“A well-fed man keeps and calmly gives forth his infinitesimal portion of eternity.”
– Ray Bradbury
‘How long has it been since you wrote a story where your real love or your real hatred somehow got onto the paper?’ Finding the truth of our authentic passions is the key to forming the foundations of a writing practice, according to science fiction author Ray Bradbury. In his essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing, he indulges in a series of pointers and incitements for writers in the process of forging their craft. In this extract from the essay, How to Keep and Feed a Muse, he talks about the importance of recognizing and then nurturing our deepest inspirations, in the understanding that it is the sheer energy of the Muse that drives the engine of labor required for a lifetime of writing. For more on the process of writing, read Norman Fischer’s Poetics Statement, and other thoughts from Natalie Goldberg and Patti Smith. For the text that inspired the title of Bradbury’s book, check out Eugene Herrigel.
The Feeding of the Muse seems to me to be the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against one’s present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naïve ones to more informed ones, from nonintellectual to intellectual ones. Nothing is ever lost. If you have moved over vast territories and dared to love silly things, you will have learned even from the most primitive items collected and put aside in your life. From an ever-roaming curiosity in all the arts, from bad radio to good theatre, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka’s Castle, there is basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths found, kept, savored, and used on some later day. To be a child of one’s time is to do all these things.
Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.
Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are—the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.
To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child. If not, it is a little late to start. Better late than never, of course. Do you feel up to it?
“By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self.”
It means you must still take long walks at night around your city or town, or walks in the country by day. And long walks, at any time, through bookstores and libraries.
The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse.
By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.
You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper.
“At the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold.”
And you have learned the answer to the question asked earlier: Does creativity like loud or soft voices?
The loud, the passionate voice seems to please most. The voice upraised in conflict, the comparison of opposites. Sit at your typewriter, pick characters of various sorts, let them fly together in a great clang. In no time at all, your secret self is roused. We all like decision, declaration; anyone loudly for, anyone loudly against.
This is not to say the quiet story is excluded. One can be as excited and passionate about a quiet story as any. There is excitement in the calm still beauty of a Venus de Milo. The spectator, here, becomes as important as the thing viewed.
Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime. The core of your creativity should be the same as the core of your story and of the main character in your story. What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed? Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator. At the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold.
Look at yourself then. Consider everything you have fed yourself over the years. Was it a banquet or a starvation diet?
“To feed well is to grow. To work well and constantly is to keep what you have learned and know in prime condition.”
Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.
And finally, have you trained well enough so you can say what you want to say without getting hamstrung? Have you written enough so that you are relaxed and can allow the truth to get out without being ruined by self-conscious posturings or changed by a desire to become rich?
To feed well is to grow. To work well and constantly is to keep what you have learned and know in prime condition. Experience. Labor. These are the twin sides of the coin which when spun is neither experience nor labor, but the moment of revelation. The coin, by optical illusion, becomes a round, bright, whirling globe of life. It is the moment when the porch swing creaks gentle and a voice speaks. All hold their breath. The voice rises and falls. Dad tells of other years. A ghost rises off his lips. The subconscious stirs and rubs its eyes. The Muse ventures in the ferns below the porch, where the summer boys, strewn on the lawn, listen. The words become poetry that no one minds, because no one has thought to call it that. Time is there. Love is there. Story is there. A well-fed man keeps and calmly gives forth his infinitesimal portion of eternity. It sounds big in the summer night. And it is, as it always was down the ages, when there was a man with something to tell, and ones, quiet and wise, to listen.
Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)