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Ray Bradbury's Advice to Aspiring Writers
Wisdom from a 2001 university lecture. With supporting advice from Sahil Bloom.
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
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Dear Living Dark readers,
Every year since 1997, Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California, has held a special event for writers titled the Writer’s Symposium by the Sea. The purpose of this annual event is “to inspire readers and writers alike, featuring evocative conversations with exemplary writers from various genres, backgrounds, and perspectives. During each interview, the audience is invited to actively listen in as writers share what inspires their writing and delve into the practices that propel their success.” Each symposium includes a keynote address by a well-known writer plus one or more public conversations with others. The list of past guests reads like a veritable Who’s Who: Maria Hinojosa, Cornel West, David Brooks, Alice Walker, Pico Iyer, Nnedi Okorafor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Lamott, Billy Collins, Christopher Hedges, Gay Talese, Peter Matthiesen, Bill Moyers, Amy Tan, George Plimpton, and more.
Twenty-two years ago, in April 2001, the keynote address was delivered by Ray Bradbury, who framed his entire talk as advice to aspiring writers. I first came across the recording of it several years ago at YouTube, and today I still consider it to be the finest talk of its kind that I’ve ever heard. Bradbury was so lucid, eloquent, and inspiring in his demeanor and presentation that I found myself propelled through the entire hour-long lecture in a single sitting, even though I had intended just to check it out for a moment and then save it for later.
What brought Bradbury’s lecture to mind this week was a Twitter thread byon what he calls the “30 for 30” approach to improving your skills at anything. (He has also written about this previously here at Substack.) The basic idea is straightforward:
Rule: If you want to improve at anything, do it every day for 30 straight days.
• 30 days
• 30 minutes per day
30 days is a real commitment, but small enough to mentally take it on. 900 minutes of accumulated effort yields surprisingly significant results.
• 900 minutes of cardio/lifting puts you in much better shape.
• 900 minutes of writing makes you a much better writer
• 900 minutes of reading can cover several books and many articles.
• 900 minutes of meditation can build toward a clear mind.
Bloom encapsulates the core principle behind this approach in the neat phrase “remarkable output from unremarkable daily input.” This rather reminds me of Steven Pressfield’s “do the work.” The self-compounding power of repeated effort, even of the modest kind, applied to a given skill and/or area of knowledge over time is a real phenomenon. It eventually becomes explosive—especially when combined with an attitude of alert openness to the presence of the demon muse whenever this invisible collaborator decides to show up, bestow its touch, and imbue your humble, workmanlike efforts with the heat and radiance of the divine fire.
Bloom’s principle also reminds me of Bradbury’s 2001 Symposium by the Sea lecture, which brings me back to where I started. As I was reading Bloom’s Twitter thread and then his related Substack post, I found myself recalling Bradbury’s dictum, which he repeated in various essays and interviews over the years, that “quantity produces quality.” Then my thoughts turned to his 2001 talk, in which he put this advice into a highly practical form by recommending that aspiring fiction writers should hold off on novels and instead commit to writing one short story per week for one year, on the grounds that it’s literally impossible to write 52 completely bad short stories in a row. Somewhere in there, says Bradbury, you’ll write a good one, or at least one with some good parts.
Here’s the actual section of the lecture where he says this, with subtitles added by me for your convenience:
You can also of course watch the whole lecture at the top of this post.
Before wrapping up this short installment of The Living Dark, I feel led to observe that the principle we’re talking about here, whether you call it “quantity produces quality” or “remarkable output from unremarkable daily input” or something else, applies to things beyond the craft of writing. Though the “ten thousand hour” rule has been debunked in a technical sense, the general point still holds (and still has some cultural cachet in the alternate guise of “deliberate practice”). And in a world of surveillance capitalism and digital distraction that increasingly clamors for your attention and acts as a perpetual distraction machine, it is not unimportant to bear in mind that the will and ability to apply dedicated focus to a thing, even in short bursts over an extended time, provides not only a significant competitive advantage but a generally enhanced experience of life.
In my next post, I will continue the exploration of cosmic creativity, and how Resistance can lead us to it, that I began two weeks ago.
Preorder my next book: Journals, Volume 2: 2002–2022.
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