Ray Bradbury has passed. I saw Twitter and FaceBook fill with people sharing their favorite Bradbury stories. He was a touchstone writer, both for my field and in the larger world. So many were touched by his stories.
The first Bradbury stories I encountered were from The Martian Chronicles. It was an awkward first encounter, because I’m fairly young. I was born in 1979. I also grew up without much access to libraries and books, so my reading habits were formed by encounters with impromptu guerrilla libraries with little hand-written signs that said ‘take one – leave one’ which developed my genre habits.
By the time someone gave me The Martian Chronicles, in the early 90s in high school, it was the age of cyperpunk and high space opera for me. The Martian Chronicles, with its 40 year old stories, puzzled me. The fact that it was advertised as a book, but was really a collection of thematically related stories also puzzled me. I really didn’t know what to make of it and bounced off it. We knew Martian canals weren’t real, we’d put a lander on the surface, after all.
…stories like Usher II, The Martian, and There Will Come Soft Rains and The Million-Year Picnic lodged in the back of my brain and just never left. And like little seeds blossomed until I came to a sort of personal understanding and appreciation of the book.
Later I would read that the stories were riffing off the old Edgar Rice Burroughs and older planetary adventures. It was part of an internal genre discussion. And yet the stories could be so hauntingly amazing about interrogating the human state, they were part of a great discussion about what it means to be human. The Million-Year Picnic still sends little shivers of sadness down my spine. They became part of my personal canon.
But aside from loving his work, Bradbury helped me become a writer.
I don’t know where I read it, but in college I came across an article where Ray Bradbury mentioned that when he’d started out his stories kept getting rejected. He couldn’t sell anything in the beginning. But he promised himself that he would persevere until he had 500 rejections. Then, he said, he’d quit. His 500th submission was a story that just barely got accepted. His, probably apocryphal, anecdote really energized me. Rejection was a form of forward progress, I realized.
I then solemnly swore I, too, would achieve 500 rejections. It would take 500 before I would reconsider trying to be an author. And even then, I argued, back when Bradbury broke in after 500 rejections, there were many more markets for short stories. It was easier to break in with a larger market. So I might have to go above and beyond. After all, I wasn’t Ray frikkin Bradbury. I had a lot of work ahead of me.
Starting somewhere toward the last half of my sophomore year in college I decided to start aiming for 100 rejections a year to try and hit that 500.
Thankfully, I was lucky enough to break in a bit earlier than Bradbury. I got my first check for a story my junior year ($8.50 for a story, submission number 158), and my first professional paying big sale my senior year was on submission number 195 to Science Fiction Age (story: The Fish Merchant). I think I’m clearing in on my 700th actual rejection. I have some that are in email that need logged for some novel projects. I’m guessing one day I’ll report in that I have achieved that 1,000 that I suspected I would get to.
I owe a great deal of my own dogged persistence to Bradbury’s being willing to talk about those 500 early rejections. Too often literary giants are presented in their current position as if they became what they were via fait accompli. Without this crucial understanding as to how freaking hard Bradbury worked, I would never have had the courage to keep pushing on despite early rejections.
And that piece of advice, that realization about how hard he worked, led me to fall even further in love with his writing as time passed.
Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. I am disappointed I never got to meet you.