Dammit, Ray Bradbury died this morning, at 91. It’s the second time that the death of a science fiction/fantasy author knocked me off my pins early in the morning.
The first time, it was Douglas Adams, and the surprise came because he was just so damned young. Bradbury’s death took me by surprise because…well, it’s weird, but it seemed like Ray Bradbury was never going to go away, you know? I wasn’t expecting him to die, for the same reasons why I don’t expect to come home after a week of travel, walk through Copley Square, and find that Trinity Church isn’t there any more. It’s just so big, and familiar, and prized by so many people, and nobody can remember a time when it didn’t have this incredible presence…nothing could ever blot it out, right?
Ray Bradbury was one of the very first fantasy authors who really clicked with me. As a kid, I kept having science fiction thrust at me because, statistically speaking, it was a safe bet for someone of my obvious nerdy proclivities. I dug “2001” and checked out Arthur C. Clarke’s other books, but he kept disappointing me with livid explanations of how alien doorknobs worked while allowing the drives and personalities of human characters to go largely undocumented. Harlan Ellison was seriously unbalanced, capable of meh-inducing lows and massive highs that more than made up for them. I didn’t make it very far through a book of Richard Matheson short stories, though I couldn’t tell you why; maybe I ought to give him a long-overdue second look. I loved “The Hobbit” but abandoned “The Lord Of The Rings” early into the second volume.
Then I read “Fahrenheit 451” and that set the bar for me. It was a “Star Wars” moment…exciting, but with a powerful, human, emotional core. Ray Bradbury was smart enough to hold on the wide shot of Luke Skywalker as he encountered the bodies of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, allowing us to watch, silently, as a farm kid’s world collapsed around him.
I think Arthur C. Clarke would have spent nine pages talking about the peculiar chemical composition of the Tattooine atmosphere caused by the planet’s twin suns. “…Which is why the smoke billowing from her skull had a purplish tinge to it. It flashed quickly to orange as it erupted from her eye sockets into the quinone-rich air…”
You might wish to argue with me about any of these opinions, and I will only say “Yes, of course, you’re right.” I can only speak about how these authors affected me.
The most important Bradbury book wasn’t one of his novels or short story anthologies. It was “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” showed me that writing could be fun. Bradbury’s book showed me that I could be a writer. I don’t think any other book about writing can top it.
The three takeaways from this slim book of essays are easy to understand and manifestly correct:
- Love what you do.
- Write in your own voice.
- Work, work, work. This isn’t magic.
The whole thing is just Ray Bradbury telling stories about how he got into writing and what the process is like for him. Reading this book is like watching someone build a rowboat. Even if they’re not bothering to list the materials and the measurements, the experience of watching the pieces cut and assembled demystifies the whole process. By the end, you think “Gee, maybe I should try building a rowboat, too.” Start with a cool, two-word title and just see where that takes you.
“Zen” was one of several pushes that got me moving towards being a writer. It’s one of the reasons why my English grades dipped a little in high school, as I stopped just writing the essays that I knew my teachers wanted and experimented with different styles and opinions.
(And before I create the impression that I was penalized for my rebellious courage…many of those essays were awful. That’s why they’re called “experiments.”)
When I learned of Bradbury’s death, I went downstairs to the analog /usr/lib/ repository and retrieved my old copy of “Zen In The Art Of Writing.” I belatedly wondered if it was available as an ebook. Alas, no, but in searching for it on the Kindle store I encountered an interview with Ray Bradbury that amplified my appreciation for the man even more:
David Boyne: You’ve written how when you were a kid you wanted to be a magician, then a carnival performer, and then at an early age you settled on being a writer. What do you want to be now?
Ray Bradbury: Oh, God Almighty! I just want to go on being me! I’m on very good terms with myself. I’ve had a wonderful life, a terrific life. I’ve done all the things that I’ve wanted to do. When I was just out of high school I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t write a decent poem, I couldn’t write a short story, I couldn’t write a play, I couldn’t write an essay, I couldn’t write a screenplay. So one by one, over the years, by staying in love, I became a poet, I became a short story writer, I became a novelist, I became a screenwriter—but it was all love, you see?