Monday, April 23 , 2018, 5:00 pm | Mostly Cloudy 61º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Santa Barbara Writers Conference Is ‘A Happening’ Again

Leg-end (lej’and) n. an unverified story handed down from earlier times; especially one popularly believed to be historical.

Once upon a time people who loved to tell stories traveled from all parts of the land to gather seaside for a week to write books, articles and tomes, and listen to the Creative Gods of the publishing industry with lead storyteller Barnaby Conrad.

For six days they filled the now nonexistent Miramar Hotel on beachfront property with railroad tracks running through. Each year they spent close to 24-hours-a-day to learn/practice the craft of writing, read/critique manuscripts, and swap writing tales of joys/woes.

For many of these real-life characters, writing skills were honed, romances and lifelong friendships budded, connections to editors and agents were made, and dreams came true.

What has happened to those legendary days? From the beginning in 1973, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference convened at Montecito’s Miramar Hotel. In 1999 the property was sold and closed down, its funky cottages and buildings torn asunder. The property became weed filled while moneyed people and powers that be in the construction world tried to build new kingdoms. Those final pages have yet to be written.

SBWC moved for a few years to the Westmont College campus, changed ownership and moved yet again to The Fess Parker on the Santa Barbara waterfront for workshops, featured speakers and panels with time for all to schmooze. In 2008, economic downturns and weakened finances brought the conference to a close.

Without a white horse or shields of knight-time armor, Monte Schulz, son of one of the earliest Famous Participants (Peanuts creator Charles Schulz) rode in, bought SBWC in 2010 and recharged its batteries. The gathering is now held at the Hyatt Santa Barbara across from East Beach.

Once more the conference is gearing up for June 7-12 with 26 workshop leaders, a large selection of featured speakers and panelists to talk about writing, how to make it better and what to do with it. A little over 200 students will join.

These are current facts. What about the legend, that camaraderie, group dynamics and learning that students carried away from SBWC year after year? I contacted some friends with long-time connections to SBWC and asked their take on the difference between then and now.

Barnaby Conrad III, author of 11 books and many magazine articles and son of SBWC founder, has been involved with the conference longer than anyone. He now leads workshops and is the major emcee for events throughout the week.

“I was at the first conference in 1972 as a 20-year-old ‘faculty brat,’” he said. “In those early years we had giants like Ray Bradbury, Budd Schulberg, Eudora Welty and Christopher Isherwood at the pulpit. It wasn’t just about fame, but about enduring accomplishment.

“Inevitably, Tinseltown changed the tone of the conference. In the 1980s, highly commercial writers as speakers attracted like-minded students who seemed to be more interested in learning how to market their book than improving their writing skills.

“Today’s conference seems to be evenly balanced. I think the featured speakers are more serious about the craft of writing than the commercial aspect.”

A royal nod goes to Nicole Starzack, who jumped into running SBWC along with Schulz for its revival in 2011. Between her as director and Grace Rachow as volunteer coordinator, SBWC runs smoothly. They and their teams help make those attending feel a part of the SBWC literary family while following passions of writing.

“I wasn’t lucky enough to attend during the Miramar days, but I’ve been told that at its core it is still very much the same with a focus on craft and building community,” Starzack said. “These days we have built up a healthy curriculum around self-publishing and tackling social media.

“However, I still think most of our students have the dream of going the traditional route to publication, and for that reason we bring in 10 agents and editors, several from New York. The agents and editors participate on panels and sometimes teach workshops. Our students have the opportunity to submit writing samples in advance, as well as talk with them over wine and appetizers.”

Starzack speaks for many when she talks about how SBWC affected her.

“As a writer and aspiring novelist, I first attended the conference in 2008 as a student,” she said. “I had seen an ad ... just a few days before SBWC was about to begin and thought to myself: Hundreds of writers all in one place? People who will understand my dreams and enthusiasms? Well, I have to be there.

“I spent a good chunk of my savings to attend and, by the last day, felt that it was one of the best weeks of my life.”

One of the big pluses for me attending SBWC has been long lasting and treasured friendships. My friendship with Perie Longo, our former poet laureate and nationally known poet, began when we were students in 1978. We then became workshop leaders in the 1980s.

Her poetry workshops are always filled with creativity oozing out the door.

“The first words that come to mind is that this conference is ‘cozier,’ more ‘user friendly’ than in the spread of a larger venue,” Longo said. “With fewer students but just as many workshops, students get more attention and more time to meet and talk with each other.

“Monte's attitude of quality of writing over quantity and with Grace (Rachow) at the organizational helm with a large volunteer staff, it seems to flow seamlessly beginning to end. Simply, just plain FUN.”

Longo also sees more than just the six days of the conference.

“Most special is that it is happening again and that it has been lauded as a top writers conference,” she said. “As always seeing old friends along with meeting new talent is a plus, the lineup of speakers is exciting, and what is great is the online connection of people sharing their triumphs and tips.”

Another good friend from student days at the Miramar has been humor writer and workshop leader Ernie Witham, who writes for the Montecito Journal.

“The conference,” he said, “has changed considerably over the last five to 10 years. It’s a smaller, more intimate setting now, so enrollments are limited. It was hard to meet and talk with 350 fellow writers in six days, but now that we are 200 with a smaller venue, it feels more like a family — only without people asking to borrow money or store their stuff in your garage.

“I have tried so many times to describe our conference to nonattendees, but it’s almost impossible because it’s magical. To borrow a term from an earlier time ... ‘It’s a happening, man!’ I only wish more people could experience it.”

If you wish to experience SBWC, take one of three choices. There are still spaces available so why not attend? If you would like to but money is an object, consider entering the First Sentence Contest by writing the best first sentence in 50 words or less and submitting it by May 26.

If you are not a writer but love life as a reader, the evening speakers are open to the public for a nominal fee. Click here for more information about the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.

Bottom line from me? The Santa Barbara Writers Conference still makes for a heady, glorious and magical week.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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