WHEN I heard Ray Bradbury had died, my mind flooded with images. They’d been in hibernation since the time when I read his short stories as a child. Still beautiful, haunting, frightening. there was the Illustrated Man, his body covered with tattoos that came to life and told their own stories. there was a carnival, all garish lights and tinny music on a dark Illinois plain. there was the little man who gave me nightmares, the man who could suck out your skeleton.
Grateful readers around the world have been paying tribute to this masterful writer , whose genre is usually labelled science fiction but might better be renamed Gothic fantasy. What’s perhaps less acknowledged is Bradbury’s powerful role as a mentor and inspiration to other writers.
OK, his prose was sometimes a bit purple and he was pugnaciously old-fashioned, with no time for ”modern slice-of-life stories”, and that made him wrong about some things. He thought there was no future in e-books, that they ”smell like burnt fuel”. But he always got to the heart of why books were so important. He was so bold, so positive. ”Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off,” he said. ”Build your wings on the way down.”
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One of the best examples of Bradbury as teacher and mentor is a speech he gave in 2001 to writing students at Point Loma Nazarene University, in California. in his address, which can be seen on YouTube, he talks non-stop for an hour, without notes; he’s an old man with a shock of white hair reminiscing about his writing life and his passion for self-education.
Don’t bother trying to write a novel, he tells the students. Write a lot of short stories. if you can write at least one a week, in a year you’ll have 52, ”and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. A story will come that’s just wonderful.”
It’s advice he followed. He started writing short stories at 12 and didn’t write ”a decent one” until he was 20. He was fearful of novels and didn’t write his first, Fahrenheit 451, until he was 30. Bradbury’s publisher, Walter Bradbury (no relation), believed in short-story collections that ”tricked people into thinking they were novels”. hence the Martian Chronicles and the Illustrated Man.
Bradbury also has advice about reading: ”Live in the library, not in the computer and all that crap.” He says that when you search the library, you’re looking for someone like yourself. in his case it was George Bernard Shaw.
As well as the weekly writing regime, he recommends budding writers should read a short story, a poem and an essay every night for 1000 nights. At the end of that time, ”Jesus god, you’ll be full of stuff!”
For Bradbury, writing was about collecting metaphors, which give his stories their haunting air and make them so memorable: they resonate with readers, even if we don’t altogether understand why. ”The sooner you recognise metaphors, the better off you’ll be,” he tells the students.
He was always indifferent to money as a motivator. For him, the writing was a joy and a celebration: ”I’ve never worked a day in my life. I want you to envy me my joy.” But he was also in search of an audience: ”What you’re looking for in your life is for one person to come up to you and say: ‘I love you for what you do’.”
Ray, if you’re listening out there, on Mars or wherever: I love you for what you still do to your readers.