The Hygiene of Writing

In 2001 Ray Bradbury gave a keynote speech to a sold out crowd.  Is was at the sixth annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, hosted at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Although 81 years old at the time and walking with a came, he came to life when he started to speak.  Passionate about the craft of writing he exclaimed “Writing is joy!  I have never worked a day in my life.”  Driving his points home using stories rich with imagery you get to see a master storyteller at work.  The video can be viewed here.

Over the course of his life Bradbury published over thirty novels, more than six-hundred short stories, and countless poems and essays.  He has won most every prize for writing that there is; from the Pulitzer to the National Medal of Arts.  He even won an Emmy for his work in Hollywood. 1   All this from a poor family man who couldn’t afford to go to college.  Instead, he would spend three to four days every week at the Waukegan Public Library for over ten years, reading and teaching himself to write.

And his focus was clear.  For 2 years he sold newspapers on a street corner in order to provide for his family.  Much like the bricklayer building the cathedral, when asked what he was doing Bradbury would answer “Becoming a writer.”

So when the man speaks, you listen.

During the speech Bradbury shares his thoughts on the “Hygiene of Writing” which is his daily program for improving your skills.  It is a simple program, with only two parts, and could be completed as the bookends for your day.  Part 1 in the morning and part 2 in the evening.  Then repeat for the rest of your life.

The Hygiene of Writing

Step 1.  Write a hell of a lot of short stories.

“If you can write one short story a week—doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. At the end of the year, you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.”  After maybe 30 weeks or 50 weeks a gem will appear.

This is the deliberate practice portion of the program.  The 10,000 hours.  If you want to learn to write, then you must write.

Bradbury warns against starting out by writing novels, as you don’t know the craft yet.  Indeed he didn’t produce his own first novel until he was 30 years old; a full 18 years into his writing career.  Instead, he considers short stories to be required training in the following skills:

  1. Compacting Ideas – with a short story you don’t have the space to ramble on.  You need to trim the fat; get to the point.  Your ideas need to be presented clearly and succinctly.
  2. Completion – If you write a short story every week then you complete something every week.  This is a powerful motivating factor and finishing what you start is not a skill that all of us possess.

Can’t think of what to write?  Then you are writing the wrong thing.  Bradbury figures that writers block is your subconscious telling you to do something else.  But if you really aren’t sure where to start he recommends this – Make a list of 10 things you love.  Write about them.  Make a list of 10 things you hate.  Kill them.  That should get you through the summer.

Step 2.  Before bed every night, read the following:

  • One short story
  • One poem
  • One Essay

“Imagine if you do this for 1,000 nights, what kind of stuff will be bouncing around in your head!”

The aim of this reading program is to “cram yourself full of metaphors.”  He argues that to write well you must use metaphor, but to do that you must first be able to recognize them when you see them.  He writes by making new connections between disparate things, so reads wide and deep to fill his head with fodder for his subconscious.  To write something unique you must read a multitude of unique material.  Unique input = unique output.

Short Stories – Bradbury was clear, “Modern short stories have no metaphore.”  He recommends instead to read short stories from the turn of the century, as they are thick with them.  Some of the authors he recommends:

  • Roal Dahl
  • Richard Matheson
  • Nigel Kniel
  • John Collier
  • Catherine Warden
  • John Irving
  • Herman Melville

Poetry – This section was challenging as I’ve never been very poetically minded.  I started to write a few trite phrases on it, but after some reflection I realized that this is exactly the reason Bradbury recommends reading a poem every night; to learn about it and educate yourself.  Starting with the classics of course.

He didn’t elaborate who to read much past Shakespeare and Robert Frost.  I’m going to take Bradbury’s advice and start taking in some poetry.  Some recommendations in the comments would be appreciated!

Essays – This segment gets very interesting very quickly.  A well written essay will teach you something; either  in the broad sense or else a very specific aspect of a subject.  They can be factual or opinion, philosophy or personal experiences.  And, as in everything, Bradbury recommends sticking to the classics.

