Espresso didn’t taste good in high school, but I drank it in a little cup to look impressive. I would order it whenever I was in a bookstore and intended to read. I wanted to seem sophisticated. Like most teenagers, I wanted the image to betray reality and felt to be a writer, one must drink espresso, not the yummy mocha drinks of ordinary people. When I finally read Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing my senior year, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t yet understand his wisdom.
Ray Bradbury shaped how I interpreted reality more than any other writer. I wanted magic and science to marry. I distrusted the new at the sacrifice of value. I wanted to be a forward thinking curmudgeon like Bradbury. Someone who dreamed the body electric and feared the technological destruction of man. He is one of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century and is hardly ever recognized by the halls of literature because he spent most of his life in genre fiction. He missed the literary, laudatory boat of authors like Poe and Lovecraft because he wrote between a time when walls and categories were firmly in place and the bending of such boundaries by authors like Oates, Chabon, Letham, and Gaiman. The highest praise I read recently compared him to O. Henry, a beloved, yet mostly unread, author.
I would place Bradbury at the very center of literary influence on the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His fiction and screenplay work inspired many authors, cartoonists, and film makers who then inspired others. He often blended genres at a time when things should be in their happy categorical ghettos.
Perhaps Bradbury’s greatest literary sin was his readability. Teenagers and adults could eat up story after story, often finding subtle meanings and references sprinkled in between the lines. I feel it is up to the authors and readers of today to keep the passion of Bradbury’s books alive. His influence will only magnify as civilization screams into a world where cyber meets the physical, power is easily corrupted, and minds that could be thriving on imagination and culture are being turned to reality-show mush.
One Saturday evening in 2000, while I searched the writing resources shelves at the new Barnes and Nobel in Lancaster, California, I stumbled upon Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. The paperback cover looked gaudy with red, blue, yellow, green, and purple airbrush strokes behind a faux-cursive title. It looked like a sofa from 1988. I was a senior in high school and had recently read three of Bradbury’s books twice over the summer: Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine. I was deeply in love with Bradbury’s writing and thought perhaps I could become a writer some day. I grabbed Zen and went to get my bitter shot of pretension from the on-site Starbucks.
I have had a horrible habit with non-fiction books of reading them straight through from the preface. I don’t skip to parts or essays that look interesting from the table of contents. Instead, I treat them like an album. I think the essays are arranged in a deliberate order and meant to be experienced that way. I must have half a dozen books I have given up on with a life-exploding essay unread, waiting for me to break my habit.
With Zen, I began with the aptly titled preface: HOW TO CLIMB THE TREE OF LIFE, THROW ROCKS AT YOURSELF, AND GET DOWN AGAIN WITHOUT BREAKING YOUR BONES OR YOUR SPIRIT. A PREFACE WITH A TITLE NOT MUCH LONGER THAN THE BOOK. He chronicled how his love of comics and science fiction saved him from a young age. Bradbury spoke of writing as a way to survive the world and the constant onslaught of time and tragedy. Writing lessened a poison that would otherwise build up and become lethal. He used the word “cure” but chaffed at the term “therapeutic.” Therapy, to his mind, is something non-vital and powerless. Bradbury argued, in essence, writing can cure one’s existential crises.
Then I read, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” I had no idea in my 18 year old mind what it meant but I loved the idea. I wanted to write with vitality. But, as my reflections on other chapters of Zen will show, I hadn’t overcome my desire to be liked by readers nor attained the don’t-give-a-damn “courage to rebel” which Bradbury found at nine. I wanted to be important. I wanted to write importantly. I wanted to be relevant. I didn’t want to be drunk, I wanted something else. How different I understand Bradbury’s meaning in my thirties.
Writing first and foremost must be for one’s self. An attack on reality as Bradbury put it. Rather than putting on airs in the Barnes and Nobel cafe, I should’ve been content to hole myself up in my room with a bottle of Cactus Cooler (a high desert Californian soda which tasted like a mix of pineapple and oranges) writing stories about angels and mutants. I wanted to be liked so badly by people I forfeited my essence. My poetry was high-minded and meaningless for most of my 20’s. My comics, when I wasn’t creating work for someone else, lacked direction and conviction. I wanted to be liked. I wrote and drew for other people.
Bradbury wrote for Bradbury. He knew his audience. Some of his worst work, I feel, is because he was writing for someone else. His best work came from that curmudgeonly vital spirit of adventure which was burned into his soul by Buck Rogers.
Most authors write for an audience of one. In a Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Safran Foer he spoke about writing with the belief that if he liked what he was writing, others would too. Bradbury would be agree.
Hemingway stated his goal in writing was to write “one true sentence.” Writing is personal, even fiction, and truth is often found on a personal level. Our conscious and sub-conscience mind wrestles on the page or in our work. Bradbury ends his preface with this image, “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. Now it’s your turn. Jump!” Writing is an act of “explosive self-revelation and continuous astonishment.” Whether memoir, non-fiction, genre or non-genre fiction, or any creative act, self awareness and self-revelation can be the fuel to creating astonishing work.
As I plod on as a writer and freelance illustrator, I need to listen to Bradbury. I need to get drunk on my own work and creative desires. I must fight the reality I see with words, images, and ideas. Use my passions for fuel and get working. I’m willing, and if you want to join me along the road, there’s plenty of room.