Ray Bradbury: A True Renaissance Man

(I just found this essay in my files from May 25, 1989. You can also read a companion essay about Ray Bradbury from 1991 that I published on this website on 3/1/17. Both appeared in The Beach Reporter, where I was a columnist and reporter in the 1980s and 1990s.)

Renaissance man (n): “A person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas.” Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury puts the term “Renaissance man” to shame. Dictionary writers should invent a new phrase just to describe him because he not only has wide interests (everything in the world), but he also seems to be an expert at everything. The man is a human sponge. He remembers being born, he remembers everything about his childhood, he has seen about every movie ever made and has read more poems, essays, plays, novels, and nonfiction books than the whole city of Manhattan Beach put together. And, of course, there is all that he has written.

In short, Bradbury amazes you because he has done so much with his life and is so brilliant. At the same time, he inspires you because he makes you feel as though all of this is within your reach, too, if only you can make the effort.

Bradbury spoke recently to a meeting of the Southwest Manuscripters, a South Bay writing group that has been in existence for more than forty years. The Manuscripters were one of the first groups that ever asked Bradbury to be a guest speaker, and he has returned the honor by speaking to the group nearly every year since that time.

He makes the trip from his home in Los Angeles to come to the Torrance High School Little Theater, and speaks to a capacity crowd about what it’s like to be Bradbury. He doesn’t drive a car, although in his books he has put people on Mars. You get the feeling that many in the audience have been here before, that this is an annual pilgrimage. This was my fifth year, and I recognized a lot of familiar faces.
Dressed casually, as though he just breezed in from a tennis match (“You didn’t really expect me to wear a suit, did you?”), Bradbury begins by discussing how creative ideas are always within our immediate reach, if only we would reach out and grab them. For example, he loves the Gettysburg Address as a written document, and thought there must be a way to bring it alive so that great numbers of people could feel its power and majesty. So he put together a seven minute film of a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders listening to Lincoln’s speech. Since the boy was up high, he was the only one in that part of the crowd who could hear, and he repeated Lincoln’s words to those around him.

An avid historian, Bradbury believes that history can be taught in a special way. He has created projects such as a robotized version of the Declaration of Independence, a 17 minute film of 200 years of American history for the World’s Fair, and a 2,000 year history of ideas in fifteen minutes for Disney’s Epcot Center.

A running theme in all of Bradbury’s talks seems to be that the individual person has it in his or her power to develop creative genius. He states firmly, “I believe in optimal behavior and each one of you living to your capacity. Behaving each day with a feeling of joy and optimism.” One of the best ways to learn, he says, is to read the words of others who are creative geniuses. “You must stuff your head with the great literature, reading what you want to read. Find the poetry, essays, short stories, and plays that are joyful to you.”

He suggests a way to read all the great literature in the world. “Every night before you go to bed, take a half-hour and read one poem, one essay, and one short story – and by the end of one year you will have read all the great short stories, poems, and essays. Every night you fill your head with seeds, and then harvest them.”

Not only is Bradbury a voracious reader but he also likes to see everything that has been put on film. “This is the greatest age in which to live,” he cries. “Because you can see every great film ever made right in your own home, due to that great invention, the VCR. You can study the masters of film-making whenever you want.”

With his high energy level, his shock of white hair, his little boy wonder, and his poetic way of speaking, Bradbury is a commanding, yet soothing presence. He reads us one of his own poems, talks about the new book he is writing, talks about how he got ideas for various stories, about his essays on architecture in Los Angeles. He talks about what it was like to work in Ireland with John Huston on the screenplay for Moby Dick in 1953 and 1954. He shares with us his story of a writer who was broke, down to his last bit of money, with a pregnant wife, when a Doubleday editor in 1949 took a chance on publishing The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man.
“I got $700, an absolute fortune to me then, for each book, which were really short stories at the time. I was writing these short stories but I didn’t know that what I was really doing was writing a novel.

“I wrote terrible stuff for ten years, from the time I was twelve years old until I was twenty-two. Really bad. But finally, I had written to the core, and then the good stuff started to come out.” And come, it did. With the success of his short stories in national magazines (he changed the nature of the genre of science fiction) and the subsequent popularity of his books (including Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, and Death Is A Lonely Business) he became that rare type of author, one who is popular with readers of all ages yet is considered to be very literate.

Where does Bradbury get his ideas? He has several tricks to wake up his subconscious. He uses word association, filling up pages with nouns and a few adjectives from the subconscious. Eventually these lists trigger something that starts his memory flowing. “Out of remembrance, you write poems, you build novels. There are memories in all of you that you haven’t looked into yet.”

Another trick to get creativity flowing is what Bradbury calls “the theater of the morning;” that relaxed state when you are not quite awake, but your subconscious is stirring. “I am totally relaxed, not even thinking, but my characters are talking to me.” Relaxation about the creative process is another Bradbury trademark. “Your best ideas will come when you relax and let them come. Don’t try too hard to write what is not in you. Your best work will be what is deep inside you.”

If you are having a problem in your creative project, Bradbury suggests naming the problem, in a relaxed manner, just before you go to sleep. “Then the subconscious can mull the problem over during the night and you may have a new aspect revealed when you wake up in the morning.”

He likes to tell the audience what is new in his life. He will be traveling to France as an honored guest of the French for their Bastille Day Celebration. (He has a profound love for French history and for celebrations such as the Fourth of July, so he is very excited.) He has been busy designing shopping malls. Architecture is another of his many consuming interests and, as he says, “Most malls are so boring on the outside, I like the idea of a mall being as exciting to look at on the outside as it is on the inside.” He writes essays on architecture. He remains an optimist on the future of the world. He continues to work and write. And for that, the audience gave him a heartfelt ovation. He is the writer we all aspire to be. If only we had one-tenth his creative genius, we would be happy. But, for now, it is enough to bask in his words and listen to his usual parting exhortation: “Now get the hell out of here and go write!”

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