What I learned from Ray Bradbury

So far, this year is full of significance for me.

First, there’s the significance that one of my all-time favorite books, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was finally released as a live action motion picture, with huge production values and a notable director…and yet somehow flopped at the box office. (<sigh> I happen to think that John Carter is much, much better than the revenue might indicate, but that’s fodder for another essay.)

The second significance is that the author of another well-known Martian missive, and another of my all-time favorite books, The Martian Chronicles, recently left this Earth in death. Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday evening, June 5th 2012.

A third significance, an irony really, is that I’d linked those two stories, and those two authors, in my own books. Anyone who has read the DarkTrench trilogy knows that the protagonist, Sandfly, uses pairs of author names (though in fact, he doesn’t know they are author names) as expletives. And one of his most common pairings is “Burroughs and Bradbury”.

I don’t think either author would mind. In fact, I think Bradbury would’ve gotten a kick out of my bit of whimsy. At least, I hope.

That said, it seems only proper and respectful at this time to honor Mr. Bradbury’s passing by spending a few words on what he has taught me as a reader and a writer. The little tidbits I’ve gleaned from his writing, and his style, that have helped me not only be a better writer, but a better person.

It is okay to love America

“Americans are far more remarkable than we give ourselves credit for.” – Ray Bradbury

Today America is often either the cause or recipient of whatever calamity befalls the world in science fiction. Whether it is gladiatorial combat of The Hunger Games, or the subterranean dwellers in the popular Wool series, America is ultimately the victim, and the villain.

Bradbury’s books celebrated America, though. His love for America and the American way of life was evident in nearly everything he wrote. His was a literary version of the America captured in Norman Rockwell’s paintings. It is one where family is cherished, childhood is both golden and fleeting, and honor and hard work pay off in the end. It was the America of achievers and doers. An America of both strength and compassion. A moral America. A good America. A hopeful America.

It is the same America I experienced growing up in rural Ohio. A place of dreams and freedom. It is an incredible place, with many incredible and good people. For reinforcing that image in my young mind, to Bradbury, I’ll always be thankful.

It is okay to write about faith in science fiction

Typically, science fiction and faith are circles that don’t intersect. In the instances when they do meet, however, it is usually one throwing stones at the other. In fact, as a longtime science fiction reader, I’ve come to expect secular humanism being the law of the land. I’m used to taking a few digs at my Christian faith.

Bradbury’s stories weren’t like that, though. He wasn’t afraid to revere the Bible in his seminal work Fahrenheit 451, or to allegorize man’s search for a savior (whether on this planet or the next) in short stories like The Man. Rather than despising faith, he often embraced it, and sometimes—horror of horrors—even glorified it. Take this snippet from The Man, for instance:

“They’ve got something you’ll never have—a little simple faith…Take your filth somewhere else and foul up other nests with your doubt and your—scientific method!”

Faith over the scientific method? An outrage for most sci-fi authors! But not for Bradbury.

Bradbury also had the sense, as do I, that writing is a gift from God. He was said to frequently open his own books late at night and cry out thanks:

“I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this,” Bradbury said. “It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ ”

Write what you care about

“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

That quote was purportedly Bradbury reason for writing Fahrenheit 451. He used story to describe a future he hoped to prevent. In the case of Fahrenheit, it was a future where books—and by inference ideas—were outlawed. Where firemen no longer stopped fires, but started them. It was a frightening world, but also touched on a very real issue, and one he cared deeply about.

I used similar reasoning when I started the A Star Curiously Singing. I encountered an issue that moved me, that scared me for my children, and I wrote about it. And ironically, in the case of the DarkTrench Saga it is still idea that is being outlawed, but by a different villain, and all under the guise of belief.

These sorts of stories are when science fiction is at its best, I think. The story has to be about something, and it has to be something the writer cares deeply about.

More often than not, others—hopefully readers—will care just as deeply. And if they don’t then story, if done right, can move them to care.

Enjoy the language

This is the most difficult lesson of Bradbury’s to describe.

Typical advice to new writers is to be as stylistically plain as possible. To stick as close to the rulebook so as to take one’s self, and one’s idiosyncrasies out of the equation. To disappear behind the story. And in generally that’s good counsel.

I don’t think Bradbury subscribed to that particular mantra, though. In fact, I would say Bradbury’s stories were great because his personality was all over them.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think his style ever got in the way of his story. Instead, I think his style was to enliven the story. I think Bradbury pulled out his rolling toolbox of simile, metaphor, repetition, alliteration, symbolism, irony and imagery, along with the building blocks of idea and heart and constructed whatever house he wanted to build. Whatever creature needed to breathe.

To say Bradbury’s prose is poetic doesn’t do it justice. He relished the English language. He gloried in it. Danced and painted and sang in it. It was a marvelous thing to read and feel. An author both ever-present, but also masked within his story.

