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Words That Sing the Body Electric

Looking to Bradbury and other literary giants to see how they wrote, why they wrote and what they may (and may not) have meant.

 

For any lover of science fiction, coming across a story is unavoidable. Bradbury, who recently passed away at age 91, was a force of hypnotically poetic prose that often delivered a childlike wonder for both the fantastic and the world around us.

Once scorned by his childhood friends for being fascinated with Buck Rodgers comics, Bradbury tore up his creations in a fit of tears. Soon after, though, he realized that these ‘friends’ were actually enemies who were forcing him to abandon the creative imagination he loved most. He shucked them out of his life, embraced his imagination and began to write.

Bradbury wrote because he loved to write, cherishing the process of wordplay as it bloomed strange new worlds and stories of the unreal. Reading his thoughts of writing in his collection of essays Zen in the Art of Writing is akin to a child talking about their favorite stuffed animal with which they cuddle before dozing off. Bradbury’s grandson called him “the biggest kid I know.”

The passion and vigor that Bradbury wrote with shines through his work, which transcends the generic classification of science fiction into that nebulous, coveted category of canonical American literature. Inevitably we ask: How did Bradbury and all those literary giants accomplish it? How did they write and what did they mean?

Ernest Hemmingway wrote standing up; Edith Wharton wrote in her bed. Franz Kafka waited until his family went to sleep before slamming at the typewriter to excise his twisted, beautiful thoughts. Charles Bukowski wrote drunk and disillusioned. In On Writing, Stephen King says he doesn’t remember writing Cujo because he was deeply under the influence of alcohol and opiates. Roald Dahl began writing because an editor noticed he had a knack for the craft after Dahl wrote about his WWII jet fighter crash and never stopped writing. A young Hunter S. Thompson continually copied The Great Gatsby on his typewriter just to see what a great novel felt like as it surged from the heart to the fingers. Bradbury trained himself to wake up and immediately go to the typewriter.

Academic analysis shines little on the actual creative process, according to the authors themselves. The Paris Review published in December of last year an astounding inquiry from a 16 year-old named Bruce McAllister to over 100 major authors that he wrote to in 1963, questioning their take on symbolism in their own writing. When McAllister asked these literary giants the same, traditionally mundane and academic questions his high school English program had asked of him, he received quite a few responses. Here are some select passages from scanned letters published in The Paris Review:

  • Norman Mailer: “‘…I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the working aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you only become aware of after you finish the work.’”
  • Jack Kerouac: “’Symbolism is alright in ‘fiction.’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.’”
  • Ralph Ellison: “‘…readers often infer there is symbolism in my work, which I did not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humurous [sic]. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.’”
  • Bradbury: “‘No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. This would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is self-defeating to any creative act.’”

In Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury writes in an essay dated in 1982 — 29 years after the publication of Fahrenheit 451: “Only recently, glancing at the novel, I realized that Montag [the main character of Fahrenheit 451] is named after a paper manufacturing company. And Faber [an English professor in the book], of course, is a maker of pencils! What a sly thing my subconscious was, to name them thus. And not tell me!”

What do you think is essential to the creative process? Is symbolic analysis a useful way of interpreting a text or is it just an academic construct? And what’s your favorite Bradbury story?

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