I didn’t know him. We met across a signing table, where I was one of the scores of people who brought him works to sign that day.
I’m pretty sure it was 1993. I had started writing a few years earlier, and after way too much solitary scribbling in the third bedroom that still serves as my office, I decided to attend a writers conference. I had no idea which one to attend. I had heard of Clarion thanks to the annual anthologies that came out for a while in the late 60s? 70s? But what I remembered most about those anthologies were the student intros to their stories, a few of which contained accounts of getting hammered during critiquing sessions by one particular instructor. I don’t recall whether that particular writer was still teaching at Clarion in the early 90s, but I do remember deciding that even though I veered toward speculative fiction as my preferred genre, I would give Clarion a pass.
Anyway, I found an ad in one of my writing magazines for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. It looked promising. Nice hotel on the ocean. Workshops in several genres, including spec fic. Non-fiction and screenwriting. And guest appearances by locals such as Sue Grafton, Fannie Flagg, and Ray Bradbury.
For reasons I won’t go into, my writing was touch and go by the time the conference rolled around, and I felt discouraged enough that I would have canceled the trip if I hadn’t passed the point of airline ticket refundability. I also didn’t enjoy flying, so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I boarded the plane and settled into my seat–I grabbed the in-flight magazine and leafed through it, and felt the first pleasant jolt in days when I found it contained a short story by Bradbury.
I don’t recall the plot exactly. I do remember that there were no supernatural or sfnal elements–it was a slice-of-life tale about a tense family dinner conversation overheard by the story’s narrator. I read it, enjoyed it, and decided that I would try to get Bradbury to autograph the magazine after his talk.
So I got to the hotel and settled in. Wandered around. The time for Bradbury’s talk arrived, and he spoke, and he was encouraging and nice and funny. Then came signing time, and I held that magazine and watched the folks ahead of me, some of whom knew him, greet him and talk to him and hand him stacks of books, and part of me wondered if he would be annoyed or even insulted to be handed a freebie magazine to sign.
Then finally my turn came, and I stepped up to the table and handed him the magazine, and his face lit up. He leafed through it and said he knew the story would be in that month’s issue but he hadn’t seen it yet and maybe it would be waiting for him when he got home. I told him how much I enjoyed it, and he smiled up at me and said “Yes, it was good, wasn’t it?” and signed the title page. And as I left, I thought about the look on his face when he saw the story, and I hoped that, whatever type of writer I turned out to be, I would have the confidence to take pleasure in my work. I wanted to someday smile up at someone the way that Bradbury smiled up at me.
So for all I’ve read in various venues today about his political views and occasional crankiness and idiosyncrasies, what I will remember about Ray Bradbury was that he made me realize that writing could be fun, and that sometimes you the writer would really nail it and when you did, it was okay to feel good about it. That’s not a bad lesson to impart over the course of a minute or so during a busy autographing session. Or anytime at all, really.