As most of you know, the Grand Old Man of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, Ray Bradbury, passed away this past week. Very few writers have had such an impact on these genres as Mr. Bradbury. Bios and tributes abound, so I won’t attempt anything like that here. I’d just like to tell you a few of the ways his writing has touched my life as a reader and writer, and maybe, in his honor, we can all share some of our Bradbury memories.
Ray Bradbury was one of the last writers who had been around since the pulp era. He systematically cranked out stories in the fifties, back when you could make a living selling short stories. He reported (in Zen in the Art of Writing) how he would write a story every week. On Monday, he’d churn out the rough draft. On Tuesday, he’d revise it. On Wednesday, he’d do a third draft. By the end of the week, he’d send it off and be ready to start over the following week. Pretty amazing, huh?
I’ve always felt a kinship with Bradbury. We’re both Illinois boys from small towns. His was farther north than mine, but in the same state, and he seems to have found many of the same things magical and wondrous that I do. A friend in Japan once commented that, in our writing, Bradbury and I “move the camera” the same way. I think I would agree, for the most part. Lest you think that’s a pretty grandiose claim, I want to be clear that that style is not always entirely a good thing. Read my early work, and then read Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. We both need precisely the same type of editing. We get carried away at just the same points.
But anyway, Bradbury memories:
1. Probably my earliest is receiving a wonderful boxed set of Bradbury paperbacks from my parents one Christmas. It’s right here on my shelf now: The Best of Bradbury. It includes Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and Long After Midnight. What a box of jewels! It’s much-yellowed now with age and my parents’ cigarette smoke, but that only gives it more weight of treasured history. These books were my first exposure to Ray Bradbury, except for:
2. The Martian Chronicles. This was my first first exposure, which is what clued my parents in to the fact that I would enjoy the boxed set. I remember reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of our barn’s hayloft, sitting there on those worn boards in a pool of westering sunlight. My bare feet were either crossed or dangling over the edge of the drop down to the ground a story below. This book transported me to Mars. It’s sad, wistful, poignant, and bursting with invention — truly among a great writer’s greatest works.
3. Something Wicked This Way Comes. In retrospect, this delightful book was a huge and direct influence on my Dragonfly. If you want to see how our styles and senses of the numinous are similar, there’s no better place to look than this slim book. It opened my eyes and made me, as a pre-teen or teen, think, “Yeah! These things I love to fear, these things I dream about — these could make a book!”
4. Zen in the Art of Writing. I found this slender volume in Kinokuniya Bookstore in Tokyo, and it’s probably the latest thing I’ve read by Bradbury (except for “The Scythe” in The October Country, which a friend insisted I read after I came to Pittsburgh; she literally sat me down in a chair and made me read the story from beginning to end. Yes, it’s a very good one!) But, back to Zen. I think this book is cobbled together largely (entirely?) from Bradbury’s forewords and introductions to some of his other books. I’m not sure. At any rate, it’s well worth reading if you’re a creative artist of any kind, or if you’re a fan of Bradbury’s, or if you’re a fan of books. The main connection to Zen is that he talks about bending the bow in traditional Japanese archery. Before ever setting an arrow onto the string, novices of kyuudou practice holding the bow and drawing back the string. They do this again and again, learning the tension of the wood, internalizing the feel of it. When, long afterward, they do start adding the arrow, they no longer have to think about the bow. So it is with writing. A writer writes and writes, so that eventually the “muscles” are there; the technique of putting thoughts effectively into words is an unconscious act, like breathing. At that point, when ideas (the arrows) come, the bow is ready for them. I love how Bradbury advises writers not to think so much when they write! But that’s true. Thinking gets in the way. When the real writing is pouring out, we’re not thinking at all.
In this book, Bradbury talks about a method he used that allowed him to generate so many stories on a regular basis. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said he would simply brainstorm lists of nouns that seemed interesting to him — things that triggered childhood associations, tickled fears or fancies — things that seemed they might have stories lurking somewhere within them. He would make a list such as: The Road. The Oak Tree. The Thunderstorm. The Old Man. The Basement . . . stuff like that. Then, when he set out to write a story, he would have no plot in mind, no characters, no idea whatsoever for how it was going to take shape. He would choose one of his nouns from his list and just start writing a description of it — not a story, just a description. After a page or two, a story would usually begin to insinuate itself into the words. Pretty soon, he would know what the story was and who the characters were and what was happening to them. He’d abandon the description and start writing the story.
I can honestly say that I used this technique once, and it worked like a charm. I started with one idea: The Barn. I had nothing beyond that, but I started writing a description of that place we played when we were kids. Just as Bradbury said, after a page or two of description, I found the story . . . or it found me. A ghost horse found me, and the story became “Star,” which Cricket accepted outright, with no requests for revision other than the usual line-edits. Cricket even reprinted this story last year, a good decade after its first appearance, and a new generation of readers thinks it’s a new story! What are the lines by The Rolling Stones? — “It is the evening of the day; / I sit and watch the children play, / Doin’ things we used to do / They think are new.” (I can also honestly say that I think I tried the method a second time, and I couldn’t get it to work. So it may not always yield a story, but I’ll bet it would more often than not.)
I believe the secret of this method is that the list of nouns comes from your subconscious, or your early-conscious (childhood) mind. (That reliance on childhood memories is a huge part of how I “move the camera” in the same way as Bradbury. I don’t think I’d have any material — or at least, it wouldn’t have life and fire — without my early childhood impressions.) When you reach into your magic treasure-box, you find the components of stories.
5. Did anyone use to watch Bradbury Theater on TV, which presented dramatized versions of some of his short stories? Ray would introduce each episode himself. I will never forget the story in which Peter O’Toole plays a roguish, playboy movie producer who has gone a little too far in a lifetime of ill-using women. In a woodland cottage at night, he has a run-in with the scariest banshee you’ll find anywhere.
6. In Zen, Bradbury shares the memory of fire balloons. He was a child some years before I was a child, and apparently in his childhood, people still sent up fire balloons on summer nights. These involved some kind of bag beneath which a lit candle was suspended. The hot air would make the contraption rise, and it would flicker and glow as it drifted higher and higher. Well, I’d all but forgotten this bit of Americana, but just a few days before Bradbury’s passing, I was at some friends’ house on a Saturday night, and we had a pleasant fire in the backyard beneath the maple trees. Someone said, “Look! There’s a fire balloon!” Sure enough, floating above the Pittsburgh neighborhood was a faery light, a silent, luminous emissary of early summer. We watched it until it rose so high it essentially became a star.
Who nowadays lights fire balloons? Who has even heard of them? I hadn’t, until I read Bradbury. Wouldn’t it be fun to think that that mysterious balloon I saw on a June night really wasn’t sent up by anyone living? What if, in neighborhoods all across America, all during the past week, those balloons have been rising around us, so quiet and small that the only people who’ve seen them are those out under the trees, watching for fireflies and shooting stars, gently talking and welcoming the summer? Maybe that winking candle was one tiny part of the light that came into the world with Ray, gone up now to take its part in the firmament. Who knows? It’s possible, as Midsummer’s Eve approaches!
I’m almost certainly forgetting something important that I wanted to write about, but those are my memories of how Ray Bradbury, the writer, has intersected my life and left it richer.
Does anyone else have a story to tell? When, where, or how did you encounter the amazing R.B.? No thought or impression is too small! Let’s celebrate and honor this giant who blessed us with his tales!