Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.
Last week was Ray Bradbury’s 91st birthday – and I’d like to celebrate that wondrous event with you by telling you what he means, has meant, to me.
When I was a teenager, my life was pretty complicated. I know that’s true for many (maybe all) teenagers but we all think our lives are more complicated than anyone else’s. My mom and dad had split up, I had a younger brother and sister, and my mom – though the sweetest woman in the world – was working full-time, drinking about the same, and trying to figure out a way to live her life on her own. Her life was tough, and so then was mine. I worked, went to school, looked after the house, badly, and my brother and sister, equally as badly.
Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
I escaped all of that by immersing myself in books though I was reading what I found in the school library and on my mother’s bedside table. After a while, I needed something more… something tougher, I guess, something that kept my attention. I suppose at that time – 13 or 14 – I just didn’t know what to read. But a friend of my mom’s – and mostly her oldest son – helped me figure that out. He brought me weathered paperback books written by writers like Heinlein and Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Sturgeon, Clarke, Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem, Hubbard and Burroughs. My bed was piled high with musty old paperbacks that took me, each night, to another world. I’m not kidding when I say that those books saved my life.
The night I picked up a worn and ragged copy of Farenheit 451 was like any night or at least I thought it was. I stayed up most of the night reading that book, following Montag through the fires and the evil and the forest and the river and when the sun began to shine through my window, I was a different person. I’m not sure I knew that when it happened, what I did know was that something had shifted inside of me. Books were no longer just for entertainment, they were going to teach me how to live my life.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
Ray Bradbury and his books, his stories, his ideas, made my complicated teenage life bearable. And in the years since, science fiction in general has often made my complicated life bearable. I go back to Dandelion Wine or Something Wicked This Way Comes or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Solaris or, more recently, Tarzan, when I need to remember what it felt like to discover those new worlds, to feel as if reading – and writing – were the most important things in the world. And today I read writers like Connie Willis and William Gibson, wait impatiently for their next book to arrive in the bookstore.
I have two writing books on my desk – Stephen King’s On Writing and Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. Neither of these books tell me how to write, they gently instruct me in how to be a writer and to try to concentrate on the being rather than on the result.
…if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches…
Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury, and thank you.
All quotes are by Ray Bradbury