Ray Bradbury is regarded as the most famous and most celebrated writer of Science Fiction in the world. On June 9, 2000, he gave a Commencement Address at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. Four things struck me about this speech; 1) It is, as speeches go, very well constructed and written, 2) it may have been delivered a fraction less than twenty years ago (19.93973 years), but the issues and sentiments are as valid today as ever, 3) it is personal, funny, unapologetic, and directed specifically at the young graduates in the audience, and 4) it conveys extremely valuable insights into what it means to be a writer, particularly a writer of Science Fiction. These words are wise and timeless, and worth paying attention to.
In this address, Bradbury reveals the humble beginnings of his famous books, and the luck, determination and aspiration that got him started and kept him writing.
Bradbury’s writing career has become synonymous with the development of the Science Fiction genre; most of what he did was a first, a deal breaker, a “Crossing of the Rubicon” in just about every aspect of Science Fiction writing. But more than that, he set the bar in all the genres in which he wrote, apart from Science Fiction; Fantasy, Horror, and Mysteries. If you don’t know who he is or have never read one of his books, well then, that is an unfortunate gap in your education. But listening to this address is a good introduction.
Bradbury died on June 5, 2012, aged 91. Listening to him talk in this video made me wish he were still alive. What inspiring words, filled with so much warmth and humanity. He was eighty years old when he made that speech and still as sharp as a blade. Below the video insert, I provide the transcript – enjoy!
Ray Bradbury’s Caltech Commencement Address to Graduates – June 9, 2000
This is fantastic. I never made it to college. I didn’t have enough money and I decided I was going to be a writer anyway. And the reason I was going to go to college was all those girls. Right? So it’s a good thing I didn’t go, huh?
Before I start, how many of you here today read me in high school? How many? You’re all my bastard children, aren’t you? Thank you, thank you for that.
Apropos of nothing whatsoever, I’d like to tell you a very brief thing about my childhood. I arrived in Los Angeles when I was 13 years old and I was enamoured of Hollywood. I wanted to meet famous people. We were very poor family, we came out, my dad was looking for work in the Great Depression. And I put on my roller skates – I didn’t have money to take the streetcar – and I roller skated out to Hollywood looking for famous people. And by God I found one, out in front of paramount studios standing as if he were waiting for me was WC Fields himself. I couldn’t believe that, and I roller skated up to him and I said, Mr. Fields, can I have your autograph? And he signed, gave it back to me and says, “There you are, you little son of a bitch.” And here I am.
I’ve come a long way. I hope I have another 20 years to go. And that gives you 20 years to get from here to Mars. That’s the important thing, huh? I got to give you a few rules of hygiene here. Very important for the next several days. You can do some of them tonight. First of all, from today on, none of you are ever going to have to watch local television news again, right? Don’t look at it, ever. Because it tells you how bad you are. It’s full of rapes, murders, funerals, AIDS, all the “good” things. So you’re not to look at that.
Now, right after graduation today, make a list of the people who don’t believe in you. And you have a view, don’t you? I had plenty of people who told me not to do what I was going to do. You make a list this afternoon of the people who don’t believe in you and you call them tonight and tell them to go to hell. Okay?
And then you gather around you and the people who do believe in you, your parents and a few friends. If you’re lucky. We don’t have many friends in this world, but the few that do believe in you, and then you move on into the future. I tried to do that.
I had a thing happen to me when I was nine years old, which was a great lesson. That was in 1929 they started the Great Depression, and a single comic strip in the newspaper set me into the future. The first comic strip of “Buck Rogers” in October, 1929. I looked at that one comic strip with its view of the future and I thought, “That’s where I belong.” I started to collect the “Buck Rogers” comic strips and everybody in the fifth grade made fun of me. I continued to collect them for about a month. And then I listened to the critics and I tore up my comic strips. That’s the worst thing I ever did.
Two or three days later I broke down, I was crying and I said to myself, “Why am I crying? Whose funeral am I going to? Who died?” And the answer was me. I had torn up the future. And then I sat down with myself when I was crying and I said, “What can I do to correct this?” And I said, “Well, hell, go back and collect “Buck Rogers” comic strips for the next four or five years. Move into the future and don’t listen to any more damn fools after this.”
