These two words summed up the essence of the legendary author Ray Bradbury, opening-night speaker at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for 34 years. He would jump up on the two-foot-high stage dressed in his tennis whites as if ready to slam the ball across the court. I later found out he really couldn’t play tennis but loved the outfit.
He’d hit us aspiring and published writers with a staccato of words so fast he did not seem to take a breath. He said that he writes 1,000 words a day and writes everyday whether he wants to or not. Then he fired away at our imaginations.
“What if you’re riding in a train when you look out the window and see ...?”
“What if the man across the aisle from you suddenly ...?”
“What if? That’s what gets the creative juices going.”
Then he gave us our marching orders. “Use your imagination! Just for fun, take along your favorite authors on an all-night train ride. Choose ones you’d like to talk to. Spend the night with them. Imagine what they’d say, the questions you’d ask, what you’d talk about. I’d choose Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Eudora Welty and Thomas Wolfe. Think of the conversations we’d have!”
The Santa Barbara Writers Conference began in 1972 when local author and founder Barnaby Conrad made a phone call to Bradbury. They had met the year before and formed a lifetime mutual admiration society.
Conrad decided to put a Santa Barbara conference together at Cate School, but he had no featured writers. Bradbury listened and asked what speakers he had. Off the top of his head, Conrad said “There’s Alex Haley ... Charles Schulz and ... James Michener.” With that, Bradbury told Conrad to count him in.
Conrad then called Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and said, “We’ve already got Ray Bradbury and there’s Haley and Michener.” With that, Schulz said he was in. Haley and Michener responded similarly. Conrad was on his way. The conference is in its 40th year, now owned by Charles Schulz’ son, Monte Schulz.
Anyone who reads American literature would have to include Bradbury’s works such as The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine or Fahrenheit 451. His long list of works includes children’s books, poetry and plays.
At lunch recently, Conrad remembered that first year opening night when Bradbury got up to talk at Cate.
“The lights went out,” he said. “I don’t know where the candles came from, but suddenly they lighted the room. Candles everywhere. When it was over, Ray said, ‘Hey, Barney, let’s do it this way every time. In that flickering light, couldn’t you just feel the spirits all around us?’”
At the 2006 conference, Bradbury had to be helped on stage because he was partially incapacitated from several strokes. All that changed when he started talking. We could feel the energy build, his mind flip into first gear and his infirmed body forgotten. He said, “If anyone had told me at 33 years old that at 86 years I’d have this zest for writing, I wouldn’t have believed them. Here’s my advice: Don’t worry a story, and don’t be self-conscious about work. Do it with passion, a sense of exploration.”
Then came the inevitable words. “Ask that What If. Think of an idea. Then write it! Take the idea and make it grow into its own creative world.”