Saturday, June 09, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

As best I can remember, I read my first Ray Bradbury story in 7th grade.  I’m not actually sure which came first, “The Veldt” or “The Pedestrian.”  (Unlike Bradbury, who claimed to vividly remember the moment of his birth, I have rather vague memories of my childhood.)  I admit I was a little bit confused by those stories.  Bradbury wrote so casually about things I’d never seen or imagined that I couldn’t quite believe that he hadn't seen those things himself.  Somehow.  Somewhere.  I now realize that what was so startling to me was the fact that Bradbury wrote about the future as if he was writing about the past.  He was, in the words of biographer Sam Weller, a "nostalgic visionary."

I was particularly captivated by the idea of the virtual reality nursery in “The Veldt”... the idea that technology could take images out of a person’s head and turn them into concrete reality.   Some people say that Bradbury wrote the story as a conscious metaphor, warning parents not to use television as a nanny.  It is also a metaphor for Bradbury’s art.  Quite simply, he brought new ideas to life in the imaginations of millions of readers.  He added a fourth dimension to our world.  That’s what great writing does.

Ray Bradbury is best known as a science fiction author, but it’s his semi-autobiographical novel Dandelion Wine that I love best.   Published in 1957, when the author was 37, it’s the story of a 12-year-old boy’s summer vacation.   I was only a few years older than the protagonist when I read it for the first time, and the novel has become more meaningful to me every time I have re-read it.   It’s not enough to suggest that the novel induces a pleasant sense of nostalgia, because to me the word “nostalgia” suggests idle longing.  Dandelion Wine is never idle, because Bradbury doesn’t just remember the past.  He lives it again in the present.  The novel makes it clear that the author was able to perfectly preserve his childhood innocence well into his adult life... like a snowflake in the freezer at the height of summer. 

Bradbury says he “fumbled into” writing when he was in his early twenties.  This is how he describes his process starting out: “I simply got out of bed each morning, walked to my desk, and put down any word or series of words that happened along in my head.”  Eventually he began writing without bothering to distinguish between what was fact and what was fiction.  In his mind, it was all real.  He was making it even more real by writing it down.  

His career as a bestselling author began with the simple resolution to write every day, producing one short story per week for 52 weeks.  His first real success was a story entitled “The Lake."  It's the tale of a little boy who wishes for one more day with a recently deceased friend.  It is also the story of a grown man who is still that little boy when the wish is finally granted.  There are a million ways the writer could have conveyed the basic plot of this story -- a million variations, each with different characters and different tones.  The possibilities are endless.  What makes “The Lake” work is Bradbury’s ability to tell it in his own way.  My cursory plot synopsis makes it sound like a simple ghost story, but it’s not.  It's much more subtle, much more intimate.

So how did the writer find his all-important “voice”?  He started each day with a word association experiment... jotting down a collection of random words and phrases that conjured strong feelings associated with specific memories.  Then he let the feelings guide him as he wrote.  He allowed himself to be steered by the loves and hates of the people he was writing about, rather than by preconceived notions about what the plot should be.   When the characters led, the stories became pure and honest transmissions of feeling.  When the author tried to lead, the result was a collection of random words and phrases in search of a story.    That’s how he learned: The journey is everything.

Bradbury said: “I have not so much thought my way through life as done things and found what it was and who I was after the doing.  Each tale was a way of finding selves.  Each self found each day slightly different from the one found twenty-four hours earlier.”  The journey began one autumn day in 1932 when 12-year-old Bradbury met the famous Mr. Electrico, an illusionist who gave him two gifts.  First, Mr. Electrico presented the boy with the knowledge that he was reincarnated.  "You were my friend who died in World War I," the carnie explained, "and now here you are again in front of me."  Then Mr. Electrico touched the top of Bradbury’s head and said, “Live forever!”  Years later, the author reflected on this meeting as the pivotal moment in his life:

“I don’t know if I believe in previous lives, I’m not sure I can live forever.  But that young boy believed in both and I have let him have his head.  He has written my stories and books for me.  He runs the Ouija Board and says Aye or Nay to submerged truths or half-truths.  He is the skin through which, by osmosis, all the stuffs pass and put themselves on paper.  I have trusted his passions, his fears, and his joys.  He has, as a result, rarely failed me.  When it is a long damp November in my soul, and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares.  I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start.”

That’s the magic of telling stories.  The writer experiences what he’s writing just as strongly as he experiences anything in life.  When he’s writing, he forgets the “real” world around him and becomes wholly immersed in the world of imagination.  He lives his stories.  When he comes out of that trance-like state, the words on the page are every bit as revelatory to the writer as they are to reader.  He can’t help but wonder: Did I really write that?  Where did that come from? 

Ray Bradbury was not the first to understand his art as a kind of “channeling.”  The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, one of Bradbury's idols, was intrigued by this idea.  Late in his life, Yeats produced a book (A Vision, published three years before the summer in Dandelion Wine) that he claimed to have written under the influence of disembodied spirits.  In a sense, this was nothing new for Yeats.  He had been doing a kind of “automatic writing” all his life.   In his 1898 essay “The Autumn of the Body,” the poet says: “Our thoughts and emotions are often but spray flung up from the hidden tides that follow a moon no eye can see.”  He goes on to argue that the world is changing; that the conventional ideas of Western science, politics and religion have produced a sadness in modern man which can only be cured by the arts.  Without art, he says, man will know only “the fading and flowering of the world” and his weariness will not end “until the last autumn, when the stars shall be blown away like withered leaves.”  It’s a perfect metaphor for growing old -- not in body, but in spirit.   Yeats reminds us that we need art to keep our spirits alive.

In Dandelion Wine, when a storyteller dies, Douglas Spaulding fears that all of the people, places and things from his stories will die with him. Ray Bradbury experienced the same fear when one of his own idols, Will Rogers, passed away.  His sense of loss was due in part to “the fact that I loved Will Rogers and his death diminished me.”   Both Bradbury and Spaulding eventually realized that the death of a storyteller doesn’t mean the death of his stories.  As long as there is longing in the world for innocence and wonder, the stories that renew our spirit will be immortal. 

Bradbury’s biographer Sam Weller writes that Bradbury “did not fear death itself; instead, he was frightened of being unable to write.”  The author's inevitable death may have silenced his typewriter, but death still has no power over the stories he wrote.  In his later years, Bradbury was consoled by the knowledge that his stories would outlive him.  Despite feeling that my world has been diminished by his death, I too am consoled by this thought.  "The thing that makes me happy,” Bradbury once said, “is that I know that on Mars, two hundred years from now, my books are going to be read.  They’ll be up on dead Mars with no atmosphere.  And late at night, with a flashlight, some little boy is going to peek under the covers and read The Martian Chronicles on Mars.”  May it be so.  

Live forever, Ray!


  1. My own Uncle Einar. Godspeed. You are missed.

  2. A wonderful piece on a writer who will surely be leaving a lot of people feeling diminished but who will always keep returning to his stories. I love that quote from Yeats' "The Autumn of the Body" too, something I've not read but will now seek out. Thanks for sharing, Joe.