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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All I Ever Really Needed To Know About Writing, I Learned From Ray Bradbury

I grew up in a world of marvelous science fiction. I watched endless monster movies on Saturday afternoons with the younger of my two older brothers, and my eldest brother was an avid reader of Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury. He had a Doc Savage book collection that is probably worth a fortune today.

As a pre-teen, I often stole books off his bookshelf, reading them in my bed at night under the covers with a flashlight until my Mom shut me down or my brother came in, wanting to know if I was stealing his books again.

One such night, he caught me reaching for something just as he entered the room - I was caught! I turned to sheepishly make my exit, wondering if I could sneak back later, maybe when he was in the bathroom brushing his teeth or something.

"Hey," he said. "You should try this one." He handed me a book with an orange cover that I'd been eyeing for awhile but hadn't taken yet.

"You like all those monster movies and space movies, right?" He went on. "This is all about Mars, except it's cool because the monsters turn out to be us."

I headed back to my room, crawled under the covers, turned on the flashlight and read the words that I still remember, thirty-plus years later:

There was a smell of time in the air tonight. What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like, it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box-lids, and rain.

Those are the opening words from "Night Meeting", a story housed in Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles". A book that I still have to this day, having stolen it from my brother's collection and never given it back (sorry, Brian). It's tattered in the extreme and I've reread it several hundred times by now. I can never get over the moods and feelings and the smells and depth of the words that Ray Bradbury put to paper.

I watched the human race through almond-shaped Martian eyes, and heard the beauty of our simple songs, felt the confusion of our sometimes odd and disjointed customs, and breathed in the thin Martian air as I stared out over the canals. And when Ylla's Martian husband slaughtered the first expedition, I felt as empty as she did. The coldness of her husband hit me down to the marrow of my bones.

And who could forget "Way in the Middle of the Air" (and it's later successor, "The Other Foot")? Both were a powerful commentary on racism that still manages to scream it's truth in your face from millions of miles across space.

That book led to his other works, of course. I found  myself picnicking in the veldt, imagined myself an April witch, caught myself staring hard at tattooed people (just in case the tattoos came to life and told a story), and I even tried to memorize my favorite book, in case someone ever wanted to burn it. Of course, it goes without saying that I am still, to this day, terrified of stepping on a butterfly.

The magic of Bradbury was his artistry. He used his words like a paintbrush, and like all great artists, he knew when to apply just enough and let our minds fill in the rest. He knew the quiet power of letting a character remain silent, and the descriptiveness of the ordinary, like the smell of dust on books. These are the things that pull from your memory, finding a commonality with his characters that makes you want to step aboard that rocket with them, and take that ride. Even when you don't know what's waiting for you. Even when there's a chance it might end badly.

His combination of Norman Rockwell Americana endlessly reaching for the stars while exposing the parts of us that make us truly, and sometimes frighteningly human was a unique and incredible thing. He inspired me to always look for just the right word, or combination of words. Or to leave the words out and leave the audience hanging. I've learned to tweak, to refine, to polish and to let it age, like a fine dandelion wine.

Here's to you, Mr. Bradbury. If I have any measure of talent, it was nurtured at the feet of an extinct race on a red planet, and the men and women who knew, truly, that we always have the potential for great things.

If only we'd just realize that the bad guys don't have to be us.

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