Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Bless You, Ray Bradbury
My friend, Ray Bradbury, died yesterday. He was 91. Advanced age, a stroke 13 years ago, the refusal to have a driver's license or own a computer or fly in airplanes, never slowed Ray down. He wrote 1,000 words a day, every day, in the end dictating his words through the phone to one of his three daughters. Ray absolutely loved to write. I know, because he told me.
In 1986, I read an article in the February issue of Writer's Digest that featured Ray. I had been teaching various Bradbury stories to high school and community college students for 17 years. I showed the 16mm film, The Story of a Writer, so that students could sense and feel the development of Ray's writing process, to let them know that stories found in anthologies were real, the spawned creations of vulnerable humans. I invited my students to dare stroke the downy side of his imagination, to see if they could dance within the faerie rings that he created.
The Writer' Digest article stopped me dead in my tracks, for within it, Ray Bradbury revealed the single time and place and person responsible for setting his imagination on fire. It was Labor Day, 1932, and the Dill Brothers Combined Shows had arrived at Waukegan, IL. In front of one of the tents was Mr. Electrico, a man whose hair was standing straight up and whose body was glowing with "ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power." Mr. Electrico spotted a 12 year old boy in the crowd and stretched out a charged sword, dubbing the boy on both his shoulders, and then touching the tip of his nose.
"Live forever!" Mr. Electrico cried out to Ray.
Ray's life would never be the same.
The next day, he snuck back to the tents and met Mr. Electrico, now minus the voltage. The man was a defrocked minister from Cairo, IL. He showed Ray all of the acts: the jugglers, the acrobats, the strong man. Then he said a most remarkable thing to the wide-eyed boy.
"We've met before. You were my best friend in France and you died in my arms in the Battle of the Ardennes Forest. And here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!"
It took me a full day to get over reading that story. I sensed that I needed to do something. I had two manuscripts that had been languishing with agents, and I was feeling drained. I was teaching during the day and writing at night, and it felt like I was getting nowhere.
So, I sat down and wrote a letter to the man who wrote such classic works as The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 and the screenplay for Moby Dick, that earned him an Academy Award nomination. At the conclusion of that letter, I wrote:
"I have recently completed reading "Ray Bradbury's Nostalagia for the Future" in the February issue of Writer's Digest. I was immediately struck by the tale of Mr. Electrico and the subtle metaphor it seemed to present to me. In 1932, a man who didn't know you from Adam touched your imagination with his vitality and showmanship and offered you a moment of friendship. Like you, I don't fly (I have since flown), but I did work in a gas station for 8 years to pay for my high school and college tuition. In the gas station, I learned that the quickest way to revive a battery run low is with a surge from a dependable energy source, perhaps one with "ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power." I don't know if jumper cables would stretch from Los Angeles to Philadelphia or if you will even read this...."
Two weeks later, I received the following letter:
"Dear James Comey:
How kind of you to write.
Consider that this is the jumper cable across the country to electrify your batteries and jump-leap-bound-cavort-lark your wildest dreams to pour out of your fingertips.
Remember: throw up every morning, clean up every noon.
DO and then think.
DO first. Get it down and done, with joy.
Then think about it.
Much love for all of your life,
Included with the letter was a copy of an article that he had written for The Writer magazine in July 1961 called "How to Keep and Feed a Muse." He had gone through the article and underlined various sections that he thought might help me.
Our correspondence continued. He always had the most remarkable letterheads, and, one October, there were Halloween stickers on the outside of the envelope.
Then one evening, my phone rang around 9 at night.
"Hello?" I asked. I wasn't expecting anybody to call.
"Jim!" a voice shouted. "This is Ray. I was going to write but I wanted to talk to you."
"Hi Ray," I mumbled, my lips numb.
"Listen, Jim. Don't let those editors and agents get you down. What the hell do they know? It doesn't matter what they think. All that matters is what you think. Love what you're doing and don't listen to the bastards. Will you do that?"
"I will, Ray," I heard myself say
"It's what's kept me going, all these years, Jim. Love what you're doing, and it'll show. I just wanted to tell you that, Jim. Bless you."
And he hung up.
A stroke hit him a short time after that.
And now, he's gone.
I have never forgotten the joy and awe and thankfulness that I felt that night. In the conclusion of "How to Keep and Feed a Muse," Ray underlined: "Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you never need doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime."
Bless you, Ray Bradbury.
Copyright (2012) by James Hugh Comey