And that’s what I did. I started collecting “Buck Rogers” again. And I began to write when I was 12 years old about going to the moon, about going to Mars, about moving out into the universe.
Thank God I made that decision against all the people who said, “Don’t do that.” Because science fiction in those days didn’t exist. We had maybe two or three books a year. You had to wait for six months or eight months for a new book to come out. So I made my decision, I began to write and made my life whole after that. So those are the basic things you have to do.
I envy your youngness today. I envy your youngness. If I had to go back and do everything over, I’d do it again. With everything that’s been wrong with my life, with everything that’s been good, with all of the mistakes, all the problems.
When I got married, all my wife’s friends said, “Don’t marry him. He’s going nowhere.” But I said to her, “I’m going to the moon and I’m going to Mars. Do you want to come along?” And she said, yes. She said yes. She took a vow of poverty and married me. On the day of our wedding, we had $8 in the bank and I put $5 in an envelope and handed it to the minister and he said, “What’s this?” I said, that’s your pay for the ceremony today. He said, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then you’re going to need this,” and he gave it to me. And I took it back. So a couple of years later when I had some money, I sent him a decent check. But we all start just about the same.
Most of you are not as poor at your beginning as I was, but I was indeed poor. But I got to writing all these short stories of mine without knowing what I was doing. The important thing in life is to follow your passion no matter what it is, for whatever mysterious reasons. I wrote a whole series of stories about Mars without knowing what the hell I was doing. And when I was a 29 years old, my wife got pregnant. We had $40 in the bank. My friend Norman Corwin, the great radio writer, told me, you got to go to New York city and let the people see you and know that you exist. I went you to New York with all my short stories.
I went on the Greyhound bus, four days and four nights to New York city, no air conditioning, no toilets. We have many improvements in the last few years, but then I was traveling to New York on the Greyhound bus, and then arriving at the YMCA, where I stayed for $5 a week. With a stack of manuscripts in my lap hoping to conquer the editorial field. I met with all of these editors, they rejected me.
On my last night in New York, defeated by my encounters, I had dinner with the editor of Doubleday Publishers who said to me, “What about all those Martian stories you’ve been writing? If you tied them together and made a tapestry of them, wouldn’t they make a book called the “Martian Chronicles”?” I said, “Oh my God.” He said, “Why?”
I said, “I read a book called Winesburg Ohio [Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life, a 1919 short story cycle by the American author Sherwood Anderson] when I was 24 years old and I thought to myself, “Oh God, if I could just write a book with characters like this, but put it on the planet Mars, wouldn’t that be fun?” I made an outline, I forgot all about it. And the next four or five years I wrote this book, not knowing what I was doing. And here he was suggesting to me that maybe I had a novel. I’d written a novel without knowing it. He says, “Bring me an outline tomorrow and if it’s any good I’ll give you a check for $700.” So I stayed up all night at the YMCA, wrote the outline, took it to him the next day. And he said, “This is it, this is the “Martian Chronicles”. Here’s $700.”
He said, “Now, do you have any other stories that we might kid people into thinking would make a novel?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got a story about a man with tattoos all over his body. And when he perspires at night, the tattoos come to life and tell their stories.” He said, “Here’s another $700.” He bought “The Illustrated Man” that day. So I went home with $1,500 – I was rich, rich! – to my place in Venice, California, with my pregnant wife was waiting for me.
Our rent was $30 a month. You could have a baby for $100. El cheapo, huh? And so the money I got from Doubleday paid for the baby and for our rent for the next year and a half. So you see, we all start with somewhat similar beginnings. But I had this passion, this dedication to be something, to do something with my writing.
I’m very proud to look back to my blue-and-white annual, when I graduated from LA High School in the summer of 1938, when I was 17 years old. They asked me how I was going to predict my future, and underneath my picture I had them put, “Headed for literary distinction.” Huh? How in hell did I know that? How in hell did I know that? Because I was nowhere, I was nowhere at all. And the last night at school, I went up on top of the school and in the sunset I was playing a part in a play and I cried because I knew it was going to be years before anything happened to me. But I had to make it happen. I had to make it… I had to believe in my passion. So that’s the way it finally turned out.