The essays of George Bernard Shaw in particular are his top recommendation.  In fact, he states that if he were stuck on a dessert island with only three items, these would be one of them (the others being the bible and the works of Shakespeare).  Two other essayists he recommends are:

  • Aldous Huxley
  • Lauren Eisley – starting with “The Fire Apes”

Speaking of Georges; George Orwell was another prolific essayist.  His works can be found for free on Project Gutenberg.

A final, personal recommendation, is the Breaking Smart series by Venkatesh Rao.  These are described as a “bingeworthy collection of essays” and comprise 20 essays totaling over 30,000 words.  They are based on Marc Andreessen’s observation that “software is eating the world.”  Interesting stuff.

Bonus! – While not part of his 3 part reading program, Bradbury also recommends watching old movies.  You could start working through the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.

But I don’t want to write short stories!

Me neither.  Not my deal.  But I want to write.

I want to learn about communicating clearly and write about it.  I want to write about my personal experiences.  And I love to write about writing.

While Bradbury’s advice is good for any writer, it is skewed towards those who aspire towards fiction.  But what about those of us who want to write non-fiction in the online realm?  Online content and the way we take in media has changed dramatically in the 15 years since he gave this talk.  What if we stuck with the spirit of his program but changed the content to reflect our needs today?

Writing Hygiene for Non-Fiction

Step 1. Write a blog post a week.

This fulfills Bradbury’s requirement of finishing something on a weekly basis, with the added bonus of actually putting it in front of the public.  And yes, a lot of it will still be terrible.  But the credit goes to the person actually in the arena.

Much like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicleseventually you will end up with a large enough word count to consider moving it into book form.

Write.  Publish.  Repeat.

Step 2. The Reading Schedule.

The point of Bradbury’s step 2 is to fill yourself so full of knowledge and ideas that, through the practice of your writing, you produce something unique.  Therefore, before bed every night, read the following:

  • One Blog Post
  • One Chapter
  • One Essay

Blog Post – If you are writing online then you should read what others write online.  Get involved in their comments section and provide feedback.  Subscribe to 7 weekly newsletters and you’ll have something to read every night.

Chapter – When writing non-fiction you need the info and idea’s that come from others who write in your field(s) of interest.  So whip out your kindle and download the classics for your field.  Then read enough every night so that you can finish a book every week.

Do this every night for 1,000 nights and you’ll have read almost 143 books.  Imagine what will be bouncing around in your head!

Essay – For this section Bradbury’s recommendations stand.  You are looking for unique inputs so read essays from the thought leaders of yesterday and today.  Understand different points of view and read on different subjects.

Bonus!  Podcasts and video such as Ted Talks or documentaries.  There is so much interesting and actionable content being hosted online these days that we can quickly learn about anything, no matter how esoteric.  Make use of it.  I do a lot of traveling by car and listen to podcasts while I do so.  I’d recommend Tim Ferriss or the Art of Manliness podcasts to get you started.

Final Thoughts

Bradbury made two additional points during his talk that are worth mentioning briefly:

Fire your friends

Anybody who doesn’t support you, who doesn’t believe in you.  Get them out of your life.  Damn the naysayers and get on with your business.  Good advice for anything, not just writing.

Live in the library, not on your computer 

This one may be a little tougher to pull off these days, but is worth considering nonetheless.  As we become increasingly “connected” we  also become detached in other areas.  Our ability to focus decreases.  Our stress level rises due to the numerous open loops hanging over us, in the form of incoming emails, messages, and other electronic obligations.  If any of this resonates with you then I highly recommend reading Deep Work by Cal Newport.

All you need is a pad of paper, a pencil, and a library card.  With them you can move mountains.  Write every morning and read every evening.  Make Ray proud.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Bradbury
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2 thoughts on “The Hygiene of Writing

  1. Fantastic post! I recently read Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing” where he shares little glimpses into his writing process. I love his enthusiasm for the craft, and he convinced me to start trying to write more short stories. 🙂 I like how you took his advice and applied it to nonfiction writing as well.

  2. Thanks Nicole! This is the guest post I was going to give to you during the challenge 😉 We’ll do another one later on.
    I consider myself an optimist so really like his views on writing. Many great writings unfortunately take the view that it is a painful process and a battle to be fought daily, so it’s nice to hear somebody who comes at it with such joy.

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