Build or burn

From Fahrenheit 451:

The old man nodded. ‘Those who don’t build must burn. It’s as old as history and juvenile delinquents.’

Must there be such a drastic dichotomy? Build or burn?

I’ll say this: if you’re not building a life, then you’re at least burning time. As I wrote a couple days ago, we build relationships, families, communities, and careers as we age. Juvenile delinquents care nothing about producing–but the hope, of course, is that some day they will.

I think Ray Bradbury put people in two camps: the builders, creators, thinkers… and the burners, controllers, dullards. Since he was so much a member of the former group, he probably couldn’t comprehend why a person would not want to add more beauty to the world. He celebrated life, and the above excerpt is a reminder that if you’re not contributing, then at the very least you’re burning potential.

Let them hit you

Displaying your art for others to view is a daunting prospect. Whether it’s a painting on the wall, a story on a website, or a song on iTunes, once you put what you’ve created into the public sphere, interpretation is up for grabs. And trust me, everybody is a critic.

Initially, you’ll hear the work is good. This is because the first people who critique it love you. Soon, you’ll display the art for others to examine. Then you’ll produce more. After some time of fighting the resistance, you’ll have a body of work that garners more attention–either because it’s good or for the simple fact that there’s more of it to be seen.

At this point, you’ll experience some criticism. This is natural and beneficial. Everyone wants the positives and (some delicately worded) negatives.

Here’s the thing: Many of the negative comments will not be delicate. In fact, they’ll be uncomfortable.

This reminds me of Fahrenheit 451. A man named Faber warns Montag that making mistakes is OK–even when other people call you on it. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Listen. Easy now,’ said [Faber] gently. ‘I know, I know. You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was younger I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.’

Faber’s not talking about creating art, but he might as well be. Some people are born geniuses, but most of us need to make bad stuff and get knocked around a bit so we’ll learn. Then we’ll make good stuff. The kind comments are swell, but the unkind comments stay with us. The trick is to learn from both positive and negative constructive criticism.

So let them hit you. Put your heart out there. It will make you strong. It will hone your “blunt instrument.” You’ll learn–and most importantly–you’ll get better.

When’s the last time you were bothered?

From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

‘Let me alone,’ said Mildred. “I didn’t do anything.’

‘Let you alone? That’s all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?

Here’s Montag telling his wife their happiness within a society that burns books is a canard. People who don’t read, learn, and use the knowledge they’ve acquired are doomed to let others do the thinking for them. Sometimes being bothered is the corollary of really living–of caring for others.

This is why education is so important. Students must have the opportunity to use what they’ve learned to construct their own viewpoint. It’s when learning is made personal that students gain the full benefit of school. Yes, with more understanding comes more information about what’s bothersome. The good news is that students who can think well and are tuned in to the world will solve the problems that right now seem impossible.

Creating in the moment

Ray Bradbury is one of my go-to authors when it comes to understanding the creative experience. His advice about constructing the plot of a story mirrors many other great writers. Here’s an excerpt from his introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I sat down to another nine-day schedule to add words and scenes and turn the novella into a novel of some 50,000 words. Again, an emotional process. Again, as before, I knew that “plot” could not be imagined ahead of the event, that you had to trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you. You followed and found his footprints in the snow. Those footprints, after the fact, found in the snow, are “plot.” But they can only be examined, intelligently, after the emotional sprint, or your actors must quit the stage. In ballet, any dancer who asks himself what step comes next must freeze. Any man who takes a sex manual to bed with him invites frigidity. Dancing, sex, writing a novel–all are a living process, quick thought, emotion making yet more quick thought, and so on, cycling round.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think Cormac McCarthy wrote “plotting is death.” I’m pretty sure Bradbury would agree.

Bradbury says you must “trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you.” In trusting your character, you’re trusting yourself. Sketching the whole plot ahead will make the story artificial. Imagine a slightly older person who has undergone plastic surgery. The lip injection or facelift may be unassuming at first, but upon closer inspection, the work is unnatural.

The dancer who thinks about her next step or the man who brings a sex manual to bed are acting unnaturally as well, so the results won’t be dynamic. Better to live passionately in the moment. This goes also for creating.