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Sunday, November 18 , 2018, 9:50 am | Fair with Haze 60º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: The Write Way at Santa Barbara Writers Conference

In June 1978, I stepped out of my role as wife, mother, secondary teacher and former Pan Am flight attendant to answer a voice that had been bouncing around my head for several years. "Become a writer."

That year, things fell into place for the sixth Santa Barbara Writers Conference. My mom, Claire Miles, lived here and was going on a vacation, so she needed a dog sitter for her little Sheltie. My Pan Am airline pilot husband, Gary Gulbransen, had a week between trips so he could care for our two little girls in Mill Valley. That meant I had a rare seven days to myself.

I chose to test writing waters.

The image of walking into SBWC for the first time hangs in my brain clear and bright as the sunny solstice evening that Friday. It began with a cocktail and barbecue party around the Miramar swimming pool. Steeled to admit that I was a writer (pants on fire!), I was not prepared for the first question: “What are you working on?”

The questioner was an older woman student with light brown, short hair like a knit cap on her head and a contagious smile that lit up her face. Phyllis Gebauer had just sold her first book, The Pagan Blessing, to Viking. Nothing could have impressed me more. She later became one of the conference’s most popular fiction workshop leaders, and we became good friends.

At best my answer was bumbling, but no one let on that they saw through me. As the week passed, conversations were never in short supply, camaraderie became a trademark and I had found my niche.

These memories have resurfaced for two reasons. First, SBWC starts up again on Sunday, June 18, at the Hyatt hotel across from East Beach. Those unique, impressive six days with writing at their core is a legacy left by Barnaby Conrad, an extraordinary, modern Renaissance man and founder of SBWC.

The second reason is a recently published book, Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scrapbook, written by Mary Conrad, widow of Barnaby Conrad, workshop leader Matt Pallamary (Land Without Evil) and conference staffer Y. Armando Nieto. It looks back over 30 years when the Conrads ran the SBWC, making it one of the nation’s top writing conferences.

Stories fill the pages of each conference from 1973 to 2004, giving the reader a good sense of what this exceptional conference was all about. When choosing the many photos, Mary Conrad estimates that the three of them had to go through more than 15 scrapbooks with more than 1,000 photos and newspaper clippings.

This collection of stories, photos and programs through the years reads like a Who's Who in American literature. My first year featured Jessamyn West, Joan Didion, Ross Macdonald and Colleen McCullough among the featured speakers. They reside in my memory bank with awe and appreciation. No wonder I felt as if I had walked into a fantasy world, my niche.

The list goes on with hundreds of authors speaking, such as James Michener, Alex Haley, Eudora Welty, Elmore Leonard and on and on. Some like Ray Bradbury and Charles “Sparky” Schulz came back often through the years.

Things have changed, like losing our Miramar venue, but most difficult has been the loss of many important authors and participants. Topping the list is how much we miss Barnaby Conrad with his strong spirit and great sense of humor. His influence, ability to find superb author speakers and to treat each of us as someone special raised him far above the norm. He left us a magnificent, special legacy, one that will come again on June 18.

Today, Monte Schulz (Crossing Eden), son of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, owns SBWC. Executive Director Grace Rachow, a longtime Santa Barbara writer and columnist for the Montecito Journal, operates the conference. Like many of us, she began as a student (1992).

Two things continue to stand out about today’s SBWC. The list of guest author speakers still impresses me. Staff, speakers and students mix well, often resulting in fascinating conversations and lasting friendships. Meanwhile, strong support for one another and our writing is a mainstay. Criticism may be hard to take, but the people there make it more reasonable to accept and improve the writing of an article, manuscript, poem or screenplay.

That and the combination of nearly round-the-clock writing workshops with featured speakers every late afternoon and evening make SBWC stand out as a writers conference.

Some students from the conference who became well-known authors come back. Among the featured speakers this year are two very successful alumnae: Fannie Flagg and Catherine Ryan Hyde.

Flagg (The Whole Town Is Talking) will be highlighted on Sunday at 7:30 p.m. when she receives the Ross Macdonald Literary Award, given in honor of a highly acclaimed author for raising the standard of literary excellence. Her first workshop was with Conrad himself.

Ryan Hyde (Say Goodbye for Now) came to SBWC early in her career. She was writing short stories, a novel and then her first big break, Pay It Forward, which was made into a Warner Brothers movie. Since then, she has published 32 books and will speak on Thursday, June 22 at 4 p.m.

As Ms. Rachow says, “She’s an example of the perfect formula.”

This year will feature an agent speaking. At 4 p.m. Monday, June 19, longtime agent Angela Rinaldi will talk about tips and tricks to create a project to get published.

The public is invited to come to hear conference speakers. Tickets for $10 will be available at the door. Click here to go to SBWC’s website for further information.

One last note is a new option to sign up for one day of the conference for $125. This gives those who are new with SBWC to see what it is like without committing for the whole week or past attendees to come and touch base. If it turns out to be intriguing after all, sign up for the rest of the week. Go online to register, or call 805.568.1516.

All you have to do is find your niche!

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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