For writers, the value of a compliment lies not in the effusion of words, but in the source of them. Even the most modest statement of encouragement for the most minor effort, from the right person, can make your day and sometimes your decade.
And that explains why I still treasure a letter I received on September 5, 2001, from Ray Bradbury.
“Dear Bill Newcott,” it begins, “Thank you for your good letter.”
Good letter. Good letter! One of the most celebrated writers of our age thought my little letter—proposing that he write a short piece about his well-known love of Disneyland for the magazine then known as Modern Maturity—was not just proficient, not merely adequate, but “good.”
He went on:
“I can write that article with two hands tied behind me and typing with my nose! I’d be glad to tell you why Disneyland is important. I’ll have the article back to you some time during the next two weeks.
Thank me? Was he kidding? Two of my favorite things, Ray Bradbury and Disneyland, were harmonizing right before my ears, and I was the unworthy conductor. By this time in my career I’d traveled the globe writing about amazing places, I’d won awards, I’d worked for three of the world’s most famous publications, but none of that came close to the professional satisfaction that flowed through me at that moment.
I faxed the contract immediately, fearing Bradbury might change his mind.
He didn’t, of course. There were few subjects Bradbury—who died in Los Angeles the other day at age 91— liked to hold forth on more than those of Disneyland and Walt Disney. True to his word, he got the piece to me in two weeks time, a charming story he called “Disney’s Demon For Happiness.” I didn’t really understand the title, but I stuck with it. After all, I’ll bet his first publisher wasn’t too thrilled with Fahrenheit 451, either. Unfortunately, if you happened to take note of the date on which I received Bradbury’s acceptance, you’ll also know that six days after that, and before I received his article, the world changed.
Ray’s Disneyland piece was to be part of a special March/April 2002 Modern Maturity issue focusing on the cultural, political, and aesthetic dominance of California. But after the World Trade Center came crashing down on September 11, 2001, that suddenly seemed like a rather frivolous conceit. At Modern Maturity we tore up the issue about to go to press and filled it with essays and articles that valiantly attempted to make sense of a world where, much to our surprise, some people really, really hated us.
And so Ray Bradbury’s piece about Walt Disney and Disneyland drifted to the bottom of my to-do pile, with only a cursory edit and a few changes that I had the temerity to suggest—and he had the good grace to accept. I’d wanted him to add some more about his friendship with Walt, and he suggested that we just chat about it. “You can work it into the story,” he told me. “I trust you.” Ray Bradbury trusted me, and of course he had no reason on earth to do so. But I sensed that he, like the rest of us, had been emotionally exhausted by 9/11. It was as if those contracting towers were a great big reset button for our entire culture. Projects that were started before that day, well, they just didn’t seem quite so relevant any more.
I didn’t get a final edited version to him until November 2002. In my cover letter, I told him, “I know it seems like it’s been forever. I apologize for the time lag. At least we paid you in a timely manner!” (And more than a decade later, I’m so glad to see that notation).
As it turned out, we didn’t even run Bradbury’s piece in the main part of the magazine, but on a “regional” page that appeared in only some of our editions. I always felt badly about that. I’d like nothing better than to reprint the thing here, but as I hold the original contract in my hand–with Bradburys signature, in felt-tip pen, bleeding through to the back of it–I see that if I did reprint it online I’d have to pay Bradbury $400, and I frankly don’t know how to get the money to him now.
He tells of his great friendship with Disney, how they validated each other’s more outlandish projects, and how Disney flatly refused to ever work directly with him on a Disneyland project (“It’s no use,” Walt told him. “You’re a genius and I’m a genius. We’d kill each other the second week.”).
But toward the end of the piece, Bradbury does bless us with what I think is as good an epitaph as any for a man whose genius helped the world first envision a future of space travel, robot labor, and institutionalized thought police. In that passage, he had a few choice words to say about the real-world value of fantasy and imagination.
“When I go to a play,” he wrote, “and someone onstage turns on a faucet and water comes out, I leave. I want to see wine come out of the faucet.
“I hate reality. When I go into a theater, when we go into cinema, we’re already full-up on reality. We know everything there is to know about cancer, about war, about failed relationships, about dead friends.
“We go into theater and a good movie so someone can help us make do with that reality. Not necessarily for a happy ending, but at least to kill the villain.”
Actually, none of those words were in Bradbury’s original written piece. He spoke them to me, during our phone conversation to fill in some details. They live somewhere on a misplaced cassette tape here in my office. And they echo forever in my memories of the briefest of brushes with a man who, more than perhaps anyone we’ve ever known, could not only see the future, but also helped shape it.