It is something I aspire to. Something every author should aspire to.

Conclusion

Doubtless there are many more things I’ve learned from Ray Bradbury and his works. Doubtless there is much they can teach me still. But on hearing of his death this week, I knew I had to say something, I had to write something, lest this moment of significance pass unnoticed.

To Ray Bradbury, a master craftsman, my humble thanks and admiration. Ninety-one years was hardly long enough.

I’m Kerry Nietz, one of the Marcher Lord Press authors, and this concludes my little digital eulogy. Perhaps someday in the future I’ll do the same for Mr. Burroughs and all the other names I’ve pilfered. (It only seems fair.)

But until then, what did Bradbury teach you?

19 Responses to What I learned from Ray Bradbury

  1. Marc Schooley June 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm #

    Great post, Kerry…a fine send-off for Ray Bradbury. I think he taught me to be on the lookout, for Something Wicked This Way Comes…

  2. Kerry June 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Thanks, Marc! Yeah, Wicked is another classic, and is the template for the Stephen Kings and Ted Dekkers of today, I think.

  3. James Scott Bell June 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Well and truly said. I had the privilege of conversing with the Great One at a library event once, talking about writing, and getting a “God bless you” at the end. He said then he never worked a day in his life. It was always falling in love with what his imagination gave him that morning. What a glory that he shared so much of that with us.

  4. knietz June 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    What an amazing moment that must’ve been, James. Wow. Thanks for sharing, and for stopping by!

  5. Morgan L. Busse June 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    “I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this,” Bradbury said. “It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’ ”

    I love that quote! Good article, Kerry 🙂

    • knietz June 9, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

      Thanks, Morgan. I love that quote too. And I’ve often experienced just what he said: Did I write this? I couldn’t have written this! Where did that come from?

      He stoops!

  6. C.L. Dyck June 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    My heart broke a little when I heard he was gone.

    The Veldt was my first encounter with his work. It disturbed me very, very deeply because I was a kid at the time, maybe about 12. Fahrenheit 451 spoke my language and, I think, made for an early warning away from intellectual totalitarianism. Invisible boxes, pretended freethought, and the apathy that foster them have been major life topics for me ever since.

    Thanks for this, Kerry.

  7. knietz June 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    Thanks for stopping by, Cathi. You’re more than welcome. Tweaked my heart too. Had to write something!!

  8. Kat Heckenbach June 10, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Lovely post, Kerry. What Bradbury taught me–that not ALL the books we’re forced to dissect in high school are mind-numbingly boring. That literary depth and “genre” writing CAN mix.

    Morgan, I love the quote you shared! I never saw that before. Here is my favorite, though:

    “…science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain,

    and art is an interpretation of that miracle…”

    –Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

    • knietz June 10, 2012 at 10:57 am #

      Thanks, Kat. Great lesson, and great quote. He has lots of ’em. 🙂

  9. Janet Sketchley June 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    Thanks for this post, Kerry. I didn’t know much about Ray Bradbury and what I’ve learned here has encouraged me. Long ago I read Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I think The Martian Chronicles just got added to my to-read list to help me appreciate his legacy.

    • knietz June 10, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

      Great, Janet. Thanks for stopping by. All his short story collections are fun too. I still remember reading R is for Rocket and S is for Space on a trip I took in college long, long ago. Lots of great stuff in those. (Though the individual stories are doubtless in other collections as well.)

  10. Lori Stanley Roeleveld June 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    Bradbury’s stories haunted me through high school (yes, I’m old) and his writing methods inform my work now. I learned from him to build a story from a noun after letting that noun evoke more sensory memories than I could ever have imagined if I had started somewhere less concrete. Zen and the Art of Writing instructed me on craft and stoked the fires in the furnace of my creative heart.

    • knietz June 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

      Martian Chronicles was turned into a TV movie while I was in high school, Lori. None of us are as young as we used to be…at least on the outside. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

      • Eric Hinkle June 11, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

        Hey, I remember seeing that miniseries/movie! I thought it was and is an amazing piece of work.

        Though I also love ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, ‘The Halloween Tree’ (say Hi to Moundshroud for us, Mister Bradbury!) and that one swords and plant story he co-wrote with Leigh Brackett.

  11. Amanda Borenstadt June 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Beautiful sentiments. 🙂 I think Bradbury would be pleased. 🙂

    • knietz June 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

      Thanks, Amanda. I appreciate it.

  12. Tim George June 12, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    Thanks for reminding us of all the great stories of Ray Bradbury. Still remember reading Something Wicked this Way Comes years ago. I think what you said about Bradbury’s use of language is important. With all the talk about a writer’s voice it seems much of today’s cookie-cutter approach to writing does all it can to stamp out the uniqueness of that voice.

    • knietz June 12, 2012 at 9:19 am #

      Good observation, Tim! Thanks for joining in.

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