Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

(reprinted from the Willamette Writers newsletter one year ago)

ray bradbury

Thank you for throwing the literary gauntlet in my face. My ninth grade English teacher, from the Pasadena Alternative School, took a few of us to hear you speak back in the mid seventies and you looked me right in the eye (I swear) and told me to get off my butt and write. You didn’t claim that being a writer was an elite club that I’d have to struggle for years to get into and then still be rejected from. No, you said there were amazing stories already inside me and that I should stand up and do my job. So, thank you for that. At fifteen years old I started my first attempt at a novel.

Thank you for making the short story such an appealing medium.  You demonstrated that a work of short fiction did not have to be a cryptic masterpiece. It could just be interesting or creepy or fun. I didn’t need to be Tolstoy or Salinger—I just needed to have a cool idea and the perseverance to make it as good on the page as it was in my mind. In high school, after reading a few of your collections, I wrote dozens of short stories, for me a prerequisite for becoming a novelist.

Thank you for making dark things beautiful, even sentimental. And thank you for making mundane things mysterious and often frightening. You turned my crush on Time Travel and the Supernatural into a life-long love affair. I will never forget reading R is for Rocket, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes while riding the school bus—a sea monster attacked a lighthouse out of unrequited love; a sinister carnival appeared in the dead of night with a merry-go-round that ran backwards, carousel horses smiled with “panic-colored” teeth.  I wouldn’t realize we had pulled up to the campus until someone accidentally thwacked me with a book bag.

Thank you for being a madman with your pen. In just one twelve year span, for instance, you published five short story collections (over 100 stories), four novels, 7 scripts, and a children’s book. You proved that a mortal can indeed burn the candle at both ends in a wild frenzy of productivity without dying young. You made it to 91. And your life by example cries, “Leap up and fly to the typewriter whenever that urge comes over you even if it’s 2:00 in the morning or you’re in the middle of math class or in a dark theater watching a play. Pick up a pencil stub, find the blank space in the margin of the program, and scribble away!” You taught me not to listen to anyone who says it’s impossible—you can write a three-day novel or more than one short story a day or dream a whole book while pushing a stroller around the block.

Thank you for telling us stories about telling stories. And not the regular writing career anecdotes about getting rejection slips or funny fan-mail or how a piece of personal history gave you fuel for one of your plots. No, your stories about writing pulled us into the sea. A white monster was rising under us as you spoke about the screenplay for Moby Dick. You brought us into the glow of a camp fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In the wavering light, the footprints of the Son of God disappeared in the sand as you described your vision for the screenplay of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Thank you for being the defender of used book stores and the champion of public libraries. I’m sure you appreciated people buying new copies of your books (I do, too) but you also saw the truth: used books are not trash, they are treasure. They are beat up doorways into the same glorious adventures you can enter through new, pristine doors. As a matter-of-fact, sometimes the smell of mildew, that certain shade of a yellowed page, and the sound of vintage paste cracking in the binding of an old paperback makes the story even better. And libraries are sacred—you taught me that. Books are for everyone. Poor people have just as much right to read as rich people.

Thank you for being so Ray Bradbury-ish. Not just in your writing and in your love of books –you wore your personality like a proud flag. And it wasn’t just your enthusiasm as a speaker. You were physically yourself down to every atom, from your thick gray hair to your glasses with lenses so deep your eyes seemed far away, able to gaze into other worlds. I hope you will always inspire me to look the way I look without apology. When I do book signings and speaking gigs, I want my spirit to shine out of me, like yours did, making the fact that my shoes aren’t fashionable or that I’m 53 instead of 33 not only acceptable but somehow cool.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Bradbury. Especially for those things I’ve forgotten or that I will not realize until years later were gifts from you.


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