Posts Tagged ‘ray bradbury’

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s one of those clichés that shows up in movies as an unimpeachable truth, a type of suffering artists grok and continue to believe is necessary in order to create great art. Ray Bradbury’s own advice to writers is to make a bucket list of fears and write about them as a way of conquering them, and in his own work those fears, guilt, and anxieties he possessed all manifested themselves in great stories; his fear of flying was the source of his writing about ships heading into deep space!

In the kidlit game, writers are encouraged to mine the depths of their childhood anguish in order to render a realistic world for their young readers. This is what allows a 40- or 50- or 60-year-old to capture the imaginations of those just barely into their double-digits. The advice to writers is to put the reader into the main character’s head, then keep putting the main character into increased danger, and at the very last minute pull them to safety — the requisite “hopeful” if not happy ending.

A bit sadistic when you think about it.

The danger in a culture, a media, an entertainment that continually relies on fear, pain, and anxiety as its inspiration is that it diminishes the value of other emotions and experiences. It trains individuals to respond more and more (and ultimately only) to fear to the extent that our political discourse is almost entirely based on our reaction to manufactured dangers. The worst part of all this fear-conditioning is that as a society we have also been trained to expect someone to come to the rescue at the last minute and save us.

If our ancestors had that same expectation during the Great Depression we might never have recovered as a nation.

In children’s literature, more so in middle grade that YA books, there is a fervent cry for realistic stories with hopeful endings. The idea is to give kids something they can relate to and then let them know they can rise above whatever crisis or turmoil is at stake. The problem is that the world around them, around all of us, isn’t interested in making the hopeful happen. We aren’t interested in the same gas or food rationing that was the result of the last Depression because it wouldn’t produce the “right” kind of fear; the fear of imaginary assault on our protected freedoms as opposed to the real fear that would cause us to rise up against the banking, corporate, and political entities that do well by courting our collective fear.

While I certainly agree that the traumas of our past make great fodder for the stories we tel,l I think writers owe it to kids to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and without the sugar-coating of a false hope tacked on. Perhaps this is what makes realistic fiction difficult for all but the best writers, and why fantasy gluts the shelves, because when you control the world you can control the outcomes better. But writing about the fears or growing up, the pains of adolescence, the anxieties of the world requires endings equally bold. If you want young readers to remember what they have just read you need to leave them hanging with all the suspense that the world has to offer. When it comes to endings writers might do well to remember:

If you’re not scared, you’re doing it wrong.


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May came, and for all the people it took with it, it couldn’t have left too soon. I was beginning to wonder if these people knew something the rest of us hadn’t figured out yet, perhaps getting an early start on the Mayan 2012 rush. Then Ray Bradbury left us and I had a strange feeling like there really was a connection.

The Transit of Venus.

It visits twice, eight years apart, with a century-plus in between pairings. Charging across the sun, I imagined the Greeks seeing the goddess flying across the sky, making a brief visit to check in and then departing on her journey across the universe. The hop-skip-jump of imagery made it all seem so logical: Venus was a tour bus dropping off its last group of passengers back in 2004, refueling, then picking up the next tour group this year. The announcements went out in May and those with tickets climbed aboard.

the transit of venus

dashing across the sun
first to off-board

returning eight years later
to pick up new travelers

a final boarding call
was sent out in may

collecting visionaries
for a galactic tour

writers and artists
musicians, teachers, dreamers

traveling time’s distorted rails
will return home refreshed

their brief two weeks
a mere century on earth

their visions rekindled
to guide us further

beyond the sun
beyond our imaginations

At the same time I realized all this Laura Purdie Salas offered up a nebula-sized bit of inspiration for her weekly 15-words-or-less challenge. I went with an acrostic I thought appropriate.

(22 august 1920 – 5 june 2012)


and spaceships

daring visionaries
birth entire
universes that become our


Godspeed, galactic travelers.

Bonus time! Found this awesome NASA video of Venus zipping past the sun. Stunning.

