Ray Bradbury (1921-2012): The Mentor Who Spoke for Martians

162raybradburyRay Bradbury, the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream, died June 5, 2012. He was 91, and had amassed not only a phenomenal body of work but also acted as a literary mentor to hundreds of writers as well as scientists, in addition to having mentors of his own.

Two of Bradbury’s own mentors were Robert Heinlein, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time; and Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer in motion picture visual effects creating the elaborate special effects in movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.

Ray Bradbury met Ray Harryhausen when he was 18 and they began a lifelong friendship. Bradbury said of Harryhausen, “This guy kept a mechanical dinosaur in his garage. And we were both ridiculed for our dreams as kids.” This struggle to be accepted helped them work together to find ways to express their creative ideas.

Harryhausen was also best man at Ray Bradbury’s wedding in 1947 and said that the minister at his friend’s wedding gave Bradbury’s donation back, saying, “You’re a writer, aren’t you? Here, you’re going to need it.”

Another one of Ray Bradbury’s early mentors was Mr. Electrico, a carnival entertainer who jolted himself with electricity and then zapped members of the audience with a sword. Mr. Electrico touched young Bradbury and said, “Live forever!”

On the day of his uncle’s funeral, Bradbury spotted Mr. Electrico and his troupe alongside the road as the family drove by. Bradbury made his father stop and let him out. The entertainer showed him around, introducing the boy to the other entertainers, including the illustrated man, who were then called ‘freaks’.

“You’re the reincarnation of my best friend, who died in my arms during World War I,” Mr. Electrico, once a Presbyterian minister from Illinois, told the young Bradbury.

“That day I was running away from death,” Bradbury explained. “Mr. Electrico saw something in me that I didn’t see.”

Ray Bradbury was a mentor to many writers. One of them was Richard Bach, who was later to be best known for his book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When Bach finished his first book, Stranger to the Ground, Bradbury wrote to him and said, “At the end of life when we must all lay ourselves out, with what thoughts shall we do so? Will we think, ‘I did my best!’ or will we think, ‘I never tried.’”

Colin Marshall, the host and producer of Notebook on Cities and Culture reviewed a keynote address that Ray Bradbury made in 2001 to the Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writer’s Symposium By the Sea, where Bradbury tells stories from his writing life with the intention of acting as a spirit mentor to those aspiring writers in the audience.

Marshall identified the following 12 points from Bradbury’s speech and offered his interpretation of what Bradbury told the audience:

Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Begin your writing life instead by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; he claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. He waited until the age of 30 to write his first novel, Fahrenheit 451. “Worth waiting for, huh?”

You may love ‘em, but you can’t be ‘em. Bear that in mind when you inevitably attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to imitate your favorite writers, just as he imitated H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, and L. Frank Baum.

Examine “quality” short stories. Bradbury suggests Roald Dahl, Guy de Maupassant, and the lesser-known Nigel Kneale and John Collier. Anything in the New Yorker today doesn’t make his cut since he finds that their stories have “no metaphor.” Bradbury suggests a course of bedtime reading: one short story, one poem (but Pope, Shakespeare, and Frost, not modern “crap”), and one essay. These essays should come from a diversity of fields, including archeology, zoology, biology, philosophy, politics, and literature. “At the end of a thousand nights,” so he sums it up, “Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff!”

Get rid of friends who don’t believe in you. Do they make fun of your writerly ambitions? He suggests calling them up to “fire them” without delay.

Live in the library. Don’t live in your “goddamn computers.” He may not have gone to college, but his insatiable reading habits allowed him to “graduate from the library” at age 28.

Fall in love with movies. Preferably old ones.

Write with joy. In his mind, “writing is not a serious business.” If a story starts to feel like work, scrap it and start one that doesn’t. “I want you to envy me my joy,” he tells his audience.

Don’t plan on making money. He and his wife, who “took a vow of poverty” to marry him, hit 37 before they could afford a car (and he still never got around to picking up a license).

List ten things you love and ten things you hate. Then write about the former, and “kill” the later—also by writing about them. Do the same with your fears.

Just type any old thing that comes into your head. Bradbury recommends “word association” to break down any creative blockages, since “you don’t know what’s in you until you test it.”

Remember, with writing, what you’re looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, “I love you for what you do.” Or, failing that, you’re looking for someone to come up and tell you, “You’re not nuts like people say.”

When U.S. President Barack Obama learned of Ray Bradbury’s death, he offered the following words of tribute:

“For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury’s death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values. There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.”

Ray Bradbury has published more than 500 works of literature, including short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, televisions scripts, an opera, and verse.

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