Most of the time when I write an essay, I’m keenly aware of my audience. What will work for them? When will I have babbled on? When have I been unclear? But I don’t think I will keep those things in mind as much today as I write about Ray Bradbury. Mostly I think I will be writing for myself and what his work means to me, even if I keep writing to a “you” in the essay. Maybe this will be like the “Let us go then, you and I . . .” at the beginning of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This is a dialogue with myself.
Of course, I can’t entirely forget that other people will read this—audience awareness is a part of my ingrained skill set now—but mostly I’m writing this for me. Of all the authors I’ve loved, Ray Bradbury is my most influential. It was Bradbury who started so much for me: my love of reading, my love of writing, and probably my love of life.
When I was in elementary school, I read R is for Rocket and S is for Space that I checked out from the children’s section of Bemis Public Library in Littleton. I told my mother that when I grew up I wanted to be Ray Bradbury. I said it like a kid who says “I want to be president.” I thought of Ray Bradbury as a job title, not a person.
Have you looked at the table of contents for those two books?! These were supposed to be for the “young adults,” but the titles are anything but childish. They were mind-altering.
::STORY SPOILERS FOLLOW::
One of the multitude that got to me and stayed with me since was “The Fog Horn.” The plot, like many of Bradbury’s stories was so simple that I thought even then that I should have been able to come up with it (but, like everyone else, didn't): two men work a lighthouse. One is a veteran and the other is a newbie. The vet makes this speech:
You know, the ocean’s the biggest damned snowflake ever? It rolls and swells a thousand shapes and colors, no two alike. Strange. One night, years ago, I was here alone, when all the fish of the sea surfaced out there. Something made them swim in and lie in the bay, sort of trembling and staring up at the tower light going red, white, red, white across them so I could see their funny eyes.
But that is just the setup. The payoff is the creature that the fog horn has called to itself on the same night, every year for three years.
The Fog Horn blew.
And the monster answered.
A cry came across a million years of water and mist. A cry so anguished and alone that it shuddered in my head and my body. The monster cried out at the tower. The Fog Horn blew. The monster roared again. The Fog Horn blew. The monster opened its great toothed mouth and the sound that came from it was the sound of the Fog Horn itself. Lonely and vast and far away. The sound of isolation, a viewless sea, a cold night, apartness. That was the sound.
What that story left me with was a sense of the unknown that exists just beyond my horizons. What lurks just out of sight? What lives in the back of the cave, in the darkness under the bed, or beneath the uniform mystery of the ocean’s surface?
R is for Rocket also has “The Long Rain,” which made me think about space travel as not just a great adventure, but also a journey of loss and yearning for what has been left behind. It’s the one with the great opening paragraph (like so many of Bradbury’s stories):
The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.
When I first read that story, I thought about how important the sun is to earthmen. He hits that theme again, pulling off the same trick, with a completely different kind of story in “All Summer in a Day,” with its devastating child-cruelty conclusion. The end of “The Long Rain” is beautiful about a longing for earth. I compared it to Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth,” another story I have deeply admired, but Bradbury made me feel Earth and what it meant to be away from it. Heinlein told me about missing Earth. Bradbury inspired me to make writing that made readers feel.
Later, when I started to reread Bradbury as a writer, he taught me the power of the list, how piling details on details creates rhythm, layers and complexity. Look at the list in the bit I quoted.
There was “The Sound of Thunder,” that gave me dinosaur nightmares and taught me about cowardice (plus started a whole string of thought about the repercussions of time travel), and “The Dragon,” which took time travel in an entirely different direction.
Another story from R is for Rocket is one of Bradbury’s many love letters to literature and reading, “The Exiles.” In it he makes literal the immortality writers talk about hoping to achieve through their works. As long as writers are read, says Bradbury, they continue to exist, but what I liked best about the story is that the writers fought for their continued existence. “The Exiles” is a very weird war story, and like some of my favorite stories, the side that had my sympathies lost, but they lost in a lovely way. Losing is what showed their greatness, which is also a theme that resonates with me.
S is for Space contains (among others) the totally chilling “Zero Hour,” which creeped me out about kids (as if “The Small Assassin” didn’t already make me mistrust them). “Zero Hour” surely ends with one the greatest parting moments in a story:
Footsteps. A little humming sound. The attic lock melted. The door opened. Mink peered inside, tall blue shadows behind her.
“Peekaboo,” said Mink.
The book also contains “The Man,” which struck me as unutterably sad. Captain Hart endlessly pursues the happiness that he only has to stop to accept; and Bradbury included “The Pedestrian,” which is about the joy of quiet walking (and the fear of being different from your society); and “The Smile,” which is about the importance of art and having something to cling to.
These stories shaped me. Bradbury taught me about want and need and hope and fear, and mostly he taught me about irony and the sound of words on words.
