Ray Bradbury’s Magic Cabinet: Why Clutter Clearing is Overrated for Artists
by Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
The TV show “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” had an opening sequence that mesmerized many future writers like me. Here’s how I remember it.
The scene opens with the camera peering down a coal-black elevator shaft at the heart of a 1930’s office building.
We watch as an antique box elevator ominously rises up toward us.
It stops. Doors quietly open.
Bradbury in silhouette exits the elevator and walks us into a darkened set of rooms, crammed with strange objects.
As Bradbury clicks on one lamp after another the viewer gets to glimpse various desks piled high with his treasures. Globes, big plastic alien skulls, and even bigger plastic dinosaurs teeter atop piles of comic books and dime store sci-fi novels.
We start to understand that this cabinet of curiosities is in fact, Ray Bradbury’s office.
This crazy place that may have given Marie Kondo a seizure is where one of the best science fiction/horror/fantasy writers in the world dreams up his stories.
We then hear Bradbury’s deep voice boom out a question:
“People ask me, where do you get your ideas?
He surveys the room and then answers:
“All this is my Martian landscape, says Bradbury.
“Somewhere in this room is an African veldt, just beyond perhaps is a small Illinois town where I grew up and I’m surrounded on every side by my magician’s toy shop.”
He adroitly swivels around in his chair and pops a crisp blank piece of paper into his seemingly expectant typewriter.
“I’ll never starve here,” says Bradbury.
“I just look around and find what I need and begin.
I am Ray Bradbury and this is. . .”
He pecks out 12 letters the camera zooms in and we see they spell out:
With the audience now captured, the program begins.
I don’t remember the actual show but that damn intriguing intro is in my head forever.
Why did that sequence get me and other future artists and writers so excited?
Well, because in that one minute tour, Bradbury sanctioned you to love what you loved and explore the giant universe with all your heart; all from within the confines of a tiny darkened room filled with your passions and bright ideas.
But for me, Bradbury’s offices (and the offices and home museums of other great writers, artists, and thinkers I’ve visited around the world for my dissertation) also did me the favor of affirming one particular truth that is rarely spoken of.
And that truth is that certain stuff (what others might term junk) is vital to great artists and writers.
Certain objects of ours safely house our memories or daydreams.
Certain objects of ours harbor our brightest ideas, patiently keeping them safe till we are ready to call upon them.
Smart Folks Throughout History Like Bradbury Daydreamed With Objects
In fact, having piles of stuff lying about is a proud artistic and intellectual tradition.
Artists, writers, and other great thinkers have surrounded themselves with things and used things to think with since before the renaissance.
If you were lucky enough to have a room packed with objects that made your brain purr back in Italy, Germany, or the Netherlands of the 1400s-1600s, you wouldn’t be trying to clutter clear it. Instead, you would proudly refer to it as your studiolo or your wunderkammer.
Men (and a few brainy, wealthy women like Isabel D’este) used to have small rooms built inside their bigger rooms with the sole purpose of cram jamming them full of astrolabes, taxidermied alligators, alembic vessels, books, and anything else that made their brains jump for joy.
Studiolo and Wunderkammer
Our modern term studio is a direct descendant of the Italian word studiolo.
And Wunderkammer is German for “wonder room.”
The first public museums were the result of putting the collections from private studioli and wunderkammern on display in public spaces.
So if it weren’t for mad stuff-obsessed thinkers and collectors the British Museum and the Met wouldn’t have been born.
Ray Bradbury is Proof Clutter Clearing is Overrated
But is fabulous brain-stimulating stuff becoming an endangered species?
We live in a time when simplifying our spaces is all the rage.
Don’t get me wrong I respect Marie Kondo and her Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.)
And yes I agree, it’s great to let go of what no longer serves you.
But the thing is the oddest objects can serve artists and writers.
So my point here is don’t be shamed into throwing all your babies out with all your bathwaters.
Critics called Ray Bradbury eccentric and a bad housekeeper, but he didn’t care what others thought of him.
So why should you feel guilty if you keep strange things around, love collecting or have dust in your studio?
You’re an artist or writer not a spokesperson for Glade®.
Know that like Bradbury, there is a method to your madness when it comes to objects and the state of your workspace.
Children (and adults whose child is still alive within them) have the courage to proudly put their fascinations on display.
Ray Bradbury’s assertiveness, playfulness, and self-regard made him independent enough to create and enjoy a liminal place packed with meaningful objects to work and dream in.
And we can enjoy objects in the same way.
P.S. Like Ray Bradbury, Your Studio Is Not a Mess, If You Say it in Italian
Next time you look out over your studio and think it is an insane mess, reframe the situation in your head.
See your strange piles as a necessary part of a truly charmed studio.
Charmed studios celebrate meaningful stuff laying about.
And if that doesn’t work, and you still think you can’t have fun with art until you tidy up, go ahead and bust out some Italian.
Dub your studio a studiolo.
This way you don’t have to clean it this minute.
Instead of tidying up, pour yourself a Campari® and soda, or an Orangina® over ice, and make more art.
That’s what Bradbury (who wrote at least twenty-four books) would do, though he preferred cracking open a humble Coors®.
And while you are in your art or writing space today keep an eye out for some objects that might be patiently housing your next brilliant idea.
Maybe that stray phrenology head, broken clock, or set of Japanese anime action figures is holding a brilliant idea for a memoir or your next painting.
I have a pool table-green, enchanted suitcase from the 1940s in my workspace that is calling my name lately.
Please tell me an object in your studiolo that is winking at you lately in the comments below.
“The things of this world are vessels, entrances for stories;
when we touch them or tumble into them we fall into their labyrinthine resonances.”
— Lynda Sexson (author of Ordinarily Sacred)