Now, I wrote a short story recently about a young man I met when I was 30 years old, and he was 21, he was a genius. He wrote fantastic short stories, the sort of thing I didn’t write when I was 21. I was in my late twenties before I began to write really well. And this boy was so talented. I took his short stories, I sent them out to the magazines, I sold them all immediately. And he had a bright future. He had it made it already. He was already a genius, but he went in the Navy. He went away and I didn’t see him for 20 or 30 years.
And about 15 years ago, an old man came up to me at a book signing and he said to me, “Do you know who I am?” I said, “No,” I didn’t recognize him. He told me who he was. That was that young boy of 20, 21, who was a genius. And I said, “You son of a bitch. What did you done with your life? Huh? What have you done with your life?” He’d stopped. He didn’t listen to the God given gift of genetics in his blood. He didn’t follow his dream. And here he was now, an old man with nothing, with nothing.
I said, “You get the hell out of here this afternoon and you go write another short story and get your career started again.” He left that encounter with me, blasted by my fury, and he went home and wrote a short story and sent it to me, and I sold it.
So what I’m saying to you is this, 20 years now I’ll be a hundred but I’m still going to be alive and I’m going to meet a lot of you. And I hope I’m not going to say to you, “You son of a bitch, what have you done with your lives?” Whatever it is, do it. Sure, there are going to be mistakes. Shoot, everything’s not going to be perfect. I’ve written thousands of words that no one will ever see. I had to write them in order to get rid of them. Then I’ve written a lot of other stuff too. Yeah. So the good stuff stays and the old stuff goes.
I’ve had various encounters. I want to mention one thing here. You may have seen it a couple of nights ago, they had a program on TV that the universe was going to end in 2 billion years. Did that make you… Did you stay up all night worrying about that? I couldn’t believe it. I said, “My God, what’s you’re worried about is tomorrow afternoon and next week and next year.” And I’m here to tell you it’s going to be great for you.
Leave the TV alone. Don’t get on the internet too much. There’s a lot of crap there. It’s mainly male macho crap, huh? We men like to play with toys. You get yourself a good typewriter, go to the library, live there. Live in the library. See, I didn’t go to school, but I went to the library and I’ve stayed there for the last 50 years or so. When I was in my 40s I had no money for an office. I was wandering around UCLA one day, 35 years ago, and I heard typing down below in the basement of the library. And I went down to see what was going on. I found there was a typing room down there and for 10 cents a half an hour I could rent a typewriter.
I said, “My God, this is great. I don’t have an office. I’ll move in here with a bunch of students and I’ll write.” So I got a bag full of dimes and in the next nine days I spent $9.80 cents and I wrote “Fahrenheit 451”. So I wrote a dime novel, didn’t I? the book has been around… I didn’t know it was going to be around. I didn’t know any of these things would happen. And I wrote additions to it.
I did another 25,000 words a few years later for a new edition of “Fahrenheit 451”. And a young editor came to me, he was looking for material. He didn’t have much money. He was going to start a new magazine. This is the autumn of 1953. He says, “Will you sell me something inexpensively?” I said, “Yes, I have “Fahrenheit 451” here. I’d like to sell it to a magazine.” He said, “I have $400, can I buy it from you?” I said, “Yes you can.” So he paid me $400 and “Fahrenheit 451” appeared in the first, second and third issues of Playboy [Magazine]. I want a little applause now. Come on.
You young men should appreciate the fact that I helped start that magazine. Anyway, along the way I worked for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. They were putting on a planetarium show with astronomy of course, but they were boring the hell out of people. They took me in to see the show and within 10 minutes everybody was asleep. You could hear snoring all over the planetarium. And they took me back to the office. The head of the Smithsonian said to me, “What are we doing wrong?” I said, “My God. You know what you’re doing in there? You’re teaching with this planetarium instead of preaching. A planetarium is a synagogue, is a church, is a basilica. It’s a place to celebrate the universe and the incredible fact of our being alive in this world.” I said, “Get out of the way with your scientific technology and let me do a thing called “The Great Shout of the Universe” – the universe coming alive for all these mysterious reasons.
