Ray Bradbury died last Tuesday, and I lost the best writing teacher I'd never met.
I’ve spent the last week rereading some of my favorite stories in The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, and I’ve been dipping in and out of the endless summer that is Dandelion Wine. I love his direct, precise language. I love the deceptive simplicity of each story. I love how he defies the standard "show, don’t tell" advice to writers by both showing and telling. I love the tension in an opening line like, “He had smoked a packet of cigarettes in two hours." I love that his advice to new writers is always: "Jump, run, freeze." I love how dandelion wine sounds like a strange and exotic brew, strange until it has been linked so inextricably with the freedom and pleasures of summer, imbued with so much sun-soaked detail, that it is no different than the lemonade my grandmother served us kids at the summer cottage on Long Island: "The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
Ray Bradbury’s stories are strange but familiar because no matter what planet or small town plays backdrop, no matter what form of sea monster or extraterrestrial narrates, Bradbury is simply, impossibly, perfectly, always, telling the story of us. His stories are about people inventing, dreaming, destroying, falling in love, exploring, scheming, killing, burning, playing, creating, lying, dying, living, and, happily, brewing dandelion wine. The writer and NPR host Peter Sagal points out that Bradbury is, essentially, people: "Kids in a long-gone Midwestern town . . . , firemen who reluctantly burned books, and of course astronauts, travelers, people who went to other planets only to find themselves."
Bradbury’s essay "Just This Side of Byzantium," which was published as an introduction to Dandelion Wine and reprinted in his marvelous essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing, has some of the best, most practical advice about writing you will find anywhere. He explains that when he was a young writer, before he learned to let a story take its own shape, he thought it possible to "beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence." But: "Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies."
As a young man, then, Bradbury hit upon the process that would work for him for all of his writing life, a word-association method that involved writing down the first word or series of words that were in his mind when he opened his eyes every morning. "I would then take arms against this word, or for it, and bring on an assortment of characters to weigh the word and show me its meaning in my own life. An hour or two hours later, to my amazement, a new story would be finished and done. The surprise was total and lovely."
He makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? The thing is, it is that easy, when you do it every day, when you let the words do their work, like Bradbury did, every day, for decades. And because he wrote every day, for decades, it’s no surprise that his body of work is vast and his influence incalculable.
In his tribute in the Guardian, novelist Neil Gaiman speaks to just how inspirational Bradbury is: "Long before I was a writer, Bradbury was one of the writers that other writers aspired to become. And none of them ever did." On his own website, Gaiman offers some moving and deeply personal memories of his last visits and conversations with his friend and mentor.
Most writers who had the privilege to know Bradbury, like Gaiman, speak of his generosity to other writers, of his willingness to coach and encourage, of his infectious enthusiasm for people, for stories, for storytelling, for life itself. Even without having met him, you can feel this enthusiasm in his writing: words tumble fast after one another, like boys rolling down a grassy hill, too eager to see what's waiting at the bottom to merely run. Bradbury wrote every day because he could not manage otherwise ("Writing is survival," said he), and he wrote so that the world and all its horrors could not catch up with him and destroy him. But he didn't hide from the world or pretend those horrors did not exist; rather, he tossed "the bright-colored orbs to mix with the dark ones, blending a variation of truths."
The survival skills Bradbury honed are universal, natural, instinctive, learned from hummingbirds, from lizards, he tells us in Zen in the Art of Writing: "Run fast, stand still." In quickness there is the safety of truth, because writing quickly is writing honestly, without the burden of thoughtful attention to style or audience or consquence. In stillness there is the safety of careful observation, the steady absorption of detail that will supply your truth.
Run fast, stand still. Every day, with the joy of kids rolling down the grassy hill in the endless summer sun. It is as easy as Ray Bradbury makes it sound, but first, and always, you have to close your eyes and jump.