Writers don’t think

In the titular essay of Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes of three important concepts for success: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think.

“The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.
“So with the surgeon whose hand at last, like the hand of da Vinci, must sketch lifesaving designs on the flesh of man.
“So with the athlete whose body at last is educated and becomes, of itself, a mind.”

Once you get past concentrating on the nuts and bolts of the task, in other words, you relax into a state where the words flow faster because you have stopped being conscious of them:

“Work, giving us experience, results in new confidence and eventually in relaxation. The type of dynamic relaxation again, as in sculpting, where the sculptor does not consciously have to tell his fingers what to do. The surgeon does not tell his scalpel what to do. Nor does the athlete advise his body. Suddenly, a natural rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.”

This is frequently called being “in the zone” where you don’t quite know where your mind went, but your fingers improvised the most beautiful tune that ever came out of your musical instrument, or they told an amazing story or scored 50 points in the most important basketball game of your life.

That’s why “Don’t think” is the fifth and final of my little rules for writing. First you need to show up and do the work, to start having fun, to love what you’re doing, and to be silly sometimes. It all adds up to the point where, when you’re willing and able, you can stop thinking and let the muse take you where you both want to go.

Like an overnight sensation represents years and years of work, one day it all coalesces and you’re traveling on the road to Mordor to save Middle Earth, or you’re stranded on Mars trying to figure out how to survive the next several months before they can attempt a rescue, or you’re in your Baker Street apartment explaining to your befuddled partner how and why a dastardly crime was committed, or you’re in a secret apartment having an affair with a beautiful woman hoping that the totalitarian government won’t notice and arrest you both, or you discover that you’re the son of the Greek god Poseidon and monsters want to kill you, or … you get the picture.

Bradbury wrote a short story every week for much of his life, 52 stories a year, and “we should not look down on work nor look down on the 45 out of 52 stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops.”

Nor does the success happen every time after the first time. Dean Wesley Smith writes of selling his first two short stories and meandering seven years before he sold another. Bradbury continued to write clunkers in between his masterpieces. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee wrote two of the most memorable novels of the 20th century and never wrote a second. I dare say it might be because they started thinking.

I know I’ve used phrases this week like “let loose” and “unleash your mind,” because when you start thinking too hard about what you’re writing, your creative mind or imagination starts to seize up. (My brain just slowed to a crawl just now because I started thinking whether it was your “creative mind” or “imagination” that seized up and then decided to use both.) That’s where Bradbury is going with his references to relaxation and not thinking. We need to pitch the self-editing software in our minds and get the words out. The time for tweaking the words comes after the flame has burned through and the work is done.

And so, to sum up:

  1. Show up every day.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Write what you love.
  4. Be silly sometimes.
  5. Don’t think.

Go ahead, take those ideas for a spin. After a while you’ll probably end up adjusting them to suit your style, or even developing your own rules that work better for you. That, my friend, is the whole point.

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