Like most of us, Ray Bradbury was a lover of stories. Dime novels, comic books, anything with words. But as he wrote in his classic memoir on the craft of writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, this love of stories made it hard for him to find his own writing voice: “I loved them,” he said, “And they smothered me.” He, like all new artists, wanted to be like his heroes. Unfortunately what he learned was that being like your heroes means not being like yourself.

So how did Bradbury find that elusive thing that makes publishers sit up and take notice? How did he find that special thing that would set his writing apart from the writing of everyone else? How did Ray Bradbury find his writing voice? According to his own accounts, he found his way around the “minefields of imitation” by “floundering into a word-association process” in which he started making lists of words and then using those words as the starting points for stories.

cover of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray BradburyFor reasons that have been well-documented by psychologists of all types, Bradbury found that this simple free-association game helped him get beyond the ego-driven expectations of his conscious self to deeper, subconscious truths, or what he called his “secret mind.” As he says in his essay, “Run Fast, Stand Still… ” (one of the many great essays in the often overlooked Zen in the Art of Writing),  “The lists [of words] were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull[…] in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. ”

Bradbury’s practice was to get out of bed each morning, walk immediately to his desk, and write down any word or series of words that came to him. “I would then take arms against the word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done. The surprise was total and lovely. I soon found that I would have to work this way for the rest of my life.” Not surprisingly, Bradbury credits his lists as being the source of many of his greatest works, including Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Fahrenheit 451 to name a few.

While Bradbury was serious about writing, he was never “serious” about the process of writing. For him, these acts of word association and story generation were a game that he played for the purpose of being surprised. For Bradbury, everything was an act of discovery, an act of love, and an act of play. This exuberance for discovery is one of the main threads that runs through through all of the essays in Zen in the Art of Writing and one reason why the book is such an inspiring read. (Hearing about how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a basement at UCLA, on a typewriter he rented (and couldn’t afford) for 10 cents a half hour, is another.

To hear Bradbury say it himself, it was all accident. “I came on the old and best ways of writing through ignorance and experiment… I learned to let my senses and my Past tell me all that was somehow true.” But what was not an accident was his ability to stick with something the he knew worked for him.

This is how Bradbury found his voice, and it might be a way to find your voice too. What do you think? Are you struggling to find your voice in writing or in your artistic life? Might some sort of free-associative practice help you find it?

Writing Exercise

Do what Bradbury did. Wake up every morning for a week and free associate a list of words (or images, or doodles, or whatever works for you). Give yourself 5 minutes and just write every word that pops into your mind without editing and without stopping. Then take one of those words (or a group of them) and use it as the basis for a story or character or plot. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Find a way to make it work. Then post your story or personal discovery in the comments. I’d love to hear what you discover.

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