Look to your zest

Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You
by Ray Bradbury remains perhaps my favorite book about the subject of creativity. Here is the master’s view on finding the passion needed to write memorably and, in doing so, creating unforgettable characters …

“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 to his gusto.”…

“Simply then, here is my formula. What do you want more than anything in the world? What do you love, or what do you hate?

“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, will rush you through to the end of the story. The zest and gusto of his need … will fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter 30 degrees.”

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Freedom from fear

What is freedom?

Freedom is a place that seems to be the opposite of fear. And by definition, of course, freedom will mean different things to different people.

Freedom is often described in terms of absence: Freedom is the absence of present tyranny, barriers, threats, debt or other restrictions, or it is moving beyond the past to a promising future.

But freedom is more than a void; it is what fills the void: The actions, the peace of mind, enabled by the removal of those barriers.

Freedom is also, joyfully, an absence of fear — more accurately, of course, a willingness not to allow fear to be yet another barrier.

Make no mistake, fear is real — but you can decide not to be controlled by your fear. You can refuse to be afraid. It’s a little scary — but it’s a sound decision.

I am inspired by the attitude of our golden retriever puppy. When she is unfettered, Willow is a thing of beauty as she runs. She will run as fast and as far and as long as she can, or until I call her name and she comes running back.

Ideally we are limited only by others; ideally the only limit to our freedom is that nothing we do will limit others’ freedom.

“Fear not” and “be free” are nearly the same command. Refuse to be afraid — dare to be free — these are bold decisions.

Refuse to be Afraid: The Book

We all live with fear, ranging from little anxieties to sheer, stark-raving-mad, paralyzing terror, and everything in between. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of getting started, fear of being stopped before we’re finished, fear of what to do next after we’re finished. Fear of hate, fear of love, fear of hating, fear of being loved. Fear of sickness, fear of health, fear of other people’s habits, fear of our own.

Fear of death.

Life is scary. But you don’t have to let your fears control your actions.

As I’ve been blogging these themes have come up time and again, and I’ve long been tinkering with compiling them into a book. The book is here. Thanks for your encouragement.

Self Help: Words that could have been written this morning

I am still amazed that the opening paragraphs of Samuel Smiles’ book Self Help were published in 1859. Except that he uses an occasional word or turn of phrase that people don’t use anymore, Smiles could be writing about the contemporary debate about government bailouts versus the power of the individual and the private sector.

Smiles’ book is packed with examples of real-life (19th century) success and encouragement. No wonder it created an entire new genre. I’m tickled to be in a position to re-introduce this classic to modern audiences. Check this out (and click on the book cover to find out how to buy or download it):

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“Heaven helps those who help themselves” is a well-tried maxim, embodying in a small compass the results of vast human experience. The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual; and, exhibited in the lives of many, it constitutes the true source of national vigour and strength. Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates. Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.

Even the best institutions can give a man no active help. Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has usually been much over-estimated. To constitute the millionth part of a Legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man’s life and character. Moreover, it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of Government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection — protection of life, liberty, and property. Laws, wisely administered, will secure men in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, whether of mind or body, at a comparatively small personal sacrifice; but no laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober. Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.

The Government of a nation itself is usually found to be but the reflex of the individuals composing it. The Government that is ahead of the people will inevitably be dragged down to their level, as the Government that is behind them will in the long run be dragged up. In the order of nature, the collective character of a nation will as surely find its befitting results in its law and government, as water finds its own level. The noble people will be nobly ruled, and the ignorant and corrupt ignobly.
Indeed all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a State depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men. For the nation is only an aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of the personal improvement of the men, women, and children of whom society is composed.

National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man’s own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.

It may be of comparatively little consequence how a man is governed from without, whilst everything depends upon how he governs himself from within …

Good stuff, huh? To access more of it, click here.

What Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Poison Belt’ tells about the creative process

There is a message for us in the creative life of Arthur Conan Doyle, who tried to kill off his most immortal creation.

Doyle got tired of writing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and wrote a stirring final episode in which the famed detective dies. The public outcry was such that he had to bring Sherlock back.

As an alternative to Holmes’ death, Doyle instead breathed life into new characters, notably the bombastic but brilliant Professor George E. Challenger and the three friends with whom he discovers The Lost World. Instead of destruction (killing Holmes), Doyle chose the creative act of assembling an entirely different iconic character.

While the world largely knows Challenger through The Lost World, there are four other tales, three of which are collected in The Poison Belt, my latest little product under the Richardson Press emblem. In the title novella, the four adventurers reunite to face a graver threat than dinosaurs: a section of outer space the Earth is passing through that may result in the death of the human race itself. In “The Disintegration Machine,” Challenger investigates an inventor who claims to have created a device that can scramble a person’s atoms and then bring him back — sort of an early version of Star Trek’s transporter. And “When The World Screamed,” the professor theorizes that Earth is one giant living being, and he proposes to get that being’s attention. Still to come to complete my little Challenger trilogy: The Land of Mist, a novel steeped in the spiritualism that marked Doyle’s later years.

The lesson from Doyle’s work: Don’t dismiss the good you’ve done before. Do keep finding new ways to exercise your creative chops.

Challenger is not as immortal as Holmes — but The Lost World and its sequels are still something special nearly 100 years later.