Which Book Should I Read?

This morning, I wake up to the sun streaming in through gauzy, green curtains. It’s early–nine thirty in the morning, crazy-early for a freelancer. But I’m rested and awake, and I have no meetings planned. I could sleep in, but the sunlight is appealing. I have a few songs to transcribe, and some writing to get done. I stand up and walk to the windows and decide to have a long, mellow day.

(But all of that can wait. At the windowsill, I see Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing waiting for me to pick up. I enjoyed it thoroughly when I read it in college. Bradbury’s death last week has made me want to re-read this book. Last week, meeting a stranger who was reading The Martian Chronicles furthered my resolve, and I went so far as to find Zen on my bookshelves. But… I hesitate: Wouldn’t I be better off reading about the poor, extinction-bound Martians? Or finally tackling Something Wicked This Way Comes? Colorful, but freelancer-Neil is reminding me that fiction is fun, but books about writing are work-related, and reading Zen is work I should be doing.)

Writing is the art of sticking words together. Tools like fountain pens, Microsoft Word–these are just refinements. To write, all you need is a piece of paper. But It’s more fun to look at that DeWalt power driver and table saw in Home Depot than it is to work on that deck with the cracked boards.

(Legend says that Ray Bradbury typed Fahrenheit 451 on a coin-operated typewriter in a university basement.)

If word processors and thesauri are the power tools of writing, books like Zen in the Art of Writing and Stephen King’s On Writing are more or less like watching “This Old House”. Purely for research purposes, of course. When research is fun, it’s easy to procrastinate.

Writers’ groups? Think of that first party we have on the new deck, the one with a handful of friends. That’s when we’ll find the creaky stairs, or the loose boards on the deck. Editors? That’s the friend-of-a-friend who knows all about this shit and can tell you where there are problems with the superstructure holding the planks up… or maybe spots that you just need weatherproofing.

(Ray Bradbury would have come up effortless, transparent metaphors for us to read. They would appear unrelated, and just out of our reach. But they would, somehow, make all of this make sense. Or if they didn’t, we’d be okay with that. I wonder if he spent as much time on them as I do on mine?)

Walking down the stairs, I realize that literature might be thinner and poorer without group critiques and those writers who wrote about writing. I think that Zen is a book of loosely connected essays. I can read a few of them, maybe.

Downstairs, I start putting my day in order. I look at my calendar and to-to list, catch up on email, have breakfast. When I walk out of the shower, I hear a truck rumbling. This usually means a delivery truck or a lawn-care truck–I live nowhere within earshot of highways or main streets.

Ten minutes later, as I walk to the garage, I’m trying my best not to scowl at the two men across the street, the ones with hedge trimmers and a flatbed truck filled with riding mowers. The sound of leaf blowers and their relatives always puts me in a terrible mood. I can feel a headache trying to get into my skull. I tell myself that today, I’m in-between freelance editing projects, but these gentlemen are working.

(Ray Bradbury would have introduced another character here. On the way to my garage, maybe we’d meet a clown, or a Martian. This anachronistic, child-like figure would show us the way to a place, and the place would be the point this essay is making. In a surreal way, one that would distract us from the main point. We wouldn’t realize there was a metaphor here at all. All of this would sink in twenty pages later on, and the entire thing would be tragic.)

I ride my bicycle downtown for coffee, and I’m a little less grumpy. I read a little bit of Zen in the Art of Writing, and it prompts me to write this essay. I type it out on my laptop, while drinking my second cup of coffee. The piece is rambling and self-indulgent, but I’ll fix that later. I’ll hammer in a main point and some structure. (I suspect Ray Bradbury never worked from outlines, either.)

The waitress hands me the check, with a smile that leads me to believe they need my table. I settle up the bill and put on my bike helmet, and ride towards home. That character I imagined while walking to the garage, the clown/Martian? I want to read something like that. I decide to read no more of Zen. Writing is the act of stringing words together, and talking about writing is so much helpful fluff. I want to read Bradbury’s real work. I’ll go find my copy of The Martian Chronicles.


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He also plays acoustic guitar in the bands Baroque & Hungry, and The Trouvères.

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