When I experience writer’s block, it’s usually because I’m starting from a place of creative emptiness. Maybe its an idea I convinced myself is clever but feel nothing about it. Maybe I’m writing something without conviction. Usually I am forcing myself to write with an eye on money or critical acclaim. Writing needs fuel. In The Joy of Writing, Ray Bradbury lays out his formula for writing and pinpoints the burning core of his creativity. It makes all the difference in my own approach to creative work and writing.
“Zest. Gusto.” Bradbury began his 1973 essay on writing using words that have died in the vernacular. They are rare words whose meaning can be found in their sound and spelling. He believes zest and gusto are necessary to the act of creation. Passion, not the desire for fame or immortality, he argues, is the dynamo behind all famous artists. His heroes of page, stage, and sound, all male, had an inner passion driving their work. The passion would make the work fun, at least initially.
He diagnoses the struggling artist/writer, “…if 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-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is – excited.” Good lord. That is me. An unexcited creator trying to follow the market. Dispassionate about my work. Seeing the drawing I need to do, or essay I want to write, as a chore. An act without joy. Grinding my work to a halt because I was trying to give birth to something with no inner vitality.
Yet, the disgust I feel about the state of my creative projects can be embraced and spun from straw to gold. Passion isn’t only of the love variety. Bradbury rightfully addresses how negative emotion can be a dynamo for creation. I think this is part of what he meant in the preface to Zen in the Art of Writing: writing is a cure for life. Hatred, disgust, even depression, can be the black beating heart of something amazing. The key is to open one’s eyes, give oxygen to the flames of the emotion, partner it with a character, and write what happens.
Bradbury’s formula for creating stories: find your vital nerve of hate/love/zest/gusto, find a character you relate to, put them together and send them off, watch where they go, and document the whole thing. The act of creation needs to be passionate. It’s what gives art and entertainment that Captain Kirk quality. Yet, creative Kirks need editorial Spocks. Bradbury calls this the weather report of good writing: Hot today, cool tomorrow.
Passion starts the work, analytical thinking tempers and forms it. The first draft of anything, whether blog posts or presidential speeches, needs to be a messy, passionate explosion on the page or screen. Bradbury says there will be plenty of time to suffer through six or seven drafts. The fun, the passion, will help to fuel those revisions. It needs to be present in the rough draft. In bumpersticker terms: No passion, no work: know passion, know work.
The inspiration for creative work is all around according to Mr. Bradbury. Reading a variety of things, even unrelated articles, can spark the passion to create. To be truly open, to see the possibilities of the world, is as vital to creativity as nurturing the zest and gusto organs. I can get holed into just reading things I find interesting or entertain me. I turn off the radio interview with the neurosurgeon or the city planner because I assume it isn’t for me. How many germs of inspiration have I missed?
Writing and revision. Conception and incubation. Birth and parenting. There exists a natural order of the new and the maturing. I spent so much of my life doing it backwards; analyzing before I even set down a single word or drawing. I tried to logic something into being. It never worked well. The passion, the fire, the explosion of creation were done a controlled environment and the results were not fruitful. I wasn’t having fun.
I look around my world today and see passion upon passion. Social media is filled with explosions and house fires. First drafts of emotion without the coolness of analysis. Hatred and love in 140 characters or less! Our fires create viral chain reactions with no time to reflect or calmly respond. There’s no need for Bradbury’s weather report when every second is HOT! Articles, videos, and images are created quickly to be digested quickly and forgotten.
I get this impulse. I understand the reality of my moment. Most of my blog posts are second or third drafts at best. They are public explosions. They are often conceived in the throws of zest and gusto but only shortly incubated in the womb of editing. Even my recent posts, birthed by reading Bradbury, are quickly assembled and shot into the uncaring void of cyberspace without much attention to grammar, logic, or flow.
As heinous and a la mode as blog writing can be, it is an exercise in zest and gusto.
It is proving Bradbury’s point.
Joy, true joy, is an emotional state often paired with some sort of action. The joy of writing comes from the passion of the first draft. If truly joyful, it will outlast the necessary drudgery of editorial work. May I remember to listen to my heart, keep my senses open to all possible inspiration, and remember the vitally important, dull process of revision. Then, and only then, to contrast the quick and the dead content of my historical environment, can I create something living and immortal.