Years ago, I watched the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I was stunned by the brilliance of Ray Bradbury’s writing. Although many people only know Ray Bradbury as the Father of Sci-Fi and the author of The Martian Chronicles or other futuristic or alien-like stories. Bradbury was foremost a writer about people and their very real emotions and life.
I am teaching Something Wicked This Way Comes now in my college writing class. In doing so, I feel that my personal carousel has advanced by at least another notch on the dial. I feel that at last, the gods have allowed me the time and the space to study a writer that I have admired for many years. Among other things, I am studying Bradbury’s book about writing: Zen in the Art of Writing.
Several pages into his book about writing, Bradbury provides the reader with a list of the elements that have somehow fused together to create within him the force that he became:
The first movie star I remember is Lon Chaney.
The first drawing I made was a skeleton.
The first awe I remember having was of the stars on a summer night in Illinois.
The first stories I read were science-fiction stories in Amazing.
The first time I ever went away from home was to go to New York and see the World of the Future enclosed in the Perisphere and shadowed by the Trylon.
My first decision about a career was at eleven, to be a magician and travel the world with my illusions.
My second decision was at twelve when I got a toy typewriter for Christmas. And I decided to become a writer.
And between the decision and the reality lay eight years of junior high school, high school, and selling newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles, while I wrote three million words.
My first acceptance came from Rob Wagner’s Script Magazine, when I was twenty.
My second sale was to Thrilling Wonder Stories.
My third was to Weird Tales.
Since then I have sold 250 stories to almost every magazine in the U.S., plus writing the screenplay of Moby Dick for John Huston.
I have written about the Lon Chaney-and-the-skeleton-people for Weird Tales.
I have written about Illinois and its wilderness in my Dandelion Wine novel.
I have written about those stars over Illinois, to which a new generation is going.
I have made worlds of the future on paper, much like that world I saw in New York at the Fair as a boy.
And I have decided, very late in the day, that I never gave up my first dream.
I am, like it or not, some sort of magician after all, half-brother to Houdini, rabbit-son of Blackstone, born in the cinema light of an old theatre, I would like to think (my middle name is Douglas; Fairbanks was at his height when I arrived in 1920), and matured at a perfect time—when man makes his last and greatest step out away from the sea that birthed him, the cave that sheltered him, the land that held him, and the air that summoned him so that he could never rest.
In sum, I am a piebald offspring of our mass-moved, mass entertainer, alone-in-a-New-Year’s-crowd age.
It is a great age to live in and, if need be, die in and for.
Any magician worth his salt would tell you the same.
1961 – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs.45-46.
I’ll be very honest. I have read very little of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction, and that is the genre for which he is most famous, but I am very much interested in the tales that sprang out of his childhood in the small-town USA–in America’s midwest. Although I came along a few years later than Bradbury, I grew up in a cotton-patch town in Southeastern Missouri, which is not too terribly far from Bradbury’s Illinois. Illinois is just right up the Mississippi River from where I was a child.
When Bradbury writes about the carnival, I am with him—heart and soul. No doubt, one of the grandest times in the Bootheel of Missouri was when the carnivals came to town and the early autumn nights that were typically little more than starlight, crickets, and cotton lint drifting in front of a yellow moon became more. The carnival brought the lilting music of the calliope, the flashing lights that seemed to shoot across eternity, almost to heaven, and action.
Action. Normally, there wasn’t much action in the little town where I grew up, and like Bradbury, the Carnival was the highlight of the years of my childhood. Certainly, because Something Wicked This Way Comes is about a carnival, my interest was perked. But Something is a bit of a horror story, and I’m not usually into horror tales. I don’t even enjoy reading Edgar Allen Poe. The fact that Something is a horror tale almost dissuaded me from teaching it in my writing class. Yet, undeniably, whatever else it is or is not, Something is a masterpiece of writing. Bradbury shares insight into his approach to writing in Zen in the Art of Writing.
Bradbury credits his muse as the writer of his stories. What Bradbury calls his muse, I call my intuition:
Bradbury assured us that everyone has this muse or intuition within himself or herself. He said that the muse has simply been silenced in many by life’s blows, but he promised us that it is still there.
The muse or the intuition is still inside us. Joan Didion would say that the intuition or the muse is in the gaps:
Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
It is within one of those gaps that Bradbury’s muse told him to say that the library door in Something Wicked This Way Comes “gasped.” We mortals don’t say that doors “gasp.” We say that doors shut or slam or creak or open. Only intuition speaks in the language of doors that gasp, and only the intuition knows how the downtown area of a small town looks after the work day is done:
But by the time the last stroke of nine shook everyone’s fillings in his teeth, the barbers had yanked off the sheets, powdered the customers, trotted them forth; the druggist’s fount had stopped fizzing like a nest of snakes, the insect neons everywhere had ceased buzzing, and the vast glittering acreage of the dime store with its ten billion metal, glass and paper oddments waiting to be fished over, suddenly blacked out. Shades slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels. Bang! they were gone!” Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, page 30.
