Absorbing Ray Bradbury, the Articulated Man

Posted: June 6, 2012 in Fiction, The Writer's Psyche

The one man most responsible for making me dedicate myself to writing is Ray Bradbury.

I grew up as a bookworm in a strict Baptist household. Our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the local library inevitably ended with my straining to carry a tall stack of books from our beat-up Opel to my bedroom.

My dad scanned each title before I checked books out. Acceptable fare included lots of folk tales and fables, tame classics such as The Secret Garden, every Hardy Boys book, and an amusing series about Freddy the Pig.

By age 12, I had devoured every book in the juvenile section of the library. I wandered into the adult stacks, where I found a book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes. Raised on stolid but innocuous fare, I felt dark shivers from the title alone. I had no idea this was actually a young adult book – to me, it represented all the thrills forbidden to my young religious eyes. I snuck it into the middle of that visit’s book harvest, certain it would fail to pass inspection. Somehow, it arrived home with me.

Bradbury’s ideas and writing voice blew my budding mind. I thrilled to Jim Nightshade’s struggle against Mr. Dark’s deceptions. I creeped out as Mr. Dark rode a gothic merry-go-round backwards to turn himself into an evil boy my age. The colorful prose seared itself into my brain pan.

As soon as I finished the book, I went, Who is this author? How dare the universe fail to tell me about him sooner? I went on a Bradbury tear, devouring Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country (and other short story collections) and, though it exceeded my intellectual prowess, Fahrenheit 451. In school, every author you’re pointed to – Twain, Eliot, Hemingway, et al – is dead. I felt delirious when I learned Bradbury was still alive and was still writing.

Compelled to become the next Bradbury, in seventh grade I attempted my first novel, a spy thriller unencumbered by any knowledge of how the world works. (Bradbury influenced me, but so did The Man from U.N.C.L.E., John Steed, and Mrs. Peel.) I gave it what I thought was a very ironically adult title: See the Corpse Run. When my dad gave me a big blank hardcover (the result of a publisher’s paper-and-binding experiment), I laboriously hunt-and-pecked my novel on a manual typewriter, then glued the pages into the hardcover so that I made a “real book.” I finished it in ninth grade, 97 proud pages long. My reading audience was my dad.

By age 15 I had sold seven or eight articles to very minor publications, but I thought I was king of the world because I got paid $25 for each of those articles. (One periodical even profiled me as “teen with a typewriter.”) I began high school and due to my published status, got put in a senior composition class.

This class required me to turn in a new story every Friday. The teacher kept encouraging us each to find our “unique voice.” That was the first time I’d heard that. I had no idea what my “voice” was. And I didn’t have time to find “my voice” – I was too busy expressing the million ideas in my head! So I copied Bradbury’s voice. I adopted entirely techniques I had subconsciously learned from him, such as setting atmosphere by personifying inanimate objects and giving them intentions. I wrote ironic flights of fancy very much in line with Ray’s (but a paltry echo of the master). By emulating Ray week after week, I aced the class. And I learned writing the same way he did: by writing.

Ray’s world seemed more vivid to me than the real world. Immersed in the Martian Chronicles, I remember watching America’s moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “Big deal. We’ll be on Mars in no time.”
I see Ray reflected today in other writers who draw no boundaries between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Would Stephen King be the brand he is today had there been no Bradbury? Would there have been Star Trek? Star Wars? The whole body of work by J. J. Abrams?

In writing this, I wanted to consult some of Bradbury’s works. I’m startled to see I no longer own any. But at the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have become books. To fool the censors, they have memorized entire works. A woman could tell you, “I am The Old Man and the Sea.” A teen could say, “I am The Odyssey.” In that same sense, I absorbed Ray Bradbury. He is in me: laced as an integral shining vein through my imaginings; a hand that touched the pottery wheel of my creative impulses. I never met him, but in the pages of his words, he met me — and set me alight.

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury

For the comments: What did you make of Ray? Or what other writer fired your imagination?

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