Casually reading online last week, I thought about the staying power of different pieces of news. In my informal recollection and comparison, hardly another individual incident has shown up more often in my online reading spaces, from such a variety of friends and acquaintances, and for such an extended a time period as the death of Ray Bradbury on June 5. It’s a strong indication of the prolific writer’s impact on several generations of readers. Ray Bradbury was a storyteller in the truest and most powerful sense, filling readers with grief and joy in sometimes just a few short paragraphs.
One of my very favourite short stories is Kaleidoscope, the second story in Bradbury’s classic The Illustrated Man. It opens with a short sentence that uses every available syllable to convey the entire scene, “The first concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener.” Men are strewn into empty space and left to argue about how to spend their final hours. One by one they drift off and say goodbye. The narrator finally comes to terms with his inevitable fiery collision with the planet’s atmosphere and resorts to the most human of questions: will anyone even notice. All those miles down, on a quiet country road, a little boy looks up and sees the shooting star “Make a wish,” said his mother, “make a wish”
The story has little in the way of explicit plot–there’s no twist, no obstacle to overcome–and yet when pressed to think of literature that expresses what it means to be human, this is almost always the first that comes to mind. I just have to imagine that little boy to feel all of all over again.
This week’s song is a tribute to Bradbury and Kaleidoscope. Robin Woywitka‘s How many ways, from his second album The Impossible Address, made me smile the very first time I heard it, when the narrator is thrust into space in the third verse “I had a fight with my partner on a spacewalk. He said a thing about you.” Like Bradbury’s characters , Robin’s are entirely and frailly human. Even dressed in space suits, they’re the same human beings you might find outside a bar on a Saturday night fighting over someone they love.
Thinking about the connections between the crafts short story writing and songwriting, I asked Robin about how he came to write about a bar fight in space. The song, like the Illustrated Man, is a short series of vignettes that convey much of the struggle of making ones way in the world. “I don’t really know how it started” said Robin who is also a government archeologist, “I think I just got the chorus and it was catchy, right. And then I had been reading about working in the oil sands and digging a site. I was going through the literature I found out about Sydney Ells. And what he would do is he’d get guys to drag a scow full of oil sands from north of Fort McMurray all the way to Athabasca landing. I knew there was a story in there. And then I couldn’t find more than a verse, so then I thought ‘what can I do? I realized that the title of the song is like the poem, How do I love thy, let me count the ways but instead of being romantic it was kind of being impatient about it. So I thought, well we’ll just go through different characters and it turned out it was spread through time. The first two were kind of old. I set the first one sort of in the 1840s and then the turn of the century and then thought we’d take it to the space age. Why not, right?”
Why a fight in space, I wondered. It’s fairly easy to make the decision, after stepping through time in each of the previous verses, to go to the future. The absurdity of almost dying in macho fight out there takes another few creative steps. Robin laughed when I asked. “The idea of guys getting in a fight on a space walk was really really funny so I had to work that in. I know that was the first idea. “I got in a fight with my partner on a space walk” That line came real fast. How do you put love into space? Two guys fighting over a girl.”
Robin’s decision is not unlike Bradbury’s own view of his writing process. In the introduction to the 1999 edition of the Illustrated Man he wrote, “Take “Kaleidoscope,” for instance. I decided one morning forty-six years ago to explode a rocket and toss my astronauts out into the wilderness of Space to see what would happen.” (p. vi) Bradbury often described his writing this way, throwing out possibilities to see what would happen. During the promotion of the film version of the Illustrated Man, he was featured on the CBC explaining his craft.
“What I try to do is go to my typewriter and many days experiment with words to find out what my tension is. Do I need to laugh or cry on a particular day? I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t know. So I begin to type any word that comes into my mind, the dwarf, the night, the lake, the wind, a time machine and then say to myself why have you put that word down there? Why have you written “the nursery” for instance. What kind of nursery? Where? A nursery in the past? No. The present? No. What about the future? What would a nursery be like in the future?” He goes on to describe The Veldt, a chilling story of a nursery that irrevocably changes the parent-child relationships in the family that owns it. “And suddenly you’re off and flying all because you dared to put on paper the words ‘the nursery.’ You didn’t even know the story was in you, but you go with it.”
Throwing ideas out there and asking “what if?”, with that simple bravery Bradbury took his readers on a journey through their reactions to death, change, technology and familial love. Great songwriters often do the same.