Furthermore, only the Muse or the Intuition could fathom a lightning rod that had been marked by the force of time itself and still bore the mystical power of the channels that lay behind it:
“The entire surface of the rod was finely scratched and etched with strange languages, names that could tie the tongue or break the jaw, numerals that added to incomprehensible sums, pictographs of insect-animals all bristle, chaff, and claw. ‘That’s Egyptian.’ Jim pointed his nose at a bug soldered to the iron.
‘So it is, boy!’
Jim squinted. ‘And those there – Phoenician hen tracks,’
‘Why?’ asked Jim.
‘Why?’ said the man. ‘Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What colour is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies? Boys, you got to be ready in every dialect with every shape and form to hex the St Elmo’s fires, the balls of blue light that prowl the earth like sizzling cats. I got the only lightning-rods in the world that hear, feel, know, and sass back any storm, no matter what tongue, voice, or sign. No foreign thunder so loud this rod can’t soft-talk it!’” Bradbury – Something Wicked This Way Comes, pgs. 7-8.
Ray Bradbury allowed his intuition or his muse to write his stories and novels, and he acknowledged that. What’s more, through his book Zen in the Art of Writing, he shared ways that other aspiring writers can harness their own intuitions:
Bradbury said that early in his career he began collecting lists of nouns that he felt might be prompts for future stories:
I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.
Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.
It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone….Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 19.
Bradbury recalled that when he was a child, he would draw skeletons to scare his girl cousins. With the word “skeleton” as a prompt, he said that the following happened: “I fell into my typewriter with it and came up with a brand-new, absolutely original tale, which had been lurking under my skin since I first drew a skull and crossbones, aged six. I began to gain steam. The ideas came faster now, and all of them from my lists.” – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 20.
Bradbury also emphasized that writers should pay close attention to their own memories:
Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.
Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are—the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.
To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 42.
“I listened to the middle-of-the-night locomotives wailing across the northern Illinois landscape, and that was death, a funeral train, taking my loved ones away to some far graveyard. I remembered five o’clock in the morning, predawn arrivals of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, and all the animals parading by before sunrise, heading for the empty meadows where the great tents would rise like incredible mushrooms. I remembered Mr. Electrico and his traveling electric chair. I remembered Blackstone the Magician dancing magical handkerchiefs and vanishing elephants on my hometown stage.
– Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 20-21.
Bradbury assured us that EVERY person, not merely the creator, has an intuitive voice within himself:
As we can learn from every man or woman or child around us when, touched and moved, they tell of something they loved or hated this day, yesterday, or some other day long past. At a given moment, the fuse, after sputtering wetly, flares, and the fireworks begin.
Oh, it’s limping crude hard work for many, with language in their way. But I have heard farmers tell about their very first wheat crop on their first farm after moving from another state, and if it wasn’t Robert Frost talking, it was his cousin, five times removed. I have heard locomotive engineers talk about America in the tones of Thomas Wolfe who rode our country with his style as they ride it in their steel. I have heard mothers tell of the long night with their firstborn when they were afraid that they and the baby might die. And I have heard my grandmother speak of her first ball when she was seventeen. And they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets. If it seems I’ve come the long way around, perhaps I have. But I wanted to show what we all have in us, that it has always been here, and so few of us bother to notice. When people ask me
where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange—we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in. – The Muse, to belabor the point then, is there, a fantastic storehouse, our complete being. All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 34-35.
Bradbury adds that this intuitive muse was fragile and that many people had lost access to their own intuitions long ago:
We know how fragile is the pattern woven by our fathers or uncles or friends, who can have their moment destroyed by a wrong word, a slammed door, or a passing fire-wagon. So, too, embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 36.
Ray Bradbury said that we can feed our minds to help us better navigate the fragile and often ephemeral intuition that lies within ourselves. First, he said that the writer should read a large quantity of poetry:
Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of
your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into territories …. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 38-39.
Like Julia Cameron, who came after him, Ray Bradbury stressed the importance of writing daily:
The Muse must have shape. You will write a thousand words a day for ten or twenty years in order to try to give it shape, to learn enough about grammar and story construction so that these become part of the Subconscious, without restraining or distorting the Muse. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 42.
Like many other writers, Bradbury advocated that the aspiring writer read a lot of what other writers have written.
By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse.You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room. You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 42-43.
Bradbury also said that the writer must be passionate:
The loud, the passionate voice seems to please most. The voice upraised in conflict, the comparison of opposites. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room. You have learned to go immediately to the typewriter and preserve the inspiration for all time by putting it on paper. … At the exact moment when truth erupts, the subconscious changes from wastebasket file to angel writing in a book of gold. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 43-44.
Bradbury almost apologetically admitted that when his muse was doing his work, writing itself was not the odious task that many other writers felt that it was:
Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation. But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off. That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one-half terror, exactly one-half exhilaration. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 50.
Adam Sandler shared with us a great bit of wisdom in the following words: “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.”
