Ray Bradbury’s Keys to the Universe

June 5, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 8 7 min read

In the summer leading into my senior year, I received a letter from my literary hero. My mother — noting his famous name on the return address — hand-delivered it to me while I shelved books at the local bookstore.

“This came for you,” she said.

I glanced up from the stacks, read the return address, then slowly unfolded the letter.

There was my name at the top, followed by the backstory: how he’d received a copy of an essay I’d written and been humbled by its contents.  Tasked with writing about a “great American,” I’d bypassed the usual fare (presidents, astronauts, etc.), and wrote instead about him — the writer who’d changed me.

“It is one of the finest essays I have ever read,” he wrote, adding that he’d keep it in his desk drawer as a “permanent piece of literature for me to read from time to time.”

And just below, in his thick black scrawl, his signature: Ray Bradbury.

I was dumbstruck, dumbfounded, just plain dumb.

coverIn my stupor, my mind leapt to a June night five years prior, when directly following closing ceremonies for my seventh-grade school year, my mother had driven me to this very bookstore to pick out a book of my choice.  It was a rare, late-night bookstore visit, and as I browsed the shelves, pointer finger dragging across the tops of the titles, it eventually fell to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.  I chose it, devoured it, and as a result of its power, rerouted my life’s trajectory.

To receive an unprompted congratulatory note from the man who’d written it — in that very store, no less — seemed a kind of kismet worth capitalizing on.

And since his letterhead noted his home telephone number, I decided to give him a call.

I picked up the phone, dialed, waited nervously for the rings to give way to Ray.

“Hello?” a booming voice answered.

“Mr. Bradbury?”

Following a few minutes of cyclical thank you’s and bonding over our shared Midwestern roots (Ray hailed from Waukegan, Ill.; I, from Fort Wayne, Ind.), I at last grew bold, did what any budding fiction writer might when he had his hero on the line.

I lied.  Spectacularly.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll be in the area soon.  I’d love to swing by and shake your hand.”

“Well, come on over then!” Ray agreed.

The reality was that 2,200 miles separated Indiana from L.A. — no short commute, especially by way of my 18-speed Huffy.  And so, I settled on my second best option: I used my earnings from the bookstore to purchase a plane ticket.  A few months later I boarded a plane, hailed a taxi, scheduled a shuttle, and at last reached Ray Bradbury’s front door.

At 17, Ray Bradbury, too, indulged in the occasional lie.

“I was going nowhere when I was seventeen years old,” he explained to biographer Sam Weller.  “I had no talent.  I couldn’t write a short story.  I couldn’t write an essay or a poem or a play.  So I had to lie to myself when I graduated…”

That lie came in the form of a prophecy he placed beneath his senior yearbook photo: “Headed for Literary Distinction.”

He didn’t believe it, though he hoped to make it so.

A month prior to graduation, Ray was cast in a role in the senior class play.  He slipped away sometime before curtain call, making his way to the top of the high school’s tower.  “I looked at the setting sun,” he said, “and I knew that this was the last night when I would be famous for a while.”

covercoverYet not for too long. Throughout the 1940s Ray continued to hone his short story skills, publishing dozens, many of which found their way into his debut collection, Dark Carnival.  By the mid-1950s he’d become a household name — The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 doing much to solidify his status.

Despite his yearbook quotation, success had hardly been guaranteed.  Ray, I was proud to learn, was even scrappier than I was.  As a teen, he’d plucked scripts from dumpsters behind Hollywood studios simply to study them.  Upon getting a knack for how they were written, he went further by pitching his material directly to the stars themselves.

Scrappier still, a decade or so later — with a pregnant wife at home and $40.00 in the bank — Ray boarded the bus to New York to share his work with editors.  On his final night staying at the YMCA, Doubleday editor Walter Bradbury suggested he link together his Mars stories.  Ray stayed up all night doing so, crafting an outline that later became The Martian Chronicles, and returning home with a $700.00 check.

I marvel at such miracles; in particular, Ray’s ability to forge his own fate as the opportunities presented themselves.  But I marvel, too, at his refusal to leave anything to chance.  Perhaps his stick-to-itiveness is best illustrated by way of a story he shared with me during my visit to his home all those years ago.  How, as a young, broke, telephone-less writer in L.A., he’d given editors the telephone number of the gas station payphone across the street.  His bedroom window flung wide, whenever that phone rang he’d leap out the window and sprint across the street. Then, as casually as possible, he’d answer, “Hello?”

