Brain Pickings

Story of a Writer: Ray Bradbury on Storytelling and Human Nature in 1963 Documentary

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“Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”

Beloved science fiction author Ray Bradbury, a passionate advocate of doing what you love and writing with joy, was the subject David L. Wolper’s 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer, in which he shares a wealth of insight on writing, some advice on perseverance, and his singular lens on the storyteller’s task. Enjoy.

Speaking to a group of students, Bradbury offers some priceless, timeless advice on the life of purpose:

The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000 …

Just get a part-time job! Anything that’s half way decent! An usher in a theater … unless you’re a mad man, you can’t make do in the art fields! You’ve gotta be inspired and mad and excited and love it more than anything else in the world!

It has to be this kind of, ‘By God, I’ve gotta do it! I’ve simply gotta do it!’ If you’re not this excited, you can’t win!

On the vital role of subconscious processing in creativity:

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle — [these] are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.

I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations. Electricity. The sea. Life started in the sea. Could the miracle occur again? Could life take hold in another environment? An electro-mechanical environment?

On significant objects as a storytelling device:

A writer’s past is the most important thing he has. Sometimes an object, a mask, a ticket stub — anything at all — helps me remember a whole experience, and out of that may come an idea for a story. So I’m a packrat — I’ve kept everything I’ve ever cared about since childhood.

On the practicalities of making a living with writing:

A story sells itself — but not when it’s sitting in the files. A writer needs an agent to go out into the marketplace and sell his wares.

On driving — which I, as a sworn lifelong non-driver, particularly enjoyed, and which Bradbury revisited four decades later in a rare 2003 audio interview:

I never learned to drive. As a kid, I saw too many fatal accidents and I grew up hating the idea. Automobiles slaughter 40,000 people a year, maim a hundred thousand more, and bring out the worst in men. Any society where a natural man — the pedestrian — becomes the intruder, and an unnatural men encased in a steel shell becomes his molester, is a science fiction nightmare.

On storytelling:

A story should be like a river, flowing and never stopping, your readers passengers on a boat, whirling downstream through constantly refreshing and changing scenery.

On the necessity of shifting mental tasks, taking creative breaks, and making “no effort of a direct nature” on the creative problem at hand:

Painting fulfills a need to be non-intellectual. There are times when we have to get our brains out in our fingers.

On motive, an alternative perspective on George Orwell’s four universal motives for creation:

I’m a storyteller — that’s all I’ve never tried to be. I guess in ancient times, I would’ve been somewhere in the marketplace, alongside the magician, delighting the people. I’d rather delight and entertain than anything else.

On the perils and promise of space exploration and our the relationship between technological progress and human nature in general:

We live in a time of paradox — man is confronted with a terrifying, magnificent choice: destroying himself utterly to the atom, or survive utterly with the same means. Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer. The very real fear is that now he’ll destroy himself just as he’s about to attain his dreams. Today we stand on the rim of space — man is about to flow outwards, to spread his seed to far new worlds — if he can conquer the seed of his own self-destruction. But man, at his best, is a mortal, and from his beginnings, he has dreamed of reaching the stars. I’m convinced he will.

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