As owner/director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Marcia Meier is more than up to the challenge of retaining the legacy of excellence the conference has enjoyed for the past 36 years. She recently added a poetry conference, a young writers program and master classes designed just for professional writers.
LD: I want to compliment you on what you’ve done with the Writers Conference. You’ve been able to retain the flavor of what Barnaby and Mary Conrad created, but you’ve also made some really nice changes.
MM: I’ve really worked hard to do that. I really wanted to maintain that sense of community, that sense of encouragement that the faculty give to the students and the welcoming feel that most people have, but I also wanted to improve and increase the offerings in terms of what we offer for classes and workshops. And also bring in more varied speakers — from literary to commercial fiction to poetry to nonfiction writers. I also wanted to start a Young Writers Program. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.
LD: That’s great. What ages are the young writers?
MM: High school kids. And they come and for a pretty deeply discounted rate they get to do the entire conference. … Plus we do a special Young Writers Program, so they meet with an agent from New York for pizza. They get to meet with several agents over the course of the week. They get to meet with some of our speakers on an individual basis … I put them together with those kids for an hour and it’s just really cool.
LD: That’s one of the things I find so frustrating is there’s so little instruction in schools for creative writing.
MM: It’s interesting that you bring that up. I’m going to start a program in the high schools in the fall. It’s called SBWC in the schools.
LD: That’s great.
MM: It’s offering free after-school creative writing classes taught by our faculty for the conference. We’re going to Start with Dos Pueblos and, hopefully, Santa Barbara … I’m working with donors right now to try to get the money together. … There’s very little place for creative writing in Santa Barbara schools. I mean they have the curriculum that they have to teach and they just don’t get much chance for that kind of outlet.
My hope is that it will get to some kids who don’t have any other way to express their feelings and there is no judgment. Hopefully, the way it will work is they will come, they’ll have an hour to come, write for half an hour and then have an hour to have some feedback from the instructor and among themselves to improve their work and bring it back the next time. Kind of essentially what we do at the workshops. I think it will be really great for the kids.
LD: Let’s talk about your own writing. You’ve got this wide background as a reporter, a writer and an editor. What’s your favorite kind of writing to do?
MM: That’s a really interesting question. I have done almost every kind of writing and right now I’m doing some freelancing for Central Coast magazine and Santa Barbara magazine and I just got an assignment from the Los Angeles Times travel section, so I’m doing a lot of nonfiction, but I think what feeds me most is my poetry and my fiction writing. … I’ve written more poetry in the last few years than I probably have in the last 20, and I think I’m almost going to pull it together as a collection and call it Parking Lot Poetry, because most of them I’ve written have been sitting in a parking lot waiting for my daughter to get out of basketball practice or waiting to pick her up from school or waiting to take her to piano.
LD: It sounds like the nonfiction writing you’re doing is pretty deadline and assignment driven. Do you find it hard to make the transition to writing things that are not so deadline driven?
MM: Yes. You know what my biggest problem is? I put them off. The stuff I think that really feeds me more than anything else I put off because I have all these other things I’m working on and I feel like I’ve got responsibilities to follow through with. And because I have a teenage daughter and my mom lives with me — she’s in her 80s and needing more care — one of my biggest challenges this year I’ve really tried hard to set aside time to write. So Tuesday mornings I say I’ve committed myself to writing on Tuesday mornings. It doesn’t always work that way but sometimes it does.
LD: That was always an interesting thing for me in the past when I’ve gone to the Writers Conference because you get such a mishmash of sorts of people who make their living as writers, people who do something completely different and people who are kind of doing that and something else. There’s always that balance.
MM: I think one of the things that brings people back all the time is it gives them that week of time to actually write. There are some people who come to the conference and they don’t even go to the workshops. They just take that week off so then they can write, absorb, network with other writers and then maybe take an occasional workshop, but also listen to the speakers and have that freedom to not have to feel like you’re obligated to take care of the day-to-day stuff, but you’re free to write.
LD: So talking about your book about Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara: Paradise on the Pacific), what are some of your favorite local spots?
MM: I spend a lot of time at Arroyo Burro Beach, because I have two dogs and we walk every day and I love to walk on the beach. I try to do it around the tides, I watch for the tides and we walk as far as we can. And I love Ellwood … I love to go up to the mountains; Santa Ynez Valley is also one of my favorite places to go. I love to go downtown in the evening on the weekends. I go to the movies and then go hang out at Borders and have coffee and look at the books. I really love to do that.
LD: Tell me a little bit about this year’s conference.
MM: We have great speakers coming. Of course, Ray Bradbury, he’s been coming for 36 years. He’s amazing. … We have Joseph Wambaugh … Luis Alberto Urrea, who wrote The Hummingbird’s Daughter, he’s a wonderful literary writer. We’ve got Jane Heller. … We’re going to give Sue Grafton an honors award … Gayle Lynds is going to do a workshop for us, Catherine (Ryan Hyde) is going to do a master class. We’ll have agents and editors as usual.
LD: What are master classes?
MM: We ask a relatively accomplished author to teach a three-day workshop where we focus on a particular aspect of writing and it’s a little more in-depth.
LD: How many volunteers do you have?
MM: Last year we had about 40-45 volunteers, and this year there will probably be fewer only because we one of our sponsors is Borders and they have offered to do all of the conference merchandise for us. … They are also doing a pre-conference launch party at the downtown store on the Friday night before the conference. That’s going to be open to the community.
LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?
MM: Tall, that’s kind of the obvious one. I think optimistic and, all of these things are running through my head, but I think probably kind.
Vital Stats: Marcia Meier
Born: Muskegon, Mich.
Family: Daughter Kendall, 15, and mother Helen, 83, who has lived with her for seven years.
Civic Involvement: “I’ve cut back over the last couple years. I don’t do a lot. I try to go to book gatherings and stuff that is related to the conference. For a long time I was involved with a lot of groups like the Mental Health Association and Transition House. I sat on their board for a while and I cut a lot of that out. My life is too busy.”
Professional Accomplishments: Reporter/editor with a number of newspapers in California; Editorial page editor, Santa Barbara News-Press; Director of marketing/community relations and journalism instructor at Westmont College; Freelance writer; Owner/director, Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
Little-Known Fact: “I was horse crazy in high school. My horse, Ginger, was the love of my life all through high school.”