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Toys and Props to Inspire

I once read that Ray Bradbury surrounded his work area — a basement, I think — with toys, mementos, bric-a-brac, movie posters, and odds and ends of curiosities so he did not have to look far for a subject to write about. I have heard this story corroborated by several people and I believe it. Bradbury was not an unapproachable guy.

I tried to do that once when I was a teenager and the name Bradbury was magic to me. In front of the Olivetti typewriter that my father had given to me was a Knight shortwave radio kit he and I had built together, and I would search the world airwaves for inspiration. This produced unsatisfying literary results, usually written in a heavy, phony foreign dialect.

Of course, I had my army men (you know, miniature, green, plastic) and my Civil War soldiers. The army guys provided modern parodies of contemporary Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, and the Civil War guys would encourage merely mediocre versions of The Red Badge of Courage, a book I loved and had read several times. But I considered this an improvement, and the next thing I knew I was rewriting Mutiny on the Bounty (no worse than scripts circulating at the time, I would wager), inspired by a model I had built of the U.S.S. Constitution directly in my line of vision under the Hardy Boys and above Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, by Bob Considine and Captain Ted Lawson. The model gave me the names of things: lines, sheets, spars, mizzens, jibs, belaying pins (a favorite), quarter decks, etc. Still, for some reason, all my British officers (on an American ship) sounded like David Niven. All characters, that is, but for the bad guys, pirates mainly, who sounded uniformly like Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver in the old black-and-white reels. My Newtons (any number of villains) would say things like, “Aaargh! Easy! Handsomely now, Lads. Be-like and Look-ee! ’Tis 10,000 pounds of sovereign there, ya lubbers.” Of course, I had no idea what 10,000 pounds of sovereign would be worth.

I had baseball cards, tons of them, and I had read the biographies of Babe Ruth, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, and others, but discovered early on that I was not a sports writer. In the 1960s, there was a promising source of inspiration, a series of colorful bubble-gum cards called “Mars Attacks.” At the time, they struck me as terrific tableaus of horror, each a short story in itself. I remember one in particular, with alien craft frying cattle with some kind of Wellsian heat rays. (I had read War of the Worlds and was primed for this.) In fact, I cannot recall another novel depicting destruction on this planetary level before WOTW’s pub date (1890s or sometime around then), which is why it remains terrifying, Tom Cruise aside. Certainly with my stuff, one could almost smell the burning flesh that resulted in more terrifying tableaus. But, basically, they all went nowhere.

I also had my own Bradbury-like basement window (if indeed that is what he had), but it afforded a view mostly of one of my dad’s whitewall tires (rear right on a ’63 Ford). This, oddly, seemed to help me focus.

In high school, moving up to my now-college-bound sister’s third-floor room, I had a view of several blocks of suburb close to the city and within a stone’s throw of grimy, high-rise buildings and beyond into the anti-matter of Lake Michigan’s fog. The latter was a promising area that I populated with the ghosts of drowned men.

Before long it became clear that any kind of view was distracting. This was about the time my navel became a source of mindless fascination — especially reflected in the spectrum of a Lava Lamp. I might think of a scene, a character, or a narrative compatible with what I was looking at, but these thoughts were inevitably irrelevant to what I was intending to write. This was years before I learned that whatever it was you were intent on writing was invariably irrelevant to what was being offered you; yes, a gift, had you been paying attention, from whatever source — the Muses? The unconscious? God? What do I know? I don’t even know how the can opener works.

Picture Herman Melville having been rented a nice sea-view cottage on the Atlantic, with a great panorama of a major whaling operation. But Melville shakes his head and says, “No, no, no. I was meaning to write about hot-air balloons and this won’t do at all. What will all this water and slaughtered leviathans get me?”

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I once read that Ray Bradbury surrounded his work area — a basement, I think — with toys, mementos, bric-a-brac, movie posters, and odds and ends of curiosities so he did not have to look far for a subject to write about. I have heard this story corroborated by several people and I believe it. Bradbury was not an unapproachable guy.

