Many years ago, 1948 to be exact, while a disaffected English Lit major at USC, I became more than a little depressed when I was invited to join an off campus student writers’ group who called themselves THE BARDS. The Bards wanted to publish a literary quarterly. They asked me to be the magazine’s editor. (Though I was a WWII vet with enough combat experience to know that to survive one must NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHATEVER VOLUNTEER!), I found myself unable to turn down a job that came with such an imposing title, and with $60 in my pocket monthly (from the GI Bill) never minded that there was no salary.)
During the organizational meeting, a fellow Bard suggested we needed a ‘name’ writer to bring attention to our magazine. Be great if anyone actually knew one, I responded. We know Ray Bradbury, another Bard answered. Who’s he? I asked…and indeed unless you were a Sci-Fi fan (I wasn’t, Crime & Punishment was my bible) you’d not likely guess that this jolly fellow would eventually become the now internationally celebrated author of such classics as The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, & Fahrenheit 451. We went to Bradbury’s tiny house set alongside a Venice canal (his only connection to the outside world was a pay phone in a booth under a street light), and he graciously agreed to give us a story. It fell to me to re-type Ray’s manuscript into a printer-ready format – and I have always felt that a smidge of Ray’s vast talent came up through my fingertips and into my brain – my only explanation for why the many rejection slips I was receiving – heretofore anonymous – began taking on a friendlier tone. (The Bard’s COPY Magazine, meanwhile, was launched, and received a front page illustrated review in the Sunday NY Times Book Review.) Ray and I became fast friends, and he asked, indeed demanded, to read my short stories and novel-in-progress – which, under his benign aegis, took on a more accessible (read: professional) tone. In time Ray, too nearsighted to drive himself, asked me to chauffeur him to many of the book events at which he was the featured speaker. One of those events was the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, where we met Barnaby Conrad, a legendary figure renowned for having been gored fighting a bull (research for his best-selling novel, MATADOR.) Barny informed us he was thinking of starting a Writers Conference in Santa Barbara, and asked Ray to become his keynote speaker. Ray agreed, then convinced Barny (based on his knowledge of my writings & my critical commentaries when at his behest I joined his own writing group) that I would be an asset to his Conference as a Fiction Workshop Leader.
Thus was born the very first SBWC, held at the nearby Cate School (one of whose alums is Monte Schulz.) With Barnaby Conrad, Jack Leggett (a future Director of the Iowa MFA Writing Program), Nils Mortenson, one of Barnaby’s many writer friends, and myself as workshop leaders, and Ray Bradbury as the keynote (read: inspirational!) speaker, the Conference was judged a success – not least because of the organizational efforts of Mary Conrad, Barnaby’s indefatigable wife.
Since then, I have conducted a workshop at every Conference meeting since, save one – and want to echo our Conference’s savior Monte’s thought that the most basic (and enduring) value of the Conference is its ‘vibe’…that is, the interaction of all those attending which, in creating an almost audible ‘buzz ‘ , provides the kind of turn-on no drink or drug can equal. Ask any writer who attended during those early formative years.
Barnaby never missed an opportunity to remind everyone that in addition to the auras of famous authors that we all basked in, it was the workshops which provided the most tangible benefits to those attending. Who would disagree? In the give and take of workshops Reads & Critiques only those unwilling to open minds or hearts did not benefit from the discussion.
This also benefits – it may surprise some to hear - Workshop Leaders. In the dedication page of my writing book, “Double Your Creative Power!”, I thank those who attended my workshops for providing a kind of writing laboratory in which we, writers all, struggled to discover those verities which could transform our own writings into works of substance and art.
This writing book might never have been written had I not received – at a Conference more than a decade ago -a very tangible gift from a woman who had attended every session of my workshop during the week. On the last day she handed me a sheaf of papers, telling me that they were the extensive notes she’d taken of everything I had said in response to questions about fiction that had been raised during our ongoing Read & Critiques. Reading those pages later I was stunned to discover that they formed the basic elements of the book about writing I’d always wanted to write “when I got around to it.”
If not a movable feast, I hope it at least proves to be a bountiful one.
Note: This coming June at SBWC 2011 I’ll be conducting intensive morning Fiction workshops about “Finding Your Secret Story.” The writing tips on my website, “Reprising a few fundamentals,” are hard won insights resulting from the nearly five decades I’ve spent conducting workshops - and which are explored in greater detail in my writing text, DOUBLE YOUR CREATIVE POWER!, now being used in writing programs at USC and NYU.
For more information, please visit my website at: www.slstebel.com .