The list of influential stories for me from him is huge: “The Fox and the Forest,” “No Particular Night or Morning,” “There Will Come Soft Rains” (which made me cry, and there isn’t a living protagonist!), “The Silent Towns” (which is great fun to read out loud, and not politically correct in the least), “The Veldt” (which deserves its own essay), “I Sing the Body Electric!” “The Parrot Who Met Papa,” “The Utterly Perfect Murder,” all the rest of the stories from both The Martian Chronicles, a book that I’ve worn out several copies of, and The Illustrated Man.
Bradbury made little bits of Ireland and Mexico come alive for me, and he showed me that it was okay to love literature.
Mostly Bradbury is known for his shorter work, but one of his longer pieces keeps coming back for me, partly because I teach it every year for my sophomores, Something Wicked This Way Comes. What’s cool about teaching a book is that I can look for the tiny movements, the nuances that I miss when I’m first reading. Something Wicked is an amazing story. I can open it blindly, put my finger down, and read gold:
All the meannesses we harbor, they borrow in redoubled spades. They’re a billion times itchier for pain, sorrow and sickness than the average man. We salt our lives with other people’s sins. Our flesh to us tastes sweet. But the carnival doesn’t care if it stinks by moonlight instead of sun, so long as it gorges on fear and pain. That’s the fuel, the vapor that spins the carousel, the raw stuffs of terror, the excruciating agony of guilt, the scream from real or imagined wounds. The carnival sucks that gas, ignites it, and chugs along its way.
Something Wicked piles metaphors in the pursuit of reality. When my students have trouble with it, it’s because they don’t read for the feel of his descriptions, and they can’t think metaphorically. I like Something Wicked because it’s mostly a book about friendship, and about ages, and about the relationship between a father and son. It’s about growing up and about not getting “old.” I like that it can mostly be about a lot of things.
And it’s about the language. Always with Bradbury, language drives the engine. I told someone once that I like to write short stories because they give me an excuse to get to a lyric moment, a moment when I can channel my inner Bradbury. Bradbury doesn’t wait to get to a lyric moment, though—he starts with it. God, I admire that.
Along with days of reading pleasure, Bradbury has been a great teacher for me too. One of my treasured books on writing is his Zen in the Art of Writing. In it he’s not theoretical, he’s practical, and what he’s practical about is the source of his writing. He doesn’t talk about plot structures or writing habits (really), nor is he analytical about story or literature. He writes about what it feels like to be in a writerly state. (I realized that this is the third time in this essay that I’ve used the word “feel,” which tells me something).
The lesson I take strongly for Zen in the Art of Writing is that writing has to start from a passion or mood. You write, he suggests, from the core of your interests, even if those interests seem to be childish, the things that got you turned onto the world when you were young. He said that he felt that his first stories were derivative, but during his twenties, he compiled a list of titles. They were predominantly nouns, he said, and he spent the rest of his life writing the stories from those titles. Here’s what he said about them:
I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.
Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals, I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
. . . But back to my lists. And why go back to them? Where am I leading you? Well, if you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.
One of the pieces of advice I give to writers is that they should write what they think about. They should remember what they remember, and then explore why they remember it. I learned that from Bradbury. It was Bradbury teaching me to pay attention to the stuff that fascinates me that really plugged me into my own stories.
A tip I took from Bradbury is that I can’t be embarrassed by the contents of my own head.
Before I learned Bradbury’s lessons, I think that I wrote the kind of stuff that I get to read in workshops, which is mostly writers writing what they think a story should look like, writing about the material that they believe stories should be about, which means that their stories sound derivative and aren’t particularly interesting (although they may be very competent, publishable even).
I’m going to end this version of the essay by returning to one of Bradbury’s stories: “The Kilimanjaro Device.” He wrote it because one of his influences, Ernest Hemingway, died so ingloriously. Bradbury clearly thought a lot of Hemingway, like in the comic story, “The Parrot Who Met Papa,” but “The Kilimanjaro Device” isn’t comic. In it, a group of Hemingway fans, devastated by the manner of the great writer’s death, create a safari truck-shaped time machine. They send one of their members back in the truck to a time not too long before Hemingway’s suicide. They want to give him a chance at a better end.
I love the sense of the connection between a writer and readers in that story. Readers don’t develop a personal relationship between themselves and the writer, but there is a kind of relationship, a sense of closeness to the works of the creator and to the writer himself that a devoted fan can develop.
In the story, Hemingway does climb into the safari truck. Maybe, as the narrator suggested, he foresaw the ending his life was closing in on. It doesn’t matter, because once Hemingway is in the truck, the trick is complete. The writer and reader are joined on the same trip. Hemingway is riding:
I had the car up to ninety.
We both yelled like boys.
After that I didn’t know anything.
“By God,” said the old man, toward the end. “You know? I think we’re . . . flying?”
I do know, Mr. Bradbury. You’ve been flying for years, and you will continue to fly into our future, alive in your works, but you won’t have to go into hiding like the spirits of those authors who were exiled to Mars in “The Exiles.” I think you will always be read. I think you will always be a treasure.
Thank you, Ray Bradbury.