Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears those 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 to his gusto.
~ Ray Bradbury (1920 – 2012)
Like many readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy, I reacted to the news of Ray Bradbury’s death on Tuesday by finding his books on my shelves and starting to reread them. But, I did not first turn to Farenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, or any of his other wonderful stories. No, I went straight to one of my favourite books about the craft of writing: Zen in the Art of Writing.
Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays on writing that Bradbury wrote over a span of decades. The quote about zest and gusto at the top of this post is the opening of the essay entitled “The Joy of Writing.”
I come back to this essay more than any other single piece of writing about writing. It reconnects me with the reasons that I write.
[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-guard coterie, that you are not being youself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.
~ Ray Bradbury, The Joy of Writing
That paragraph hit me hard when I reread it this week. I have had a hard time getting back to writing my novel since my class had me working feverishly on exploring how to pitch it. I was stuck, but I couldn’t figure out why.
Intellectually, I had a plan. I had generated a timeline and a synopsis of a story worth telling. I had noticed themes of the novel reflecting deep themes in my life. I knew what scenes I had to write to make the piece hang together.
But, my muse was bored. She refused to show up. I think she figured I didn’t need her since I had it all mapped out. She was wrong.
To get out of my rut, I started listening to the materials associated with Holly Lisle’s How To Think Sideways course. One of the things I love about Lisle’s teaching materials is that she demonstrates how she gets her inspirational muse and her craft-based thinking mind to work together on a project.
I found myself leaning on one idea: One of your jobs as a writer is to write bigger than your first impression.
In order to prepare the pitch for my class, I had to pretend the novel was closer to finished than it is. In essence, I pitched something close to my first impression. And, I boiled out some fo the complexity to build the pitch. But it is too early in the process for that. I needed to give myself permission to grow the story beyond the pitch as I prepared it.
By focusing on the scenes that work and being willing to ditch the rest if need be, and by giving myself explicit instruction to think bigger than the pitch I had prepared, I convinced my muse to come back and play.
I am making progress again. With gusto and with zest.
In tribute to Ray Bradbury, I offer these links:
- Neil Gaiman responds to Ray Bradbury’s death, with Gaiman’s introduction to The Machineries of Joy
- From wired.com, Science Fiction writer’s talk about Ray Bradbury: Sci-Fi Scribes on Ray Bradbury: ‘Storyteller, Showman and Alchemist’
When an artist who has touched you dies, how do you respond?
In his speech to the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Neil Gaiman argued that one should greet life’s trials with one response: make good art. I add now, from Ray Bradbury: with gusto.
So please, find your zest and your gusto and make good art.