Long before Adam Sandler arrived to prophesy for us, Ray Bradbury offered almost the same bit of advice:
I was in love, then, with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and, at last, the red planet, Mars. From these primitive bricks I have built a life and a career. By my staying in love with all of these amazing things, all of the good things in my existence have come about. In other words, I was not embarrassed at circuses. Some people are. Circuses are loud, vulgar, and smell in the sun. By the time many people are fourteen or fifteen, they have been divested of their loves, their ancient and intuitive tastes, one by one, until when they reach maturity there is no fun left, no zest, no gusto, no flavor. Others have criticized, and they have criticized themselves, into embarrassment. When the circus pulls in at five of a dark cold summer morn, and the calliope sounds, they do not rise and run, they turn in their sleep, and life passes by.
I did rise and run….. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.
I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. … Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room. For, you see, it is all mulch. If I hadn’t stuffed my eyes and stuffed my head with all of the above for a lifetime, when it came round to word-associating myself into story ideas, I would have brought up a ton of ciphers and a half-ton of zeros. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 51 -52.
Ray Bradbury wrote the short story “The Veldt:”
In that the Veldt is about a playroom in a futuristic society, it is science fiction. But The Veldt is a kind of science fiction that I can love. It is more about fiction than it is about science, and for me, that is a winning formula. Bradbury said that his story “The Veldt” evolved from a word on his list:
“The Veldt” is a prime example of what goes on in a headful of images, myths, toys. Back some thirty years ago I sat down to my typewriter one day and wrote these words: “The Playroom.”
Playroom where? The Past? No. The Present? Hardly. The Future? Yes! Well, then, what would a Playroom in some future year be like? I began typing, word-associating around the room.
Such a Playroom must have television monitors lining each wall,
and the ceiling. Walking into such an environment, a child could
shout: River Nile! Sphinx! Pyramids! and they would appear,
surrounding him, in full color, full sound, and, why not? Glorious
warm scents and smells and odors, pick one, for the nose!
All this came to me in a few seconds of fast typing. I knew the room, now I must put characters in the room. I typed out a character named George, brought him into a future-time kitchen, where his wife turned and said: ‘Georg’e, I wish you’d look at the Playroom. I think it’s broken—’
George and his wife go down the hall. I follow them, typing madly, not knowing what will happen next. They open the door of the Playroom and step in.
Africa. Hot sun. Vultures. Dead meat. Lions.
Two hours later the lions leaped out of the walls of the Playroom and devoured George and his wife, while their TVdominated children sat by and sipped tea.
End of word-association. End of story. The whole thing complete and almost ready to send out, an explosion of idea, in something like 120 minutes.
The lions in that room, where did they come from?
From the lions I found in the books in the town library when I
was ten. From the lions I saw in the real circuses when I was five.
From the lion that prowled in Lon Chaney’s film He Who Gets
Slapped in 1924! … As soon as it flashed on the screen I knew that that was where my lions in “The Veldt” came from. They had been hiding out, waiting, given shelter by my intuitive self, all these years. For I am that special freak, the man with the child inside who remembers all. -Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pgs. 52 -54.
As I said before, I fell in love with Bradbury’s writing via his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I first met in the form of a movie. That novel is about much that envigorates me through literature, and the characters in that novel carry that story. One of the characters in Something Wicked is Mr. Dark. In the following passage, Bradbury allows us to see that Mr. Dark was inspired by Mr. Electrico., who he encountered in the carnivals of his own youth:
But the whole conglomeration of magic and myths and falling
downstairs with brontosaurs only to arise with La of Opar, was
shaken into a pattern by one man, Mr. Electrico.
He arrived with a seedy two-bit carnival, The Dill Brothers
Combined Shows, during Labor Day weekend of 1932, when I
was twelve. Every night for three nights, Mr. Electrico sat in his
electric chair, being fired with ten billion volts of pure blue
sizzling power. Reaching out into the audience, his eyes flaming,
his white hair standing on end, sparks leaping between his smiling teeth, he brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me. Mr. Electrico cried: ‘Live forever!’… . From the time I was twelve until I was twenty-two or -three, I wrote stories long after midnight—unconventional stories of ghosts and haunts and things in jars that I had seen in sour armpit carnivals, of friends lost to the tides in lakes, and of consorts of three in the morning, those souls who had to fly in the dark in order not to be shot in the sun.– Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 56.
The Green Town stories that found their way into an accidental novel titled Dandelion Wine and the Red Planet stories that blundered into another accidental novel called The Martian Chronicles were written, alternately,
during the same years that I ran to the rainbarrel outside my grandparents’ house to dip out all the memories, the myths, the word-associations of other years. – Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, pg. 57.
Bradbury On Rejections, Poverty, and Picking Yourself Back Up Again:
Ray Bradbury shared a snippet of his life that occurred as a result of his friend’s invitation to travel to Mexico City. Bradbury said that because he had no money to spare, he couldn’t go: