Writing like a Zen master

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity Third Edition/ExpandedZen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity Third Edition/Expanded by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most books on writing are a variation on a theme: they explain several techniques to improve writing; they give examples of those techniques; and then they supply exercises for practice.

Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing provides almost none of that sort of writing advice. The closest thing to that sort of writing instruction is a section in which Bradbury talks about how he makes lists of nouns and then reviews those lists as a source for ideas.

In this collection of essays, Bradbury, using personal anecdotes about how he wrote and found inspiration for some of his most famous short stories and novels, spends most of his time not instructing on technique, but talking about how writers can tap their creative spark, their subconscious creative mind, their Muse by writing what they love and by writing with gusto and joy.

The lead essay’s opening paragraph sums the theme of the book:

Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see his gusto.

And how do you do this? As Bradbury digs deeper, he suggests you approach writing perhaps as a Zen master might approach it — through work, through relaxation, through nonthinking, and through further relaxation.

To work, of course, is a common piece of advice given by writers in writing advice books. Bradbury suggests a standard of setting a regular daily schedule, and a set amount of words.

But unique to his advice are the parts about relaxation and nonthinking.

Relaxation, as Bradbury uses the word, isn’t kicking back at the beach; it’s achieved through work. As you work, as you build quiet confidence in your self and your writing, you relax, your body responds to natural rhythms. And as you relax, you stop thinking and you create.

The essays are for the most part inspiring, in particular the lead essay “The Joy of Writing” and the title essay “Zen and the Art of Writing”. In fact, to writing, Bradbury adds a spiritual dimension lost in books solely concerned with technique, a spiritual needed to truly be creative.

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Review of China Mieville’s Embassytown

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

China Mieville’s Embassytown is as much an exercise in semantics as it is a science fiction novel about an alien culture on the brink of apocalypse as it comes to clash with human colonists.

The alien culture—the Ariekei—has a language that would be a fundamentalist’s/literalist’s wet dream or worst nightmare; it has almost no figurative language, and what little figurative language it does have, in simile, is taken as literal truth.

Everything is true or passes as fact. They cannot make subtle distinctions and have no room for gray areas of ambiguity.

The language, known as Language to human colonists, is so obscure, only altered humans, known as Ambassadors can fully understand it. Which leads to intrigue and near apocalypse for both Ariekei and humans when an Ambassador introduces lies into Language.

The Ariekei become addicted to the lies and crisis erupts. In the middle of this crisis is Avice Benner Cho, who has just returned to her home planet after years in the immer, a sort liquidy wormhole that allows for interstellar travel (Mieville is ever inventive with language). Avice is an unwilling participant in the intrigue, partly because her husband Scile, a linguist, is a co-conspirator and partly because she is a simile in the Ariekei Language.

Though Embassytown is as imaginative and inventive as Mieville’s Hugo-winning The City & The City, I preferred The City & The City and its intriguing look at how we see and choose to “unsee” (another of Mieville’s coinages)others set against the backdrop of a noir murder mystery.

Embassytown is, however, an intriguing look at how language can be abused, especially when varying shades of meaning are stripped from it and only literalism survives.
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Re: Rereading

This week’s Booking Through Thursday:

What’s the first book that you ever read more than once? (I’m assuming there’s at least one.)

What book have you read the most times? And–how many?

Maybe, subconsciously, early in our lives we’re all re-readers. We want the same story read to us over and over because we somehow know we can’t read the same river twice.

And I’m sure the first rereading I did was probably a children’s book or books and certainly comic books which I ravenously reread. As I think about this topic,  images fill my mind of panels vaguely recalled of Disney’s version of Robin Hood (Robin and Maid Marian were foxes and the Prince was a fey lion) and in particular a story of Robin evading King Churl, a warthog. I liked Churl’s warthog minion, specifically because they carried crossbows and I have a fascination with crossbows even though I’ve never used one.

And I recall rereading Alan Dean Foster’s adaptation of Star Wars, because like so many in my generation, Star Wars was/is an obsession. (Foster’s byline was later usurped by George Lucas.)

As far as most reread: that honorific would probably not go to a specific book, but to Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants;”  it’s the first “literary” story I loved and led me to my lifelong obsession with Hemingway.

Of his novels I would have to say I’ve read and reread The Sun Also Rises the most. And then I’ve completely abused Kenneth Lynn’s biography of Hemingway, trying, at first embarrassingly enough, to seek out clues about how to be a writer, how to live like a writer.

Another favorite reread — and sometimes it’s just passages I reread — is Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I reread a few passages last night when I got stuck in my own writing. Chabon can make a hangover and throwing up from too much drinking seem elegant and morally revealing.

Of course, again, I think the pleasure of rereading is rediscovering a book or story, and realizing it’s never the same old story.