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

“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.

BP

A Few Don’ts for Those Beginning to Write Verse from Ezra Pound

“Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.”

Say you’ve already learned how to read a poem, but now crave some verse of your very own. How, exactly, do you do it artfully?

In 1913, Ezra Pound penned “a list of don’ts for those beginning to write verses” under the title of “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which promised to “throw out nine-tenths of all the bad poetry now accepted as standard and classic [and] prevent you from many a crime of production.” The short essay was part of Pound’s “A Retrospect,” outlining the principles of the imagist group, which he co-founded along with H.D., Richard Adlington, and F.S. Flint. It appears in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (public library), originally published in 1918, with an introduction by none other than T. S. Eliot.

Pound begins with a piece of advice that applies as much to poetry as it does to the rest of life:

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

He then moves on to specific prescriptions for the use of language:

Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol. Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths. What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow. Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music. Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it. Don’t allow ‘influence’ to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of ‘dove-gray’ hills, or else it was ‘pearl-pale,’ I can not remember. Use either no ornament or good ornament.

Next, he examines rhythm and rhyme:

Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counter-point and all the minutiae of his craft. No time is too great to give to these matters or to any one of them, even if the artist seldom have need of them. Don’t imagine that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose. Don’t be ‘viewy’ — leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don’t be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it. When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents. Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.

The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he has discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from that point onward. He does not bank on being a charming fellow personally. He does not expect his friends to applaud the results of his freshman class work. Freshmen in poetry are unfortunately not confined to a definite and recognizable class room. They are ‘all over the shop.’ Is it any wonder ‘the public is indifferent to poetry?’

Don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs. Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause. In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others. Naturally, your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning. It is improbable that, at the start, you will be able to get a rhythm-structure strong enough to affect them very much, though you may fall a victim to all sorts of false stopping due to line ends and caesurae. The musician can rely on pitch and the volume of the orchestra. You can not. The term harmony is misapplied to poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base. A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure; it need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all.

For more famous advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, George Orwell’s four universal motives for writing, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom on writing, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

Then, wash down with Several Short Sentences About Writing.

BP

Anaïs Nin on Why Understanding the Individual is the Key to Understanding Mass Movements

“Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood.”

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) was one of the most prolific and dedicated diarists in modern literary history, her journals a treasure trove of insight on life, literature, society, and human nature. From the The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) — which gave us Nin’s illustrated insights on life, this poignant mediation on Paris vs. New York, and Henry Miller’s wisdom on giving vs. receiving — comes this thoughtful 1940 reflection on why understanding the masses, in sociology and in politics, must be preceded by understanding the triumphs and tragedies of the individual:

The general obsession with observing only historical or sociological movements, and not a particular human being (which is considered such righteousness here [in America]) is as mistaken as a doctor who does not take an interest in a particular case. Every particular case is an experience that can be valuable to the understanding of the illness.

There is an opacity in individual relationships, and an insistence that the writer make the relation of the particular to the whole which makes for a kind of farsightedness. I believe in just the opposite. Every individual is representative of the whole, a symptom, and should be intimately understood, and this would give a far greater understanding of mass movements and sociology.

Also, this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.

As soon as you speak in psychological terms (applying understanding of one to the many is not the task of the novelist but of the historian) people act as if you had a lack of interest in the wider currents of the history of man. In other words, they feel able to study masses and consider this more virtuous, assign of a vaster concept than relating to one person. This makes them …. inadequate in relationships, in friendships, in psychological understanding.

A couple of pages later, Nin ties this to political leadership in a way that, in an election year, rings more urgent than ever:

My lack of faith in the men who lead us is that they do not recognize the irrational in men, they have no insight, and whoever does not recognize the personal, individual drama of man cannot lead them.

Complement The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3, which is sublime in its entirety, with Nin on love, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and her equally prescient thoughts on reproductive rights.

BP

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