In a smaller universe called the Internet, it’s Poetry Friday. Head on over to Jama’s Alphabet Soup for more.

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It’s as simple as that sometimes, a single word.  I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and he talks about his writing journey and how he’d been sitting his butt down and writing every day for a decade before he sold his first story at 22.  It’s called showing up.  Not by him but by others, and it’s instructive to realize not only the truth of this idea of sitting down and dedicating time to what you do, but that over time it really is the only way to get anything done.

So brother Ray has 20+ years on me figuring this out.  But does he stop there?  No, he rubs my face in it with another simple exercise that he also happened to chance upon.  After he’d written a number of published stories he wrote the titles down as a list and discovered they were all nouns, all based on things that he was curious about as a kid, all general enough that they could be about anything but for him they were specific triggers for memories.

In unpacking things into my new office space I finally had almost all (there’s one missing!) my screenplays in one place on a shelf.  Spine out, with their titles handwritten on the bluntly bound pages, I stacked them in order of when they were written and studied them from my reading chair.

The Resort.
Pumpkin Thieves.
The Death of Chris and Jenny.
The Book of Isabel.
(the missing Helena would go here).
Peace of Mind.
Come and Gone.
Tips for the Dating Impaired.

What did these titles tell me about my writing?  They begin as concept stories, a mad dreamscape about a movie being made in the space between this world and another, between life and death, followed by a pseudo-political story concerning government-controlled and -funded criminals.  Next come a trio of character studies that explore (or attempt to) the underground youth culture.  These are followed by a weak attempt to write a Hitchcockian thriller, that actually was read by an agent who was kind at pointing out that I was still having problems with grammar.  Two autobiographical stories follow, then a What-If fantasy based on an idea tossed away by a film director in an interview (“What if I pretended to be the interviewer and you pretended to be the filmmaker and we see how many people we can fool…”), and lastly my epic homage to Victor Hugo concerning the professional street people who occupy our urban centers.

And those were the finished ones.

Many of these stories were built off ideas, or collected observations, but not around those ideas and observations.  I wasn’t telling stories as much as I was trying to stitch ideas with tenuous narrative threads and borrowed styles.  Even the biographical stories seemed to be missing the target emotionally, and that’s why they failed.  It’s why they all failed.  The titles don’t do what they’re supposed to — trigger memories — because the stories they represent come from the head.

I can’t tell you how this pisses me off, because lately everyone’s been talking about emotion in writing.  Emotion this and emotion that, and what are these characters feeling, and, crap! Why don’t I know?

Well, according to brother Ray, it’s because I’m not stepping on my own landmines.  I need to blow myself up, tear myself apart and find out what everything’s really all about.  And then there’s my advisor, Margaret, who’s pointing out that I’m not letting the boys in my story get into enough danger, that I’m protecting them too much.

Why.  It’s a no-question-mark question, the kind where the answers are questions in and of themselves.  Why am i protecting my characters?  Why won’t I let them feel?  What part of the world that I’m a part of am I protecting them from…

Ah.  The world.  I’m trying to protect them from the world that didn’t protect me.  Is that a statement or a question?  Do I really feel like the world didn’t protect me?  Or is it because I never learned the langauge of the emotions, that I can’t pass them along to my characters because, like passing on bad genes, I don’t have them to pass along?

Freakin’ Ray Bradbury.

So I sat down and wrote out a lit of nouns, titles to future stories, triggers for ideas that I may or may not write about one day.  Each one of those nouns has more intrinsic meaning than any of those titles above.  Some have stronger emotional centers than others, and some strange things came out of the exercise — like the eerie early memory that links cult-like religious indoctrination with soccer.  But as personal stories they underscore moments where I (the main character) encountered a strong emotional experience that I don’t think I ever really understood.

Nouns.  Word association.  Emotion.  It reads like therapy.