So they hired me to write a new program for the planetarium. I did 32 pages on the incredible miracle of life on Earth and the whole history of astronomy going back 2000 years, and then 500 years into the future. I turned in 32 pages, they sent me 28 pages of criticism. I called them on the phone. I said, “What’s the problem?” They said, “Well, this scientific thing is wrong, that scientific thing is wrong.” I said, “You don’t understand. I’m the guy who invented an atmosphere on Mars, and Caltech invites me back all the time.” I said, “You mustn’t teach, you must preach. And if you do a good job of preaching, people will go out and buy the book or go to the library and borrow it, and learn all these wonderful things that you want them to learn. But in the meantime, let me shout, huh?”
I said, “What’s the one thing that bothers you the most about my script? They said, well you got a thing there about the big bang occurring 10 billion years ago.” I said, “When did it occur?” They said, “12 billion years ago.” I said, Prove it.” Well that ruined it right there. The marriage was over. So after another two weeks of arguing with these people, I said, “You want to go back to boring people? I don’t want to bore people. I want to excite them.” Because it’s wonderful to have one life, to be on this world, to have a chance to do the things that we want to do. I said, “How much do you owe me right now?” They said “$15,000.” I said, “Give me $7,000 and let me go because this is a bad marriage.” They gave me $7,000, I quit the project.
I came out to Los Angeles, I put it on in the Aerospace Museum down at Expedition Park, it’s still playing there; The Great Shout of the Universe, the creation of mankind and the world. We still don’t know. We have various TV shows, don’t we? We’ve all seen during the last few years, about how life came upon the earth. And at a certain point they finally say it just did. Well, that’s not very scientific, is it? The lighting pummelled the earth and out of the chemistry of the seas and the oceans and the lakes of the world, suddenly life came. We don’t know a damn thing about it.
So in doing my script for the Smithsonian, I looked at the universe and I said, “I’ve got a better theory than the big bang theory.” You want to know what that is? I’ll tell you what it is. The universe has been here forever. That’s impossible too. Big bang’s impossible. But why not the universe, which is so damn big, billions of light years in any direction, that it’s been here forever? That’s a hard thing to imagine, isn’t it? But we are hard to imagine. Now a question that’s often entered all of your minds, and everyone who lives in the world at one time or another is why are we here? We don’t believe in God. We pretend not to believe in God. Well then, you got to believe in the universe, don’t you? Have to believe in universe. Now, why are you here? I’ll tell you why you’re here. You’ve been put here because the universe exists.
There’s no use in the universe existing if there isn’t someone there to see it. Your job [graduates] is to see it. Your job is to witness. You are the witnesses to the miracle of life created on this small world in the midst of all this cosmos. Your function then is to witness, to understand, to comprehend, and to celebrate, to celebrate with your lives. At the end of your life, if you don’t come to that end and look back and realize that you did not celebrate, then you wasted it. Your function is God-given, to act on your genetics, to be what you were born to be. Find out what it is and do it.
The Armenians have a saying that in the hour of your birth, God thumbprints you with a genetic thumbprint in the middle of your forehead. But in the hour of your birth, that thumbprint vanishes back into your flesh. Your job as young people is to look in the mirror every day of your life and see the shape of that genetic thumbprint and find out just who in hell you are. It’s a big job, but a wonderful job. So to be witnesses, to celebrate, to be part of this universe. You’re here one time, you’re not coming back. And you owe, don’t you? You owe back for the gift of life.
When I was 11 years old I looked at the back of my hand suddenly one day. I turned my hands over and I looked at the little hairs on the back of my hand and I said, “My God, I’m alive. Why didn’t someone tell me, huh? Why didn’t someone tell me?” You’ve all had that moment. Today is one of those moments you are especially alive. So that you look at yourself and you say, “I’m in here. I’m looking out, I’m perceiving and I’m willing to celebrate.”
Wonderful thing, wonderful thing indeed. And I put that one of my books, “Dandelion Wine”. The moment of discovery that you’re inside this incredible being and you’re looking out. Now there’s several people sitting here today who will be living on Mars 20 or 30 years from now. I really envy you. I wish I could be alive the day that we land on Mars with real people. I was out here at jet propulsion lab a few years ago when the Viking Lander landed, and I was there with Carl Sagan and Bruce Murray and a lot of other wonderful people.
