As she has done each summer for the last 16 years, Jean Spenser arrived at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference last Friday in a state of exhilaration. For eight days, the solitary dance of setting words to paper would give way to the communal pursuit of workshops, lectures, and schmoozing with her fellow scribes. It was like coming up for air.
Among the attendees, Spenser was one of the lucky ones--a published writer with six books on career planning and development--but she keeps attending the conference to broaden her range. "I want to explore other kinds of writing," she said.
Although she could easily have commuted each day from her home in Camarillo, Spenser checked herself into the Miramar hotel for the duration of the conference. "It has to be a complete immersion," she insisted, "to plug back into that enthusiasm, the inspiration."
Grace Callahan from Gaithersburg, Md., is in her 80s, yet she hasn't missed a conference in 15 years. "I get inspiration from the leaders and from the people that I meet, from the speakers. . . . It keeps me writing quite a bit. I've had a novel in progress since I was 8 years old. . . . It's not too big. It's a pioneer story based on my mother's family who went from Indiana to Texas."
"It starts in the early 1800s in Texas where they all got chills and fever. . . . "
You have to be careful when you ask aspiring writers about their projects--like devoted parents, they'll tell you about their brainchildren in more detail than you probably care to know. Unless, of course, you're a fellow writer.
"It's about a newlywed in La Jolla who discovers a serial killer who's escaped the notice of the police because. . . . "
"It's a 900-page rags-to-riches saga of love and hate, money, betrayal and revenge. . . . What else is there?"
For all but the first two of its 19 years, the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference has invaded just about every nook and cranny in the Miramar hotel. The program, initiated and still run by author Barnaby Conrad and his wife, Mary, has grown from an initial enrollment of 45 students to a self-imposed limit of 350. This time around, there were 100 names on the waiting list when the conference opened.
Over 60% of the enrollees are repeaters, a fact that both pleases and troubles the Conrads. "It shows we're doing something right when they keep coming back," said Mary. "But on the other hand, we're always looking for new blood."
What keeps the students coming back each year like the swallows to Capistrano? "The weather for one thing," laughs Sharon Davis from Cincinnati.
But the quality of instruction also had something to do with it, Davis admitted. "I read Barnaby Conrad's book on writing and now I'm here to learn to write fiction, poetry and screenplays."
But is writing a skill that can be learned? "I don't think writing can be taught," said former Times Arts Editor Charles Champlin, who leads a nonfiction workshop each year, "but if you can write you can be taught to write better."
In morning and afternoon workshops spread throughout the Miramar complex, registered students try to improve their grasp of the mechanics of writing. They read and jointly critique their work under the direction of 25 professional writing instructors. Workshop topics cover nonfiction, screenwriting, playwrighting, poetry, humor and fiction, including specialized genres like mysteries, romance and children's books.
The student readings run the gamut from brilliant to embarrassing.
Barnaby Conrad cited some examples of "less than inspirational" student writing he's seen over the years:
He'd always hated being bound and gagged . . . .
The sun rose slowly, like a fiery fur ball coughed up uneasily onto a sky-blue carpet by a giant unseen cat . . . .
While the riddle of the long intestine cannot be unraveled here, we can at least allude to the romance of digestion . . . .
The sun fought like a tiger to escape from its cage of dark clouds and finally emerged gently as a lamb, bestowing its soft warmth upon Leanne, her golden hair blown by the wind which swept across the high rocky hill overlooking her ancestral home, once threatened by fire and flood, now owned by the man who killed her father, raped her grandmother, and was soon to become her husband . . . .
Holding gems like these up to the scrutiny of peers might seem like an intimidating process, but Susan Baker, a poet from New Orleans, says the atmosphere is basically a supportive and constructive one, very different from other writing conferences she's attended.
And, of course, there are some success stories, which Conrad admits are rare but still happen. Actress Fannie Flagg took her first tenuous steps toward becoming a writer by attending the conference a few years ago. She won the annual competition for a 1,000-word piece on the topic, "Youth".
That led to the publishing of her first novel, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe." The book is to be made into a movie.
Another key attraction is the series of late afternoon and evening panels and lectures. Open to the general public for a $5 entrance fee, this year's lectures included guest speakers Joseph Wambaugh, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, Charles Schulz and Robert Fulghum, who will be speaking tonight on his latest book, "Uh-Oh."
"It's like a writers' colony for the ones that are serious," said Spenser as the crowd congregated in the auditorium on opening night for the traditional keynote address by Ray Bradbury.
Nearby, two writers from opposite ends of the country got reacquainted.
"You're writing a novel and an autobiography?" asked one. "Do you ever get them confused?"
"Only the sex scenes," replied the other.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Robert Fulgham will be speaking on his new book "Uh-Oh" tonight at 8 p.m. at the Miramar Hotel-Resort Auditorium at 1555 S. Jameson Lane, Montecito. Admission is $5.