I tried to do that once when I was a teenager and the name Bradbury was magic to me. In front of the Olivetti typewriter that my father had given to me was a Knight shortwave radio kit he and I had built together, and I would search the world airwaves for inspiration. This produced unsatisfying literary results, usually written in a heavy, phony foreign dialect.

Of course, I had my army men (you know, miniature, green, plastic) and my Civil War soldiers. The army guys provided modern parodies of contemporary Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, and the Civil War guys would encourage merely mediocre versions of The Red Badge of Courage, a book I loved and had read several times. But I considered this an improvement, and the next thing I knew I was rewriting Mutiny on the Bounty (no worse than scripts circulating at the time, I would wager), inspired by a model I had built of the U.S.S. Constitution directly in my line of vision under the Hardy Boys and above Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, by Bob Considine and Captain Ted Lawson. The model gave me the names of things: lines, sheets, spars, mizzens, jibs, belaying pins (a favorite), quarter decks, etc. Still, for some reason, all my British officers (on an American ship) sounded like David Niven. All characters, that is, but for the bad guys, pirates mainly, who sounded uniformly like Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver in the old black-and-white reels. My Newtons (any number of villains) would say things like, “Aaargh! Easy! Handsomely now, Lads. Be-like and Look-ee! ’Tis 10,000 pounds of sovereign there, ya lubbers.” Of course, I had no idea what 10,000 pounds of sovereign would be worth.

I had baseball cards, tons of them, and I had read the biographies of Babe Ruth, Roy Campanella, Yogi Berra, and others, but discovered early on that I was not a sports writer. In the 1960s, there was a promising source of inspiration, a series of colorful bubble-gum cards called “Mars Attacks.” At the time, they struck me as terrific tableaus of horror, each a short story in itself. I remember one in particular, with alien craft frying cattle with some kind of Wellsian heat rays. (I had read War of the Worlds and was primed for this.) In fact, I cannot recall another novel depicting destruction on this planetary level before WOTW’s pub date (1890s or sometime around then), which is why it remains terrifying, Tom Cruise aside. Certainly with my stuff, one could almost smell the burning flesh that resulted in more terrifying tableaus. But, basically, they all went nowhere.

I also had my own Bradbury-like basement window (if indeed that is what he had), but it afforded a view mostly of one of my dad’s whitewall tires (rear right on a ’63 Ford). This, oddly, seemed to help me focus.

In high school, moving up to my now-college-bound sister’s third-floor room, I had a view of several blocks of suburb close to the city and within a stone’s throw of grimy, high-rise buildings and beyond into the anti-matter of Lake Michigan’s fog. The latter was a promising area that I populated with the ghosts of drowned men.

Before long it became clear that any kind of view was distracting. This was about the time my navel became a source of mindless fascination — especially reflected in the spectrum of a Lava Lamp. I might think of a scene, a character, or a narrative compatible with what I was looking at, but these thoughts were inevitably irrelevant to what I was intending to write. This was years before I learned that whatever it was you were intent on writing was invariably irrelevant to what was being offered you; yes, a gift, had you been paying attention, from whatever source — the Muses? The unconscious? God? What do I know? I don’t even know how the can opener works.

Picture Herman Melville having been rented a nice sea-view cottage on the Atlantic, with a great panorama of a major whaling operation. But Melville shakes his head and says, “No, no, no. I was meaning to write about hot-air balloons and this won’t do at all. What will all this water and slaughtered leviathans get me?”

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Comments
2

What kind of Knight receiver did you build? I built a Star Roamer, but it didn't work and a fine fellow up the street found all my misteaks and got it working for me.

Aug. 12, 2011

Squeaky, -- You know, I think it was a Star Roamer. I'm not absolutely certain but that sounds familiar. -- John Brizzolara

Aug. 30, 2011

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