Monday, October 21, 2013

I Went out to the Fabled Wood

Although the incident is well over twenty-five years in the past, the memory of it returns to amuse you from time to time and allow you to use it to make a point of some consequence.

You'd been recruited by your pal, Barnaby Conrad, to lead the late night fiction workshop at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference.  At one of these sessions, a man in his late thirties or early forties began to read a story about a large man, whose tattooed figures came to life most nights when their host was asleep.

You stopped the man about half way through page two of his reading.  "Sorry to pull the plug on you, but the longer you go on, the more embarrassment you'll be."

You went on to inform him that Ray Bradbury had some years earlier published a collection of stories called The Illustrated Man.

"Who?"  the reader said.

"Ray Bradbury,"  you said.

The man grimaced, snapped his fingers in an acknowledgment of defeat, then went on to wonder, perhaps this Bradbury fellow had heard him talking about the idea, then gone on to beat him to the punch.

You went on to explain to the man how, while this Bradbury fellow might not have been your favorite person, he was in fact the only writer  on whose account you ever broke a Federal law.  It was probable, you went on to suggest, that this reader, even though he did not have direct knowledge of this Bradbury fellow, had in many ways been influenced by him and his work.  This, in fact, was how the process worked.  We learn from those who have been here before us, seen the human condition in its evolving process, then made note of it.

There were many other suggestions you could have made,  but the sight of the man, standing at the lectern, his manuscript in hand, bored into you.  "If you wish to write imaginative and speculative fiction,"  you said, "you would be better off if you knew who Bradbury is."

Among many writers and creators, there is a wish to be new, to be something in format, theme, style, and execution that extends well beyond convention.

And yet.

Newness must have at least one foot in close proximity to the ground of convention.  Say Stravinsky, when writing The Rites of Spring.  Say George Eliot, when writing Middlemarch.  Say Art Spiegelman, when writing, drawing Maus.

If one wishes--if you wish--to be new, you must be aware of the old.  However nice it is to think you have originated something, the fact of you being out in some form of society, reading some kind of material, exposed to some form of civilization will have brought you to some plateau of discovery and, if you are fortunate, an awareness of an enormous hunger and thirst to understand more of your surroundings.

This is not meant in any way to diminish those who have come along after us and for one reason or another, have had occasion to see things that might have slipped past us in our own attempts.  There is indeed some overlap, where we might need to demonstrate our experience with patience rather than erudition by the way we allow younger generations to go public with their discoveries of what we have already encountered.  This does not and should not preclude these same younger ones from achieving short cuts to discovery and invention.

Quite often, this line of thinking draws you back in time to a discovery of some great interest and meaning to you.  Your young mind was already aware of certain abstract concepts playing out in your mind when, one afternoon as you were out and about somewhere, you saw two dogs engaging in a form of activity you'd probably noticed before.  But on this day, the time was right.

"Are those dogs--"  you began, looking for words beyond "play."

"Making love,"  your mother said.

At once, you had the glorious combination of information, curiosity, and hypothesis to test.  "That can be playful, can't it?"

Your mother's answer delivered a world of future consequence and understanding.  "Yes,"  she said.  "It certainly can."

Some years later, you were in a bookstore in what was then a college town adjunct to UCLA called Westwood Village.  You were there because Ray Bradbury was signing his latest book, which had been issued in a simultaneous hardcover and massmarket paperback edition.  No one yet knew of the Federal law you'd broken.  Most of those in attendance were students, with a few adults scattered in.  Bradbury was with some emphasis urging those present to be sure to buy hardcover copies of the book because he got a better percent of the sale price.  Not, in your judgment, RB at his best.

The book in question at that signing may have been The Golden Apples of the Sun, although it could also have been The Martian Chronicles.  No matter, really.  Suffice it that The Golden Apples of the Sun had sent you back to a reading of Yeats with greater attention than ever, along with the growing awareness that there were things about Yeats, the person, that would doubtless have curdled your enthusiasms for the man.  The Ballad of Wandering Aengus, from which Bradbury took his title for The Golden Apples, in effect lit a fire in your head.  And in a sense, Yeat's poem, Leda and the Swan, brought you close again to those same wonderful people who gave us Helen of Troy, and in its way takes you back to your vision of those two dogs, humping with abandon in a vacant lot.

When you were about nineteen or twenty, it was your habit to apply for the job of temporary mail delivery person during the Christmas break. The pay was pretty good, the work tolerable and, given the neighborhood, the potential for such extras as tips, cookies, rum-based egg nogs, and the occasional sandwich, a grand vacation from your studies.

The venues for delivery were in the area between Olympic and Pico Boulevards, with street names such as Patricia, Manning, Prosser, and Federal intersecting them.  For two years in a row, the luck of the draw had you delivering thick envelopes filled with what you knew immediately were galley proofs, printed strips of the text of stories, sent to the writer for corrections.  You further knew the thick envelopes were treasures because you with some regularity read the magazines named on the return address segment of the thick envelopes.

And of course you knew the name of the addressee, Ray Bradbury.  You could have waited until the stories appeared in the magazines.  But you were nineteen and were only going to live for another eleven years, because you were nineteen and impatient to publish stories and poems for a time, then become thirty, at which point you would go nova or something of equal dramatic intensity.

You were thirty-two when you were the president of the local branch of the Mystery Writers of America at an awards banquet where it was your duty to present Ray Bradbury an Edgar, a porcelain bust of Edgar Allen Poe, for a story he'd published the previous year.  You had not gone nova; you in fact were editor in chief of a publishing house.  When you introduced Ray Bradbury at the awards banquet to present him the Edgar he so richly deserved, you told the story of him being the only author you'd commit a crime for, and standing there before the open mike, he said, "You son of a bitch, you read my mail."

But that is another story, well beyond and ancillary to the need we have to read, to listen, to learn from the past and the present and future in order to understand the nature of the new we wish to be so that we can stop thinking about it, then get on with listening to that voice within, telling us, Once upon a time, but not telling it like any way it has been told before.


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