Richard Bach is the acclaimed author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. His work is widely known for being metaphorical and philosophical while still accessible. In addition to writing, one of his hobbies is flying.
I took a creative writing class as a senior in high school. The teacher was John Gartner, the football coach and a writer of books, and articles for magazines.
The first day of the class he told us, “If you want an A in this class, show me the check for any article you’ve sold this semester. Otherwise the best you can do is a B.”
We whined about that, “We’re just kids, and you want us to publish something?”
John said, “There’s nothing wrong with a B.”
I was the only one in the class (I just learned from his daughter), who earned an A. My article was printed in the sunday supplement of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, a story about amateur astronomers.
They paid $26. John paid more, with one stroke of his pen that semester.
I didn’t know it then, but my life changed with John Gartner’s single challenge.
Howl: How would you explain the themes of individualism vs conformity in your acclaimed book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”?
Bach: The spirit of the idea didn’t bother to tell me about individuality and conformity. It had a story to tell, and I was fascinated. There’s not a lot of intellectualism when one discovers a lovely tale be to written. For me, anyway. Does it fascinate others? Only when its ideas are already there within the reader, and give her a few paths through the jungle.
Howl: What inspired you to write “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”?
Bach: I was in the presence of the story. One of the very few times that’s happened to me: no thinking, no designing, no need for creative powers. BAM! There it was, me trying desperately to keep up with it.
Howl: What is your writing process like?
Bach: Ray Bradbury told me (told a lot of writers), “Don’t think!” I expanded that over the years to a triplet: “Have fun! Don’t think! Don’t care!” The less I’m thinking during the writing of the first draft, the better the story is. Second draft is a prayer to the Power of the Delete Word. Take any sentence, then cut away every word that isn’t necessary, and it will be vastly improved. It took me thirty years to learn that! Now it’s yours, for free.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Bach: Editing is simply reading the draft over, cutting words; then over and over till there isn’t one word I can’t cut (though I’ll find some when its printed). Ten to fifty times, reading and cutting. “Very” for instance. Mark Twain told writers to change the word “very” to “damned,” and then before we send it to the publisher, delete the “damneds.” Great advice!
Howl: What writing strategies did you utilize in writing “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” to ensure you got your theme and points across?
Bach: None. I just loved the story, and sent it out, over and over till Eleanor Friede, an editor at a publisher in Manhattan asked to see it, and she love it, too.
Howl: What are your views on the limitations we place on ourselves and how they impact our lives as opposed to external limitations?
Bach: What a brilliant question! The limitations are always ones we decide shall tie us to convention. You want someone who perfectly unties himself? Read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine!
Howl: What made you use allegory in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” as your literary tool of choice?
Bach: I watched them, when I was a kid, and cared what I would think if I were a seagull. I wouldn’t fly like all the others…there’s so much to learn! But them the story exploded all around me. I was there! And my life was the rainstorm of words coloring sunlights and midnights into the shades of Jonathan’s difficult, perfect life.
Howl: What advice would you have for budding writers?
Bach: You know it, don’t you? Write! Find the ideas that you love (or hate), and write page after page after page. Somewhere in your first year of writing, you will have a sentence, a paragraph, that is so beautiful that you’ll say (as I did), “Did I write that?” Then it will happen again and again, till you have a whole story that thrills you. After a while will come a gentle love for your work, whatever you write. Maybe lots of rejections, maybe a few, but you are the only person in the world who can write like this….there is no competition in writing! Your startling glowing words that change a reader to tears and happy laughter…no one else can do what you’ve done! It may take years, but it will happen.
Howl: In “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” you mention the value and roles of teachers and students. What are your views on the importance of education and how best people can learn?
Bach: Forgive me, dear Dylan, but if you will be a writer, do not go to college. If you do, you will have to unlearn the terrible habits that come with the campus. Learn on your own, any songs of mind you most love. Watch the YouTube talks of Ray Bradbury (can you tell how much he has led me as a writer?) then read and live whatever excites you, makes you joyful in the mornings. Some will love the sea, some the gardens, some the cities, some the wilderness.
I loved airplanes! I learned to fly, I flew in the Air Force till I had to quit — the miliary was not the life for me. As a civilian, I couldn’t keep any job for more than eight months, then I had to quit out of boredom. Then I realized that i had a love to share with a few readers, and I wrote those as articles, as books. I still do.
Howl: How did you determine what to reveal through metaphor versus dialogue versus narrative and why?
Bach: If you want to see a few of the pieces I’m writing now, find richardbach.com. It opened about a month ago.
How do I determine? I don’t do anything. The stories and the books are fireworks in the night, and my job is to color them, dazzling paints on paper. Lots and lots of readers have never heard of me, others do not like my writing. My gift, and yours, is not to charm everyone, but just a tiny few, who do like the stories that touch me, too. If as a writer, you can be loved and interested by one-hundredth of one-hundredth of one-hundredth of the worlds readers, you will be a huge success!
So many of your writing skills are already within you and need no education at all. Just tell the story as your own spirit needs to write it. Your skills need you to love them, and let them free to write alone. My friend Ray again: “We are each of us deep wells of clear fresh water in the forest. But on top of all that life, there are old leaves and branches that need to be cleared away. Writing is the way we clean it, until the clear water is there, pouring free.” That’s what I heard, and it’s true.
Ray Bradbury will never die, and neither will you when your life sings the intensity of your love.