Monday, July 30, 2012

Reflections in the Well

On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

by Alexander Slagg

Saying Goodbye to an Idea Man

“I have fun with ideas; I play with them.” –Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, who passed away on June 5, was a writer that I’ve returned to often to reread. This is saying a lot because I rarely ever go back to read books a second time. I’m a restless reader; there’s too much out there that I’ve never read. But there are many facets to Ray Bradbury. And over the years, going back to him and his works has consistently provided inspiration—exactly when I needed it. 

As a kid, he was a member of my science fiction triumvirate: Arthur C. Clarke—the visionary, Isaac Asimov—the genius, and Ray Bradbury—the poet. While I was awed by Clarke’s ideas, and voraciously tore through Asimov’s stories, it was Bradbury that affected me the most as a budding writer.

To me, he was a writer who just happened to be employed in the science fiction genre. Reading his work, it’s easy to sense that this was a writer who thought about word choices, crafting delicate and beautiful images and sounds through his syntax and syllables. Not the stereotype of the science fiction hack who writes about multiheaded alien races and obtuse technological contraptions. This was a fiction writer who actually cited poetry as a constant source of inspiration to his writing efforts, and it showed in his writing. This man could forge an image and hammer out a metaphor.

The irony (depending on your point of view) of this refined quality to his writing is that he was completely self-taught. While he took high school classes in poetry and writing, Bradbury didn’t attend college or graduate school. It was this Ray Bradbury that inspired me when I first committed to the craft of writing.

How did he learn to write? By reading widely: Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Robert Frost, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. By studying the works of writers like John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty and many others.

He published his first story at the age of eighteen and continued to publish even after being awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2004. Not too shabby for a guy who shunned the typical path through higher education trod by most published authors. This willingness to follow his own path and educate himself in the craft of writing—that was how I wanted to do it.

I put together my own syllabus and read the great (and not so great) books that interested me: Shakespeare, Keats, Fitzgerald, Zora Neal Hurston, Vonnegut, Tom Robbins. I looked to glean the techniques and tricks of successful writers. Direct interaction with the page, bringing my own experience and thoughts to a book rather than having someone tell me how to think about it, was how I would become as good a writer as Ray Bradbury was.

Interestingly, he did fit into the science fiction mold in the sense that he considered himself an idea man. That is, Bradbury viewed much of his best writing as starting from ideas that he wanted to explore through his stories. From these ideas he crafted characters, plots, and settings to populate the worlds in which his ideas played out.

This focus on ideas as story drivers rather that character and voice—the typical focus of modern storytelling—goes against conventional creative writing wisdom. Thank god. I, too, am an idea man. My best ideas for stories come from setups and situations that materialize in my imagination: I understand this idea about life—how would this play out in a story? Or: How can I express this lightning flash of wisdom that’s been revealed to me?

I often start with such an idea and build the necessary story framework to express it. And I can’t imagine approaching that story any other way. That’s how my creativity is hardwired.

There was a time where I questioned my talents as a writer because my approach to storytelling wasn’t similar to how others around me were doing it. But I trusted my intuition, and I trusted my rereading of and esteem for The Martian Chronicles. I realized how I wrote was fine. Ray Bradbury, thanks for the timely and continued inspiration.

Touching on various aspects of the writing process, Reflections from the Well is more than a rote column, it’s a literary lounge where writers and other creators are invited to share their own experiences. Share your comments with Alex for possible inclusion on the LWN blog or in his next reflection at