The Wonderful Death of Ray Bradbury: Lessons To Learn From An Author’s Longevity
Please don’t let the title of this blog post lead you to the false conclusion that I’m disrespecting a legend of our field (or that I’m not, like the rest of you, still a bit in mourning). I’m merely engaging in some word play, bouncing off of the title of Mr. Bradbury’s story “The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone” (the last story in his collection The October Country). It’s a lovely tale about the balance between the creative life and…well…the rest of life. It’s a story about the value of family, community, and serenity. A story about literary reputation not being everything, and about feeling relaxed about the knowledge that many (if not most) literary reputations wane over time.
It’s the kind of story that leads me to think Bradbury had a better-than-average head on his shoulders.
If we want further proof of that, we need only let look at his age. Ninety-one. The cause of death? A long illness.
Not a suicide like Virginia Woolf, Robert E. Howard, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Disch, David Foster Wallace, or any of the other 280 names listed on the Wikipedia list “Writers Who Committed Suicide”. Not as a complication from too much fondness for the bottle, as may have been the case for Mr. Poe and Mr. Fitzgerald. Not as a result of general self-neglect, as in the case of H.P. Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick (both of whom, it seems, waited too late to get the medical care they needed).
We writers can sometimes romanticize the poignancy of dying young (well, I can’t speak for other writers – I’ll just fess up to this…I have sometimes romanticized that notion). It’s become something of an archetype: the obsessed artist who puts work before self, over and over (often earning accolades for being a hard worker, often being rewarded – either financially or in terms of reputation – for their obsessiveness). Here’s another messed-up archetype: the zany, addicted artist at whom we all laugh for their crazy, over-the-top antics, choosing to acknowledge the comedy but not the tragedy (not, sometimes, even broaching the topic of addiction until the obituary, sometimes not even then).
In a profession where an untimely death seems to be an occupational hazard (if not a criterion for greatness), Bradbury made it to a ripe old age. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal life. I’m sure he had his ups and downs, as all people do. I’m also sure he wasn’t perfect. (None of us are). But he made it. Bradbury’s death is certainly heart-rending, as the death of any grandfather-figure is. But (as someone pointed out on one of the message boards I frequent) he didn’t die tragically. Maybe I’m setting the bar pretty low, but that gives me hope.
Hell, let’s say I’m totally off the mark. Let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that Bradbury was as much of an emotional wreck as many of the folks I named earlier and his survival to the age of 91 was pure dumb luck. Or, let’s assume that the premature passing of many of the authors I named earlier is nothing but pure bad luck. I’ll still point to his long life as an example (if only to myself). I’ll point to it because, well, I need an example like Bradbury’s in the midst of so many counter-examples like Woolf, Lovecraft, and Fitzgerald.
Look, I’ll say to myself. You could have five or six decades left. You know that doctor’s appointment you have scheduled? You should go to it. That plan to eat healthier and get some exercise? You should follow through with it. That medicine the doc says you should take? Take it, you imbecile! Yes, your writing obsession is a relatively benign one. But inject some balance into your life, for chrissake! Yes, your work’s important to you, but you’ll be able to produce a lot more of it if you’re on this side of the topsoil!