Of all the writers I know, Ray Bradbury is probably the most eloquent proponent of the idea that inspiration is unbiddable and uncontrollable, that his stories came from a childlike version of himself that he couldn’t control, but which processed his experiences and (sometimes years later) turned them him ideas. I saw Bradbury speak at the Stanford Bookstore in 1991 or 1992, and he got a question about why so few of his major characters are women.
His reply, more or less, was, Look, to be honest, I’m the wrong person to ask. I don’t control these stories; they control me.
At the time, it struck me as a bit disappointing or an effort to avoid what was a good and perhaps tricky question, but reading his Zen and the Art of Writing, it’s clear that he really believed it. As he put it in a 1980 essay,
My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg— I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.
That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next.
But it’s not as if Bradbury just dipped into his subconscious, or got stoned and let the Muse take over, and out came The Martian Chronicles. It’s not like he didn’t have to spend years practicing.
Bradbury started writing, as many of his fans know, at age twelve, after a life-changing evening at the circus, and a conversation with a figure named Mr. Electrico:
Starting in Mr. Electrico’s year , I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guess that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen.
The day came in 1942 when I wrote “The Lake.” Ten years of doing everything wrong suddenly became the right idea, the right scene, the right characters, the right day, the right creative time. I wrote the story sitting outside, with my typewriter, on the lawn. At the end of an you the story was finished, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and I was in tears. I knew I had written the first really good story of my life.
If you take his reporting literally and assume he wrote every single day, a thousand words would take two to three hours on a good day, sometimes more, sometimes less. That works out to about a thousand hours a year. In high school, he also took writing classes, and his teachers recognized that he had talent; whether his assignments were part of that thousand words, or whether they were separate, I don’t yet know.
So: assuming about a thousand hours a year for ten years, and you get into familiar territory: the land of Anders Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
We think of listening to the Muse as something that’s intuitive and natural. And it is. It’s intuitive and natural after you spend 10,000 hours practicing it.
During this decade of practice, Bradbury had been in school, then sold newspapers and did other jobs. Only a couple years after writing “The Lake” did he start writing full-time (something that few writers– even good ones– can ever afford to do).
All during the early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York.
If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.
In other words, Bradbury was at once a very big believer in the need to listen to his muse, and in the importance of routine.
This may seem paradoxical, but it’s very common. This is how lots of artists and writers work, balancing outlines and notes and the slow steady work with moments of intuition. The Muse exists, but it only shows up if you’re already working.
Further, the idea that you have to work hard to get to intuition, or the bolt of inspiration, or whatever you want to call it, has its parallel in the history of spiritual practices.
Monastics who spend their lives trying to get closer to God or striving for Enlightenment have super-regular schedules. They’re taught that you have to discipline and quiet yourself before you can hear the voice of the divine. It should come as little surprise that people pursuing something equally elusive and transcendent would discover the value of such practice.
In fact, in an earlier essay (1961’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse”), Bradbury talks about this.
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 that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distracting 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 repetition exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place [ed: Ernest Hemingway shout-out] 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.
So in that decade of writing, Bradbury says, you’re really training yourself, and giving your Muse the tools necessary to express itself.