Now that’s how it’s done, I remember thinking.  That’s how you become a writer.

The shuttle dropped me in front of the Bradbury home at a few minutes before 9:00 a.m, leaving me three long hours to whittle away before our noon meeting.

I perched on a low wall across from his yellow and white Cheviot Hills home and waited, reaching for my tie-dyed-covered spiral notebook and jotting some notes.

Reading them now, I see a young man so full of zeal that he’s all but unrecognizable to me.

“I wonder if he can see me,” 18-year-old me wrote.  “All he’d have to do is glance out his window and look at the boy furiously writing down every word…All he’d have to do is glance.” This continues for a few cringe-worthy pages, eventually concluding with lines that, today, feel a little too good to be true. “For the first time,” I wrote, “as I sit across from his house scribbling away in this notebook, I feel like a writer.”

Maybe it was my variation of Ray’s aspirational yearbook prophecy, my roundabout way of saying “Headed for Literary Distinction” in a more personal, low-stakes fashion.

My final line: “I felt a rain drop and I pray it holds off for another hour.” (It didn’t.)

At noon I made my way up to the Bradbury doorstep: shook the water from my hair, wiped my feet on the mat, then knocked on the front door.  His wife Maggie answered (“Well hello there!”) and led me into the living room to meet Ray.

There he was, smiling broadly with red suspenders blazing.

“Welcome!” he called, and for the next hour or so, proceeded to offer me every key to the universe he had.  He walked me through the books on his shelf, shared with me his paintings, his poems, his work.

In turn, I committed several embarrassing acts.  Including giving him my senior photo (the one with me holding a copy of Dandelion Wine), as well as a baby food jar filled with rainwater and dandelions gathered from my front yard, vintage 1998.

“Dandelion wine,” I explained, and though it wasn’t — not the kind you’d want to drink anyway — he accepted my offering, seemingly appreciative of my attempt to strive toward the metaphor he himself had written about: how we might bottle, cork, and stopper time by capturing a glint of summer in a jar.

“Thank you,” Ray sighed, holding the amber goo up to the light.  “I love it.”

For a moment it seemed he’d transported back to Waukegan, to being a 12-year-old boy in his grandfather’s lawn, dashing once more in search of dandelions.

The play-by-play of what happened that day isn’t as important as the fact that it happened at all.  At least for me.  The real accomplishment, as I later wrote to Ray, was that I’d managed to “transform my hero into my friend.”  (Which, if you can get past the schmaltzy sentiment, is an accurate representation of how I truly felt.)

And it’s how I continued to feel through our decade-long correspondence, most of which was filled with affirmations by him and the airing of anxieties by me.  In recent years, these letters, too, have become difficult to return to.  Not only because Ray is gone, but because that version of me is gone, too.

Who was that earnest young man in those letters? I wonder.  What ever became of him? 

“I’m in love with my younger self,” Ray once said.  “He was lousy, but I love him.”

I was lousy, but I loved me, too.  Loved my zest and gusto and “anything can happen” mentality. The way the stars always aligned when I needed them to, the way the bottom-of-the-ninth-with-bases-loaded scenario meant the grand slam was always just a pitch away. Even today it’s an alluring idea: to imagine our lives as one eventuality after another.  To dispense heartily with probability and believe in possibility instead.

My essay was titled, “With Zest and Gusto the World Was Saved.” That’s about all I could tell you of its contents.  It’s been lost for years, which is probably just as well.  If my other writings from that era are representative, then I imagine it was a highly dramatic, purple-prose-infused caterwaul complete with lots of heart and not a lot of substance.  As such, I have a hard time believing it was one of the “finest essays” Ray had ever read.

In his letter, Ray noted that my essay had reminded him that he was a teacher, too; that there were people who were reading his words for more than the stories, but for the writing lessons they offered.

My title was a nod to a line Ray himself had written: “[I]f you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.”

The words are as true today as they were when I first read them. Only now, I know that Ray’s advice transcends writing.

He was teaching me how to live.

“Now listen,” Ray told me as our conversation wound down.  “You’re making all the right noises.  Most important is that you stay enthusiastic about life.”

He kissed my cheek, called me his son, told me to live my life with zest and gusto.

I waved goodbye, stepped outside, tilted my head toward the rain, and tried.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.