Not a single leaf remains on the nearby trees.
When we return home, Luke and I sit down for lunch. He carries his plate of grilled egg and cheese sandwich with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrot sticks to the table. During these lunches together, we linger. Luke chats about the 12-inch Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth replica we saw last week at the Springfield Museum. Through the glass protecting dinosaur footprints left in the region, my thoughts stray to the image of the tree. Subtleties in colors. Juxtapositions of lines in space. Rain slips through without a star in sight. I sweep the toast crumbs from the floor. We close the door on the Cretaceous period.
David puts Luke down for his nap as I drive into the rain, past the center of town, to find the lone tree. The creative impulse isn’t always clear. At times, an inexplicable stir arises and during these moments, it’s good to listen and respond. Pick up a camera or a pencil and get to work before the moment flees because, trust me, it will.
Again, Bradbury’s words echo, this time it’s the surprise that came from writing, Dandelion Wine.
“Dandelion Wine, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, Thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies” (Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, p. 79).
It’s raining harder. I wrap my gear inside my jacket, park the car a few hundred feet down the road, and walk to the tree.
I shoot a roll of film then walk back to the car. Before I get there, I cross the bridge where I stop and stare out at the bustling river water pushing into the rocks. I walk down to the rivers edge. My phrase returns as I pull out my camera to make a video. My clothes are soaked with rain, but I continue unsure of what’s to come. I set the camera on a rock with an umbrella propped against it. The video runs for nearly two minutes when I walk into the frame as an interruption: to the scene, expectation, memory, erasure.
A sketch of thought.