Thanks, Ray. Bradbury, Barsoom, and Inspirational Genealogy

ImageThere’s a fantastic article entitled “Take Me Home” from the New Yorker dated Monday, June 4, which is likely the last piece Ray Bradbury ever wrote. Bradbury fits my definition of Giant, which to me is someone with so many massive achievements that any one would be enough for someone to be satisfied with. Taken together? Giant. You’ve got Fahrenheit 451, which in itself would be plenty for any one of us to hope for. Then you throw in all those incredible short stories – and if you’ve never read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” you need to. And also, there’s of course The Martian Chronicles, the piece Bradbury mentions in this essay. He talks about discovering Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (the John Carter books) as a pre-adolescent, those intensely formative years between 10 and 13. Here’s a quote I wanted to use as a jumping-off point:

I know that “The Martian Chronicles” would never have happened if Burroughs hadn’t had an impact on my life at that time.

It hit me like a lightning bolt. I’m big into this inspirational genealogy stuff, tracing the lineage of a mighty work or creator back to its first branch. We tend to think a Giant like Bradbury comes fully equipped with his own inspiration. But here’s Ray admitting that, no, it took the visions of the great floating cities of  Barsoom and their giant airships to kindle his imagination:

I would go out to that lawn on summer nights and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, “Take me home!” I yearned to fly away and land there in the strange dusts that blew over dead-sea bottoms toward the ancient cities.

Inspiration is fascinating. Any of us who writes or creates in any fashion knows the value of inspiration. It’s what sparks a fertile creative mind, that “I want to do THAT” moment we’ve all had dozens of times in our lives. On my classroom wall, I’ve got three movie posters (no room for more, at the moment, unfortunately). They are, left to right, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water, and Pixar’s Up. I know, not all three are cinematic classics. There’s no Raging Bull up there. But I’m not a movie buff. What I do know is the same thought flashed through my mind at some point in all three of those movies: I want to do THAT.

At first, at the age that Bradbury’s talking about, it’s not an occupational consideration; we really want to be there, running from the boulder alongside Indiana Jones or dueling with lightsabers, firing up the jetpack, wielding the bullwhip, and on and on.

But eventually, once we get more capable of metacognition, we realize that those stories come from somewhere. They’re produced in the mind, and maybe, just maybe, our mind could do that to, under the right circumstances. So we set about creating those circumstances, feeding our creative hunger with more stories, more music, more images of inspiration that will continue to keep that fire burning.

I tell my students all the time that creativity is the first and most important renewable resource. Go ahead, keep trying to dry up the well by overusing it. There will always be more. And not only is it renewable, it feeds on itself. You journal, and an idea for a story pops up. You write down the story idea, and a melody jumps on top. It just keeps going. Creative momentum, I suppose.

So back to Bradbury, who we now realize – even though he’s one of the fathers of dystopian lit, and there would be no Hunger Games without him – wasn’t the Source. It went even farther back. So in this case, we’ve got Burroughs inspiring Bradbury, but also inspiring George Lucas, to a certain extent Joseph Campbell, James Cameron, Andrew Stanton, the list goes on.

And the best part? Burroughs had no idea he was doing this. He was simply captivated by the idea of a man raised among apes, or a Civil War soldier transported to Mars, that he followed that thread wherever it took him. One hundred years later, we look at the inspirational genealogy and say, “Woah, Burroughs. What a mind!” But back then, he was just a guy with a story to tell.

So maybe this is about Ray Bradbury. Or maybe it’s about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mostly, though, I think it’s about the Vision. The one we all have of a story worth telling. One we hope ends up in the hands of that 12-year old with big dreams and a hunger to be taken somewhere magnificent and told a remarkable story. Putting aside all else, that’s what it’s all about.

Thanks, Ray.

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