Ray Bradbury: How to Find Your Genius

In his lifetime, Ray Bradbury wrote over 400 short stories and 11 novels — including Fahrenheit 451, his most famous work.

With such a prolific history, it’s easy for us to call Ray a genius. But if we do that, we are forgetting something: Ray wasn’t always a good writer.

I took him ten years to write his first good story.

Here’s Ray telling his story in Zen in the Art of Writing — a collection of his essays on creativity:

I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing 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 hour 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.

Three million words to write something truly good — that’s not what we typically think of when we think of “genius.”

Even after he wrote The Lake, Ray still struggled to write truly good stories. He found himself imitating his heroes, writing for the wrong reasons, or caring too much about what critics said.

So how did he get out of this hole?

By writing more, of course:

All during my 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. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of “The Lake,” I would soon let them out.

It’s easy to believe in the myth of the genius — that great writers, entrepreneurs and scholars are born, not made. For then we have an excuse not to not show up, to not do the work.

Sure, genetics matter. But how will you know if you’ve got “the stuff” unless you try?

What You Need to Do

In his life Ray Bradbury always gave one simple piece of advice to aspiring writers.

Here he is again in Zen in the Art of Writing:

[Write] one-thousand or two-thousand words every day for the next twenty years. At the start, you might shoot for one short story a week, fifty-two stories a year, for five years.
You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done.
For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality.

Ray wasn’t born with genius, he found it.

Everyday for his entire adult life, he showed up in front of his typewriter and started to write. No ideas? Write. Not motivated? Write. And no matter how much he improved, sometimes the stories were bad.

But with each story, he got a little bit better. Ray went from selling one story a year to one story a month and, eventually, one story every single week.

Behind every “overnight success” story is another story — one of hard, hard work.

And so, Ray tells us to make work our partner:

WORK. It is, above all, the word about which your career will revolve for a lifetime. Beginning now you should become not its slave, which is too mean a term, but its partner. Once you are really a co-sharer of existence with your work, that word will lose its repellent aspects.

It won’t be easy, of course. You might get a hundred rejection slips. You might have eat canned beans every meal.

But your failures are not your failures:

So we should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.

Do. Learn. Grow.

There is no failure unless you stop.

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