The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Bradbury and the Blessed Burden

My current writing schedule involves juggling three films, three books, a non-fiction project, and multiple short stories.  This would be CRUSHING stress, except that I don’t try to hold them all in my head at the same time.   Heaven forbid.    Here’s what makes it work.  I…

1) Have separate computer files for each project, in SCRIVENER, the perfect organization tool for writers.

2)   Write a minimum of 1000 words of rough draft on the most urgent/important project every day, during “Diamond Hour”.   This means that, no matter what, I’m always chipping away at the load.  This is a minimum of five days a week.  Sometimes seven.  That guarantees me between 250-365k words a year.

3)    know what tomorrow’s writing will be before going to bed.  In this way, my unconscious can chew over it as I sleep.

4) Every morning in my “Morning Ritual” of incantations and visualizations (while performing Tai Chi) I pump myself up, remind myself of all I have to be grateful for, and extend that gratitude into the future for my next year’s goals.  I visualize successfully completing whatever tasks I have TODAY that dovetail with those yearly goals.  Those yearly goals dovetail with my lifetime goals.

5) I input the very best writing I can find, every day.  Currently, I’m working through the complete Shakespeare A-Z, as performed and produced by the BBC.   Incredible stuff.   Also reading a short story every day.  Currently working through Ray Bradbury’s favorite 100 stories.  What a master.  Even better…he LOVED his craft, and life itself.  What a sweet, decent, loving human being!

And I wanted to tell a story about Ray Bradbury…just because it is instructive on several levels, and might help people understand why I am so driven to share what I have.  I have been blessed to be guided and encouraged by masters.

I always loved Ray Bradbury’s stories, his reading style, his general attitude of life and love.   So in my twenties, I wrote a story called “Trick or Treat”, a Halloween piece (Bradbury loved Halloween!) about a guy who gets into an escalating war of nerves with the Trick or Treaters in his neighborhood, each Halloween getting a little nastier, until one practical joke goes too far and a kid is accidentally killed.  And he knows that next year, they will kill him.   A nasty little piece of work.

I wrote it up, and my soon-to-be-wife Toni designed art to accompany it, and we put together a nice package.  Sometime in the late 70’s Bradbury was signing books at a bookstore, and we went down, and offered him the story package, and he graciously accepted it.  Low and behold, about a month later I got a letter from him thanking me for the story, congratulating me on its quality, and encouraging me to seek a career.   This was the very first encouragement I had ever received from a pro, and it meant the world.

That story was the first I ever published.   I was paid in contributor’s copies, but hey, I was published!

Years passed.    My mother had discouraged me from seeking a writing career (she was terribly afraid I would fail as a writer, as my father had as a singer) but saw that Robert Kirsch, literary editor for the L.A. Times, was teaching a creative writing class at U.C.L.A.   This was about 1980.  She suggested that we both go and take night classes—she in something cultural (I forget what) and me with Kirsch.  I leapt at the opportunity.  I was an odd duck in that class.    Most of the others were writing literary stories (filled with tone, scant on incident) or poetry.  I wrote a story called “Is Your Glass Half Empty?” about a compulsive gambler who hocks his pacemaker.

Kirsch looked at my story as if he had no idea what to do with it, and politely asked if he could show it to a friend of his.   I said sure.   A month later I got a letter from…you guessed it…Ray Bradbury, again congratulating me, and encouraging me to seek a career.  I’m sure he didn’t remember the earlier story, btw.   That story was my second publised work.  Got 1/5th of a cent a word.  But hey, it was money.  Framed that damned check.   Ummm…until I was so broke I had to cash it.  Ahem.

Years passed.   I worked with Larry Niven, published a few books, became known in the L.A. Fan community.  In the early 80’s I  was asked to be the master of ceremonies at “Planet Fest”, an event by the Planetary Society in Pasadena.  One of the guests was Ray Bradbury, and it was my pleasure to introduce him.   I had the honor of standing on that stage in front of hundreds of people, and telling them what he had done for me.  He strode on stage like a giant, and embraced me, and the audience applauded wildly.  Ever be embraced by your hero while a crowd cheers?   IT CHANGES YOUR NEUROLOGY.  I was never the same afterward.

Years passed.    In the early 1990’s I was teaching at UCLA extension, and did a “Science Fiction Symposium” event.  Every week a different guest: Octavia Butler, Larry Niven, Robert Bloch, Gregory Benford…and Ray Bradbury.   He did not drive, so I picked him up at his house (!) and took him to Westwood where we had dinner.  While there, I overcame my shyness and poured out my heart to him.  You see, I was afraid that the amount of writing I’d done in collaboration, or for money in Hollywood, had “poisoned the well.”  Had numbed me to the sound of my own voice.   Trembling, on the edge of tears, I asked him if he thought it was too late for me.

He grew very serious.   “Have you published?”  He asked. 

“Oh, yes,” I replied, and reeled off a list of about ten novels, multiple television episodes and so forth.  

He laughed and laughed, the kind of booming, sincere, deep-throated mirth that reminded me of a literary Santa Claus.   “Oh, you’ll have no problem at all!”  He was brilliant that night at the Symposium, btw.

The last time I saw him was in 2010.   There was a 90th Birthday celebration for him at, I think, the Universal Sheraton.   I was contacted and asked if I had anything joyful to contribute, and I scrambled to say “yes.”    Ray had had strokes, was in his wheelchair and could barely speak.   The mind was still there, and still sharp however.  I took the podium and told my story, how he had inspired me with his writing, been kind to an unpublished writer in desperate need to believe in himself, and comforted a lost artist seeking to find a way to meld commerce and personal expression.  I was crying by the time I was done, and with effort he lifted his arms to me, and we embraced.   It was raining as I drove home.  Oh, hell, maybe it was just me.  I knew I’d never see him again.

But…a few weeks later a letter arrived.    It was written on a manual typewriter, and I could imagine it being painfully pecked out, one letter at a time.

“Dear Stephen,” it said (and this is from memory.  The letter is filed away somewhere.)  “Thank you for your wonderful words, which added so much to my natal celebration.   Some of your tears are my own.”   And signed, Ray Bradbury.

Like I said initially, I am currently CRUSHED by my work load…except that every action in connection with it is infused with joy, the kind of joy I learned from this man, and others along my path.     I have been blessed with wonderful friends, wonderful family, wonderful mentors, a wonderful life.

It is the greatest pleasure of my life to pass those blessings on to those I love.



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Jim said...

Just read this -- a marvelous recollection of Mr. Bradbury. I didn't encounter him as often or deeply as you, but I remember the encounters well.