And after the first pictures came back from Mars, Roy Neil of NBC interviewed me and he said, “Mr Bradbury, how does it feel? You’ve been writing about Mars for 30 years. And you got civilizations up there and peculiar people, Martians, and we’re up there now and there’s nothing on Mars. There are no cities. There are new Martians.” And I said to him, “Fool, fool, there are Martians on Mars, and it is us. From here on we will be the Martians.”
I’d like to believe that on some night, 50, 60 years from now, that when some of you are on Mars that you will carry with you – please do – a copy of “The Martian Chronicles”, which is totally unscientific. It’s a Greek myth. It’s a Roman myth. It’s an Egyptian myth. It’s an Norse Edda. And that’s why the damn thing is still around.
I didn’t deal with the facts, I dealt with the dream. And some night, teach your children on Mars to read the books under the blankets with a flashlight. In the meantime, they’re looking out at Mars and the only Martians that are out there will be you. I envy you that. If the young women here today will permit me to make a little speech to young men, because you young women already know how to be affectionate to your families. But a lot of times you young men have the problems of most young men with their families and their fathers.
Now, this is a very special day today. I want you to do something when the ceremony is over. I have a cousin, a boy cousin, when I was 13 years old and he died suddenly. He had an infection and he died. But his father was never the same. Never the same. Destroyed the family, but especially the father. My father came to me when I was 33, when I had a job of going overseas to write the screenplay of “Moby Dick” for John Huston. I don’t think my father and I had ever embraced each other. I don’t remember that we ever said, I love you. He brought with him on the day before I went overseas, a gold watch that belonged to my grandfather. And he handed it to me and his eyes were full of tears. And I realized, and I said to myself, “My God, my God, he loves me. Why didn’t I truly realize, why did I have to wait till I was 33 to realize that this man loves me with all his heart?” But he just couldn’t say, just couldn’t say. Maybe some of your families, you’re like that. Maybe you’re like that. Maybe your father’s like that.
But think of it, when the celebration is over today. You girls already know, you young women already know what to do, but you young men have to be instructed to your passions. So when this is over the day, I know your fathers are here, most of them. I want you to run over and grab your father and lift him up and kiss him on both cheeks and say, “Dad, thank you for my life. Thank you for being here. I love you.” And then you’re going to have one of the greatest moments of this graduation. I give you that gift of love to pass on to your father when this is over.
Now, one final thing, I’ll end with my experience with [talk show host] David Frost. My enthusiasm for space travel is so immense that when I had a chance to be on the David Frost show when we landed on the moon, back in July, 31, 32 years ago, I went over, to be on the David Frost show, and we landed on the moon at 8:30 that night, London time. Now, why did I want to be there? Why is space travel important to me? Because it has to do with the immortality of mankind. If we make it to the moon, if we go onto Mars, if we move on to Alpha Centauri, we have a chance of helping the human race exist on other worlds 10,000 years from now, a hundred thousand years, a million years from now. Our children’s children’s children.
I wanted to say that, space travel has to do with the immortality of the human race. So I got over there and David Frost said, “I’m now going to introduce the American genius.” I said, “That’s got to be me.” And he immediately introduced the next guest, Engelbert Humperdinck. Well, I was very upset. And then he said, “And the next guest after this is Sammy Davis Jr.” And so they both got up and sang their stupid songs and I walked off the show, smoke was coming out of my ears. I didn’t have a chance to say what I say to you, that the future belongs to us.
If we work with it and we go back to the moon, we should never have left [the moon] in the first place. And go onto Mars, and go on out into the universe.
So I walked off the show. The producer came running after me. He said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “I’m leaving the show.” I said, “That man in there is an idiot. He doesn’t realize the most important moment in the history of mankind is our landing on the moon. And he’s ruined his special day, this special night, get me out of here.” So they put me in a cab and I went across London.
I did a show with Walter Cronkite, and I was able to say all the things I’ve just said to you. I stayed up night, I cried all night. I was on four or five different TV shows around the world, being able to say what I’ve said to you.
And at 9:00 in the morning, I walked back across London, very happy and full of cheer, but totally exhausted. And I got out in front of my hotel and I saw a little tiny newspaper there, with this wonderful, wonderful headline: “The astronauts walk at 6:00 AM, Bradbury walks at midnight”.
Thank you very much.