Remembering Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury sitting outside at the Santa Barbara Writers conference
Ray Bradbury
August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012

Ray Bradbury passed away on June 5, 2012. He had an amazing and prolific writing career, but I think he was most known locally for his kindness, passion for writers and writing, and bubbly, infectious spirit. He was the opening night speaker every year for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference since its beginnings, so over the years, I was privileged to hear him speak a number of times.

I grew up listening to Ray Bradbury's radio dramas on National Public Radio, so always had a soft spot in my heart for him and appreciated his presence at the conference, but for much of my life, I had little knowledge of his great depth and versatility as a writer, as well as his lovely, generous personality. For example, I had no clue he wrote the screenplay for John Huston's film adaptation of Moby Dick, a movie I have a special affection for. (Ray wrote sci fi and fantasy! He didn't write about the sea!) In fact, I had watched it countless times while working on a research ship out of Massachusetts.
Moby Dick directed by John Huston and screenplay by Ray Bradbury
Screenplay by
Ray Bradbury and John Huston

Moby Dick was one of the few movies on board the ship and the only one I liked, so I watched it many times, but never noticed his name in the credits since I tend to zone out during movie credits. Finally, at one conference, Ray shared the story of how the legendary director chose him to write the screenplay. John Huston, by chance, had come across Ray's short story of a large, lonely sea creature who had heard the mournful moan of a distant foghorn and fell in love with it. The sea creature imagined this foghorn to be his soul mate and traveled a long distance to be with it, only to discover that it was a man-made, mechanical monstrosity on a beach. The sea creature died of a broken heart. John Huston was so moved by this story, he immediately decided that Ray Bradbury was the only person who could write the screenplay for Moby Dick. By today's filmmaking standards, the movie (which was made in 1956) is primitive, especially in the area of special effects, but regardless, it is an amazing and artful piece of drama on the high seas. On the strength of Ray's screenwriting, John Huston's direction, and of course Melville's story and characters, the movie's spooky and mysterious atmosphere along with its message (and all its Biblical allusions) stay with you long after the movie is over with. To this day, I can't think of a better movie which takes place at sea, so when Ray shared his story, I was hysterical with the surprise and joy of finding out he was the screenwriter. After his talk, I scratched, clawed, and shoved people out of the way to talk to Ray, but of course, when I stood right next to him, I stared stupidly at him and when I opened my mouth to speak, to my horror, nothing came out except for a pathetic, barely audible squeak. By that time in his life, he was pretty old and in a wheelchair, so he had every right to shoo me off like an annoying fly, but he didn't. He was so kind and sweet. He gave me the warmest smile, and as if he had telepathically interpreted my squeak, he shook my hand and said, "Very nice to meet you. I love writing too."

And that was the essence of Ray. Even though he is easily considered a literary heavyweight and legend, there was nothing about him that was pretentious or ponderous. Ray lived in LA for most of his life and was at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference every year, so I knew a lot of people who were acquainted with him or knew him personally. The mere mention of his name caused them to light up and change energy as if a switch were flipped. And this reaction had little to do with his fame as a writer. It was his gracious, generous spirit and passionate personality that endeared him to people, as well as his unique character. Ray embodied a childlike innocence and yet at the same time, he was very much his own man. He always had an admirable autonomy as a writer - he primarily wrote for himself in the sense that he didn't write to please people, maintain his fanbase, or to make money in the entertainment industry (and yet he managed to do all of the above.) I think part of his secret was that he was humble, practical, and savvy. He lived very modestly so he didn't have to resort to taking on projects he didn't like or believe in (prostitution) in order to maintain a lifestyle. Consequently, he didn't have the cynicism or bitterness that many people stereotypically associate with writers who live and work in LA. Ray was actually bursting with joy. And his joy was intensely contagious. Much of my experience of Ray was hearing him talk. The central theme of every talk I heard him give, and from what I hear, every talk he gave, was Love. He didn't talk about the discipline of being a writer, achieving success as a writer, acquiring a following of fans, or obtaining an impressive list of credentials and accolades. He always stuck to the simple theme of Love. Ray was adamant that without Love, writing is meaningless and worth nothing. Love is the foundation of everything and the only real reason to do anything. He was positively glowing and vibrating with love and joy. How blessed we were to have him open the conference! I will always remember Ray as a man who was full of love and joy and who also happened to be a great writer.

(Posted 6/29/2012)