The Fear Chronicles: Ray Bradbury and Getting Things Done*

Type “Ray Bradbury and quotes” into any search engine and what you’ll get is pure inspiration. From the famous sci-fi author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, you’ll find quotes about love and reading and living and rebellion and getting on with things. Quotes about imagination and exploration and dreaming.  Quotes that bring tears to the eyes with their genuine enthusiasm for life and literature.

Try these on for size:

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

and

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

and

“I have two rules in life – to hell with it, whatever it is, and get your work done.”

I went looking for fear and found barely a whiff.  I found instead the kind of stuff that made me want to jump to my computer and write all day.  I found a cheerleader.

Listen to any interview with Bradbury and you’ll hear his joy for life and his work in every word. He seems to be the picture of optimism, though he pivots on that point:

“So I’ve learned that by doing things, things get done. I’m not an optimist. I’m an optimal behaviorist . . . we ensure that future by doing it.”

I like what he says here. Being merely optimistic isn’t enough, because it seems to remove or ignore personal agency; in other words, you can be an optimist all day long and hope for the very best, and still get nothing done. Bradbury takes optimism a step further into the realm of action. He makes the no-brainer-ist of statements—“by doing things, things get done”—and yet it’s a surprisingly fresh statement, at least to me. This idea of just “doing things” foregoes the painful wait for the Muse, and thumbs its nose at her fickle timing. Why wait for her, when you can just get things done? It’s a practical approach to writing, which isn’t to say that Bradbury’s writing process was devoid of passion or inspiration. You have only to look at the few quotes I shared to know this isn’t the case.

In a video interview with Bradbury, he talks about his long-time fear of flying, which he eventually conquered in his 60s. He was forced to fly when his train home from Florida to California was canceled. On his experience of finally flying, he says, “I discovered along the way I wasn’t afraid of flying, I was just afraid of me: that I would run up and down the aisle screaming with hysteria.”

This is where fear lives for some of us: not in the writing itself, not in the computer or the notepad, not even in the ideas, necessarily, but rather in ourselves, in the possibility that we’ll do something crazy, hysterical, bizarre with those ideas… that we’ll embarrass ourselves.

Bradbury, champion and cheerleader, has some words for us on this point, too:

“Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art.”

and

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy.”

Once again, I love how laconically he dismisses self-consciousness (aka fear): it’s lousy. And who wants to associate with something lousy? So, be done with it, get over it.

Love words, write words, and get things done.

*I’ve changed the title of this series about fear from “The Chronicles of Fear” to “The Fear Chronicles,” which is what I always intended it to be. It’s an homage to Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles, and for some reason, in my excitement about the Joyce Carol Oates post, I botched the title. Mea culpa.

The Chronicles of Fear: Solitude, Glamour, and Joyce Carol Oates

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Photo credit: Joe Sass

When I first introduced myself to the readership of Today’s Author, I said I would write about fear; specifically, the fear that comes with the prospect and the act of writing. I believe that all writers experience some variation of fear when they write, though perhaps fear is too strong a word for some; call it anxiety, frustration, despair, whatever suits you. Some may experience fear in the absence of something to write about; some experience fear in the presence of something to write about; some in the revision stage; some all the way through. My own fear manifests in different ways, but most often appears when looking at a blank, white Word document, the persistent cursor flickering in and out. Waiting. Many ideas have withered and died in the face of that blankness, before even one letter has blackened the page.

When thinking about fear, I am reminded of something my dad once said: “Imagine what the Markussens could do if we just had the confidence.” This statement has plagued me often, especially at the maw of the blank page. It’s a depressing thing to say in some ways, but it also goads me, pushes me. It’s a challenge to find this illusive confidence. But I do wonder if my personal fear about writing has to do with confidence or something else? Am I afraid to do the hard work? Am I afraid of being anti-social, from removing myself from company to write? What creates the fear? What keeps it fed and flowing?

So, I decided to find out what other writers have to say about the work of fear in their own writing.

Joyce Carol Oates, who has been publishing for over 50 years and was thrice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, said this in a 1997 interview with the Academy of Achievement: “Creating out of one’s imagination is solitary. And I find that it’s fraught with anxiety much of the time. So I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. I think people who are artists will be artists. And some of them will have tremendous psychological strain.”

Solitary. Anxiety. Psychological strain. Not the most encouraging words to describe one’s profession. And yet she writes. Consistently and successfully. So, let’s look at these ideas one at a time.

“Creating out of one’s imagination is solitary,” Oates tells us. It’s no secret that our society is addicted to the idea of connection. The idea. Not necessarily the reality of connection. Be that as it may, our phones and our computers insist that we are and must continue to be connected. We must interact. We must sync up, link in, comment, pin, and give thumbs up ad nauseum. This is being connected; this is being social. So, writing demands a disconnection from all of that, as well as the actual face-to-face interactions we may have. It requires solitude, a removal from society. This is the first scary part of what Oates is saying. The second is implied: that when we write, we write from our own minds, and therefore we have only ourselves as critics. We are the only judges of our own work. For those of us who judge ourselves harshly, the idea that we will be the only judges (even if only initially) is enough to paralyze us. And so, “anxiety” is born. Questions arise: Is what we are writing important? Is it too controversial, or not enough? Is it boring? Is it redundant? Have others done it better? Does it have value? Does it matter?

Does it matter? In other words, what will the world miss without it, and by extension, without us? And this takes us straight to the gates of “tremendous psychological strain.” It’s funny, but it’s not.

In the same interview, Oates goes to say: “We work on things painstakingly and fastidiously. We have all sorts of emotions like despair, frustration, dissatisfaction. Once in a while, we’re satisfied for five minutes. Anyway, this product comes out, and then people react to it in ways we can’t even anticipate. They think it’s glamorous . . . The glamour is the illusion.”

Oates was commenting not only on writing, but also on the creative process of other arts, like theater and film. Three things strike me here: the idea of fleeting satisfaction with our work, the (unpredictable) reaction of others, and the realization that creation is not glamorous. All of these strike a chord in me, but it’s this last one that seems somehow the most troubling. What we see of anything—a novel, a poem, a film, an album, a play—is the end product. The polished and packaged product. And it is glamorous. We know nothing of the struggle and the process, and even if we do, it’s reframed in a sort of heroic and noble narrative. We imagine the author, with a hand to brow, staring out at an angry sea, lamenting the editing, the rethinking, the revising, the scrapping, but we imagine it all infused with such purpose that it remains glamorous. And the reason this is troubling to me, and ultimately problematic, is that I do not see this glamour in my own process, and in that absence, I wonder what I’m doing wrong.

Silly, perhaps, but that’s fear for you: it’s not always rooted in reality. As I grapple with and reflect on fear in these posts, I hope to tease out the roots of this fear, and to learn from writers I respect. In the meantime, what do you think? How/when does fear pop up in your creative process? And how do you give it the boot?