Things Ray Bradbury Said That I Know To Be True
You’re self-educated, aren’t you?
Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
All my librarian friends ought to be pleased with this. I certainly agree with it. Libraries are the great teachers. I go to my small town's rather good library regularly, and always find something new to be passionate about. Lately I've been impressed with their DVD collection, which includes a large number of movies you wouldn't expect to see in a small town public library, controversial films, films of poetic and artistic merit, a lot of The Criterion Collection.
Even though I did go to college, more than once, I can honestly say that Bradbury is right: your best education is self-education. Things you learn through experience, through living, which you store inside yourself forever. Things you learned from diving into libraries and reading late into the night.
How important has your sense of optimism been to your career?
I don’t believe in optimism. I believe in optimal behavior. That’s a different thing. If you behave every day of your life to the top of your genetics, what can you do? Test it. Find out. You don’t know—you haven’t done it yet. You must live life at the top of your voice! At the top of your lungs shout and listen to the echoes. I learned a lesson years ago. I had some wonderful Swedish meatballs at my mother’s table with my dad and my brother and when I finished I pushed back from the table and said, God! That was beautiful. And my brother said, No, it was good. See the difference?
Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.
This passage speaks to me very personally. Lately I've been able to admit to myself, after years of trying to please others and inhabit that consensus world that Bradbury was fortunate enough to avoid, that the only task I'm any good at is making things: creativity. It's become clear to me, maybe because the illness and surgery stripped away all the chaff, that my purpose in life has been to make art. It seems like I'm the last to know. I guess I've always been a late bloomer.
In several places, Bradbury talks about how he lives life intensely—things like saying dinner is beautiful rather than just good—and I know that's true for me as well. I know I live life very intensely. I know that hasn't always been easy for people who know me. I've decided that I don't care. It's my life, I'll live it however I choose to.
The day I decided that drugging uppity kids in the classroom was evil, and that anti-depressants should be looked at with suspicion, was the day I overheard two friends talking about me; it was a rough period in my life, and it been recommended to me that I try an anti-depressant to help me cope, so I did. I overheard two friends talking about me, saying that they both liked me better on the drug, that I was calmer and less volatile. Meanwhile, I had been feeling like I was made out of cardboard, that there was a foot of glass wall between me and the world, and I couldn't touch or feel anything. That was a formative experience for me, and those people are no longer my friends.
That doesn't mean I don't have bad days, still. It doesn't mean that I'm a raving opera queen all the time—a lot of the intensity of experience stays on the inside, and comes out mainly in the creative work. But it does mean that I feel very much alive.
The week after your wife passed away, you got back to writing. How were you able to do that?
Work is the only answer. I have three rules to live by. One, get your work done. If that doesn’t work, shut up and drink your gin. And when all else fails, run like hell!
Work is indeed the only answer. In fact, work is survival. I have repeated so often lately, because it's true, that many days the only thing that gets me through the day is making music, making art, writing a poem. Making art has been my way to survive. If even on the worst days I can make one new thing out of nothing, I can count it as worth it, and a reason to go on. As the illness and surgery took away the chaff from my life, I began to truly realize how important work is. Like Bradbury, my art is my work. (Elsewhere he comments that he's grateful that his work is so much fun.) I don't expect to ever retire: I expect to be writing, or making art, or music, on the day I die. That's what Bradbury did. Even after his stroke, late in life, he still wrote via dictation when he could no longer type. A new book of stories came out not too long ago.
Do you write for an ideal reader or a particular audience?
Every time you write for anyone, regardless of who they are, no matter how right the cause you may believe in, you lie. Steinbeck is one of the few writers out of the thirties who’s still read, because he didn’t write for causes at all. He wrote human stories that happened to represent causes indirectly. The Grapes of Wrath and his other books are not political treatises. Fahrenheit 451 is in a way a political treatise, but it isn’t, because all it is saying, emotionally, is: Everyone leave everyone else alone!
Does literature, then, have any social obligation?
Not a direct one. It has to be through reflection, through indirection. Nikos Kazantzakis says, “Live forever.” That’s his social obligation. The Saviors of God celebrates life in the world. Any great work does that for you. All of Dickens says live life at the top of your energy.
It means a lot to me that Bradbury mentions Kazantsakis, and particularly The Saviors of God, which is both a summation of Kazantsakis' worldview and a call to live life to the fullest. It means a lot to me to have Bradbury validate my own life, indirectly, by mentioning a book, The Saviors of God, which changed my own life, and influenced so profoundly that I can rarely even talk about it. (If you've never read it, or read about it, here it is in full.)
Elsewhere Bradbury talks about how literature is a mirror that reflects the world. Science fiction is really a funhouse mirror in which we see the present through the lens of the future. He uses the metaphor of Perseus seeing the Medusa in the mirror of his shield, which allows him to survive her gaze, and take her head off. So the last thing literature ought to be is a sermon. There's nothing duller than a novel that preaches at you, that tells you how to behave, but has no life of its own.
Literature (and all art) can be a prayer, in that the best prayers consist of two activities: to praise, and to say "Thank you."
A lot of Bradbury's writings are praise, which he rarely admits to directly, but you can see it in the very intensity and pleasure of his writing. Whether he describes flying a kite, or running from a dinosaur chasing you, his language takes you into the experience, and makes you feel alive. Between the lines in Bradbury's writing, between the actual words themselves, there can often be found an inarticulate joy that can't be contained in words, something so profound that it settles into your bones, something that his words manage to evoke without ever saying so directly. And when you finish reading one of Bradbury's short stories that ends in one of those moments of articulated inarticulate joy, you often feel like saying "Thank you." My gods, that was a beautiful dinner!