Ray Bradbury is among the greatest writers of the 20th century, and on a more personal note he is my favorite writer most days. Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote an essay called “Zen in the Art of Writing” in which he boiled the craft of writing down to four words: “Work. Relaxation. Don’t think.”
Specifically he said that while you write, don’t think about the possibility of making money with your words – even if you’re a full-time writer whose livelihood depends on it – and don’t think about the process of writing. Just let the words flow.
It’s a tricky balancing act, but every writer at least occasionally enters a “zone” where good stuff just flows from your fingers. Time enough to edit later. For the moments of creation, it’s enough to get the thoughts out and worry later about whether the words are in the proper order.
Bradbury broke into the business of writing by making a commitment to write at least one short story every week. He didn’t worry about whether they were any good or “saleable,” he just wanted to establish a habit. At the end of the first year, he had 52 short stories. Almost none of them sold, but some of them did, and his career was underway.
Writer and filmmaker Joss Whedon is doing interviews this month in advance of his next blockbuster (”Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron”), and one statement jumped off the page at me: “I have a contract with my audience – that I will do better, that I will give them a reason to come in again that is more than the reason we gave them last time.”
What a powerful motivation for an artist! Whedon is the creator of several popular, well-known works from TV series to movies and even comic books, and his audience is passionate about him because they sense that commitment – that he considers his contract with them more important than any financial contract. Bradbury would likely say Whedon “gets it” – care first about the writing, and the rest will take care of itself.
There’s a brilliant little movie that Preston Sturges made in 1941, “Sullivan’s Travels,” about a filmmaker of popular comedies who decides he’d rather try to do something “important.” Instead of another silly feature, he aims to adapt a pretentious literary work called “O Brother Where Are Thou” (and yes, that’s where the 2000 film got its name).
He embarks on an undercover journey to feel what the characters in the novel experienced. Long story short, in the end he finds himself in an audience of prisoners watching a Disney Pluto cartoon.
He laughs at the antics on the screen, then looks around and sees the roomful of inmates also laughing – released from their miserable circumstances for a few minutes of something resembling joy – and he realizes that his silly comedies also meet a basic human need and he has already done something “important” with his genius for entertaining people.
We live for the act of creation – and each of us creates something in everything we do every day. There is an art to driving a busload of kids to school, there is an art to serving a great cup of coffee, there is an art to collecting garbage.
In our art we make the world a better place for others, whether we serve an audience of one or a million, whether we write a poem for our sweetheart or a blockbuster summer movie for mass consumption.
Think about your “audience” – the people you serve – and make a contract to do your best and make today’s best even better than yesterday, and you’ll achieve that better world.