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So it looks like the Kindle is making people in the book industry a bit uneasy. You’ve got hand-wringing and even ol’ Ray Bradbury himself declaring that e-books smell like burned fuel.  Yup, that’s what he said.

There’s always a bit of a disconnect when a technology introduces itself in a threatening way.  The problem is that most of the time people are looking at the wrong things.  Movies took a hit when television was introduced and there was much hand-wringing in Hollywood, but ultimately they came through by delivering the type of spectacle television couldn’t.  The reality was that television wiped out radio.  And I remember when pocket calculators becomes small enough and cheap enough that everyone could own one, but the math classes resisted because there was a fear that it would make students lazy and they wouldn’t learn the processes.  Turns out that the calculator liberated students to accelerate their studies and focus more on complex processes. If there was a downside to calculators in schools I haven’t heard it.

The fear of the e-book replacing regular books seems absurd to me.  You can drop and step on a book with no fear of ruining the contents.  I have dropped books in massive puddles in the rain and, with the exception of page bloating, still been able to access what’s inside.  A book doesn’t require batteries, recharging, a clear wi-fi signal, blah blah blah.  Can you imagine a picture book on a Kindle?  Are libraries and classrooms going to install large screens for storytime, with their artificial page-turns complete with sound effects to mimic books?  Does anything feel as satisfying as the heft (or portability) of a book?

No, what the e-book readers represent, however, is an opportunity for smart publishers to figure out how to best manage this new technology.  Rather than worrying about how Amazon’s going to use their sales figures to leverage against their profits, how about biting back and finding a way to undercut the Kindle?  If the device is proprietary then maybe the publishing industry should use its muscle to fight for universal access devices.  Amazon is only trying to back a market into their servitude, why should the publishers allow that to happen to their product?  Does anyone really want Amazon to control access to content (and why does this sound so much like Microsoft to me)?

What Amazon is attempting to do, as I see it, is create the iPod of books.  The idea of the e-book isn’t new, just as MP3 players existed before Apple jumped in the market. And the idea that you can take music you already own and upload it to the iPod became a huge jump in the way we listen to music.  The technology of the MP3 made it portable, iPod makes it cool, and the music industry eventually came around. I say eventually because Steve Jobs had a difficult time getting some music company heads to understand that “ripping” didn’t mean “stealing” and they’d still get money from these downloads at iTunes.

But the reason it worked out so well for the iPod is because of how it addressed the experience of the end user.  If there was a way for me to upload the books I already own without having to buy new, or even trade them in for digital versions, then maybe we’ve got something.  But what the Kindle and other readers want me to do is buy their device and pay for the privilege of loading something I can get for free at the library in printed form?  See, that’s the problem.  The flexibility between media doesn’t work and all Amazon wants me to do is give them money, not enhance my experience as a reader.

Let’s assume that books will always be around, but that down the road there will be two formats side by side, the book and the e-book.  Publishing houses could continue to make and distribute books as they always have, but why not set up distribution of e-book direct from their own sites, available in an open-source format that undercuts Amazon and sends the money directly to them?  If an industry can unify on just this much then there’s no need for them to ever have to deal with Amazon again.  Instead of worrying about how the e-book is going to eat their profits why aren’t they secretly meeting to figure out how to eat Amazon?  Stop letting the tail wag the dog.

If publishers are worried, and if they still possess any of the good sense they occasionally display in providing quality content, then they need to move extremely fast if they wish to stay in business.

Growing up, my dad used to tell me that computers were the future and that one day everyone would own one.  Seeing as a computer back then took up the entire floor of an office building and required thousands of programming cards to execute a simple calendar with Snoopy on it, I was doubtful.
I’ve never been a big fan of early, unquestioned adoption of technology without fully understanding the ramifications; televisions and computers in the classrooms I don’t think have ever been studied for true efficacy, and in fact our schools appear to be performing worse than ever. So for me the jury is still out on the e-book.

Although if someone wanted to give me a Kindle with free content

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