Sunday, June 26, 2011

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Santa Barbara Writers Conference 2011
"The Exhilaration and the Exhaustion!"

Owner Monte Schulz and Director Nicole Starczak
Founders Barnaby and Mary Conrad

I’ve had many friends over the years ask me exactly what happens at a writers conference. Do we merely sit and listen to Harry Potter readings? Do we rate our favorite classics

or compare our wish lists for our dream publishers and book tour stops? I mean, what could we possibly find to fill a week’s worth of a conference?

Writing is after all, a solitary pursuit, isn’t it?

The conference takes place for five days every year but what happens between the Saturday opening night and the closing awards dinner on Thursday is a universe unto itself. Founder Barnaby Conrad once declared on an opening night “You will begin this conference as one person and end it as another.” And indeed the conference will change your life in many unexpected ways.

The nuts and bolts of the week are this: There are morning, afternoon, and evening workshops on everything from poetry to non-fiction magazine writing to screenwriting and literary fiction. There are panels of publishers, editors, and agents, meetings with manuscript consultants and mind-blowing readings by internationally renowned writers like Clive Cussler, T.C. Boyle and in years past Ray Bradbury, James Michener, and Fannie Flagg. There’s the annual Talent Show which once began as a renegade group of writers looking to let off some steam but which has now grown into a sanctioned smorgasbord of unexpected talent (the only rule being that no one read their work). Then there are all of the social events throughout the week: the wine and cheese party, the opening and closing dinners and roaming about in the conference bookstore.

But the most indelible moments of the conference are truly the moments stolen between….that chance meeting with another kindred spirit whose feedback you truly admire in one of your favorite workshops who just happens to live in your same town and who is looking to start a writers group. Or that amazing conversation with a new friend about the latest vampire craze over carne asada burritos and a horchata for lunch on Milpas. Or it’s that shared can of Pringles with that dry-witted fiction writer from Hawaii whom you adore but you only manage to see once a year.

We manage to steal hours of sleep when we can and we remember to eat only when our blood sugar reaches dangerously low levels and we realize that filled cups from Starbucks can’t sustain a human for longer than a day or two.

I’ve found over my past seven years with the conference that writers will only surprise you. I’ve seen a young guy from the Bronx recite children’s poetry, a grandmother read surprisingly titillating erotica, and a late 40-ish schoolteacher share her horror short story to a rapt class.

There are no rules among writers. You can be any shape, shape, size, or age. We are drawn together by our love of the craft and our friendships are forged based on these connections.

In fact, I met one of my best friends (who continues to travel here for the conference from Connecticut) during a lecture at the conference many years ago. (She happened to have sat beside me at one of the public lectures many years ago and I convinced her in true Rachel-Fashion that if she truly considered herself a writer that she needed to commit to coming to the conference the following year as an attendee. She came the next year and has only missed one year since then.)

I am also quite sure that many romances have come about because of the conference. A few break-ups and strained marriages as well. ;)

By mid-week the days have begun melting into each other and the microverse of SBWC has managed to consume us completely. Sure our pets still need to be fed, our partners are beginning to feel neglected (*see above) but our bills can wait and so can those inboxes that seem to be filling up without end.

We don’t know it right away but at some point towards the end of the week when we realize we have to leave and that our world is coming to a close that we have indeed changed. Sure the caffeine, the sleep deprivation, and the copious amounts of Cheetos and Cliff Bars have taken their toll on our reserves. But something else has shifted. We’ve spent one precious week dedicated to our craft. We’ve surrounded ourselves with an incredible group of men and women—many of whom would never have met without the conference--and reminded ourselves for that short, fluid moment in time that we’re not alone and that we do have a community.

But more importantly, we are reminded of something even more precious. That we are writers. And that we are all striving for perfection….One. Word. At. A.Time.


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