While attending school in Los Angeles some years ago, I was blessed with the amazing opportunity to spend an entire afternoon with one of my writer heroes, Ray Bradbury, author of The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451. If you don’t know Bradbury’s work, you’re really missing out. I would suggest that immediately upon reading this post you rush out and buy at least two of the books I named – you won’t be sorry. You may also want to pick up a copy of his book Zen and the Art of Writing, which contains some of the writing advice I’ll be discussing here (and much more). Along with Stephen King’s On Writing, Bradbury’s book is one of the best books about writing that I know. Both of these prolific authors have a knack for stoking the fires of inspiration when your passion for the work has been reduced to smoldering embers. So if you need a serious kick in the pants to get you back into your home office (or wherever you write), you need look no further than these two. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can here to get you past that slow patch, or what sometimes gets referred to as the dreaded “writer’s block.”
After showing me and my friend Zac around his office, pointing out memorabilia and knick-knacks from all aspects of his amazing writing career, Bradbury sat us down in his writing space and waved his hands significantly over the IBM Selectric II typewriter that had served as his workhorse through many books and countless short stories. He told us he’d never used a computer and didn’t imagine he ever would. His typewriter did the job for him because he knew the one essential secret to being a successful writer. We scooted forward to the edge of our chairs, eager to hear the secret. Here’s what he told us: “Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.”
There’s a bit more to it than that, obviously, but basically this means that when you sit down to write you need to get out of your own way and let the writing flow out of you as quickly and as naturally as it can. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Hell, don’t even worry if it’s coherent. Yeah, it might suck. It might be embarrassing stuff you don’t want your Aunt Ethel to read. It might not be something you can ever sell to a publisher. That doesn’t matter. You can’t worry about any of those things when you’re in the creative mode. Just write. Vomit the words out on to the page (or the screen). Later you can go back and clean it up, re-crafting into whatever your conscious mind thinks it ought to be. But when you’re in the mode of drafting something for the first time, you need to get out of your own way and let the magic happen.
Stephen J. Cannell, another hugely successful author best known for his creation of The Rockford Files and many other TV detective series, puts it this way, “Writer’s block comes from the desire to be perfect.” It’s another angle at the same central principle. Creativity happens best when you just let it happen. At its best, writing is more play than work.
When Bradbury started his career and hit upon his vomit method, his goal was to write a short story a week. He figured that if he wrote 52 stories a year, at least a few of them would have to be good. No kidding. He turned out to be Ray Bradbury, one of the best and most respected science fiction writers of the twentieth-century. But when he started, he was just a kid with thick glasses, unruly hair, and a big dream. Putting himself in the chair and making himself vomit words on the page over and over again is what made his dreams come true.
This is the method. Bradbury gave it to me and Zac, and we’ve followed it as our holy gospel ever since. Now I’m passing it on to you.
Follow this advice and you’ll never go wrong. Vomit in the morning and clean up at noon.
As a footnote to this story, I’d like to add that a few years later, shortly after my first professional sale to a national magazine, I got a postcard in the mail from Ray. It said simply, “Congratulations! You’re on your way.” God bless you, Mr. Bradbury.