“I’d look at this as a wondrous moment to end this mystery.”
— Lou Reed, “Fly Into the Sun”
Hey, Uncle Ray! We finally did it!
We’re finally living your story “The Golden Apples of the Sun” — and just launched a mission toward the sun! (Well, as far as realistically possible. That is, it’s not a manned mission.)
Last weekend, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe into space on Aug. 12, 2018 at 3:31 a.m. EDT. According to the space administration, its mission is to:
Trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind.
Determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the sources of solar wind.
Determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.
To celebrate the launch, I reread “Golden Apples” and cracked open your book Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. I’d read it shortly after I met you a second time, in October 2000, at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, where you were speaking. You signed Zen for me, and we had a chance to catch up. You were wheelchair-bound then, but sharp as ever. You asked if I was still writing.
I was! (By then I was rewriting a first screenplay.)
Am I still writing? I am!
Now it’s stories about my family and growing up, and things I particularly find interesting here on Medium — like the Parker Solar Probe!
I gotta say that nothing terrifies me more than the thought of humans flying toward the sun. Your story captured the thrill of that concept, and I couldn’t recall (from the first time I read it) how that journey would end. This probably says more about me than you, but I expected the entire crew of the spaceship Copa de Oro to die in their attempt to scoop a sample from the surface of the sun — or as you better tell it, “a bit of the flesh of God, the blood of the universe, the blazing thought, the blinding philosophy that set out and mothered a galaxy, that idled and swept planets in their fields and summoned or laid to rest lives and livelihoods.”
The Parker Solar Probe might be setting out to accomplish the next best thing: answering the question of why our sun’s corona is hotter than its surface.
In “Golden Apples,” a crew member dies when his temperature-controlled spacesuit ruptures and he’s exposed to the freezing spacecraft environment. It seemed a bit ham-fisted to write what you did: “Irony of the coolest sort, [the captain] thought; a man afraid of fire and killed by frost.”
But hey, being a kid at the time, I guess I needed some verbal head knocks.
Part of Ray Bradbury’s appeal to me as a teenager (although I likely first read him when I was 12), was how brilliantly all his Bantam paperbacks were branded: the bespectacled author on the cover with erupting volcanos and strange outer space landscapes and horrific images (mostly created by Bradbury’s artist friend Joseph Mugnaini, pictured below left). Back then I used allowance money to buy books at the local B. Dalton Bookseller, or by mail directly from the publisher, which was a huge thrill to find packages waiting after another mundane schoolday.
No one in my family understood my science fiction addiction — no one except maybe my mother, who connected the dots enough to alert me to the first time I met Ray Bradbury, since she knew it would mean a lot to me.
I was a shy, bookish kid, and found it hard to make friends and break out of my shell. I could tell from his stories that Bradbury knew something about my problem — a suspicion that was confirmed years later when I read his essay “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle” (from Zen in the Art of Writing):
“We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we’re not crazy after all, that what we’re doing is all right. All right, hell, fine! But it is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation. But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg — I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.”
And this is where I often go astray: forgetting that a sense of detachment is part of the process, and hard to achieve. You can’t allow yourself to be hounded by insecurity and shame.
So you wrote in the past? GOOD. You’ll write again, as I’m writing now.
Two other things are necessary, as Bradbury clearly points out: attention and curiosity. Attention is the shout. The story shouts, the writer hears it and follows. Curiosity is the bite and response. Some people, I suppose, would howl in shock and pull away from a bite. They would be frightened by its power, the heat and light behind a creative idea.
Hey, it’s an understandable reaction.
Bradbury looked at it differently, by tapping into his sense of curiosity: What exactly is this thing biting me? What does it want? I need to draw more attention to it, discover its shape and its essence.
And then, the last step…
Actual writing — what I used to call “raw writing,” shoving words around on a page, talking to myself, writing as I’m talking, talking as I’m writing — it’s probably strange if seen from afar — but then you’re addressing an idea and listening to what it has to say. Sometimes the idea is saying something you don’t want to hear. It can’t all be pretty, fluttering butterflies and lazy, forgetful Sundays.
Sometimes it’s meeting your literary heroes and asking them for advice. And dealing with rejection.
Sometimes it’s just getting through times when you “don’t have ideas, don’t feel like writing, don’t feel like creating.”
And sometimes it’s imagining the terrifying act of flying a tiny spacecraft into the sun.
“That,” Bradbury writes, “is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration.”
When I read that last weekend, I had tears in my eyes.
This was the Ray Bradbury I’d briefly gotten to know. The wild uncle I never had, the surrogate author-father my own dad couldn’t be. The one who knew all the tricks of the mind, the exhilarating flights of the imagination … but also the terrifying silence when it was lacking.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that things weren’t always easy for Ray Bradbury. I also suspect he knew attitude was everything: if he had trouble writing, he just wouldn’t push it. He’d go indulge his curiosity in something until he once again heard the muse shout (because we all know muses don’t whisper, they scream) and then he’d scramble to find pen and paper and just …wait …wait for that bite.
Asked what he expected his solar probe to learn, Dr. Eugene Parker was quoted as saying, “I’m sure that there will be some surprises. There always are.”
His solar probe enters orbit with Venus on a first flyby on October 3.
Things are about to get hotter. It’s not a comforting thought that, to us earthlings, the sun feels closer than it ever has without anyone ever having to get into a spacecraft and fly closer to it.
But wait for it.
Terror, exhilaration — mixed with surprises yet to come.
For Ray Bradbury on his 98th birthday, Aug. 22, 1920 –June 5, 2012.