State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
“Writer’s Conference”. This horror-term is enough to break the spirit. Whisper these two little words to the most intransigent prisoner in the joint and you shall have your confession. Is there anything more unnerving than the thought of high-minded scribblers in smoking jackets and ascots, strolling around with hands elegantly draped into silken pockets, eyes closed in Jamesian reverie? Brain-gobbling aliens from Dimension X come in a distant second. And yet, and yet (repeated to approximate a writer musing thoughtfully with his head tilted to one side), these are my people. And I need healing.
Writers. Writers, I say! This pretentious bunch! Why bring them together at all unless the object be to dump an enormous pail of cold water on the lot of them? A very satisfying conclusion until the moment the soaked losers take out their pencils and begin solemnly recording the experience. What on Earth would a Writer’s Conference look like? A warehouse full of wallflowers staring into the middle distance? Funny you should ask. I attended a writer’s conference just last week. The 45th Annual Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, a local institution founded in 1972 by renaissance toreador/writer/gadfly Barnaby Conrad, was held at the Hyatt in Santa Barbara this year, right across the street from a momentously distracting Pacific Ocean. With its mermaid lore and haunted shipwrecks and generally dynamic hugeness, I knew the gigantic heaving blue bastard would not allow me a moment’s peace [between conference workshops] in which to work at my tender and extremely gifted scribblings. Never mind the monoxide-spewing traffic zipping by the Hyatt at all hours.
Oh, and what of the throngs of gabby novelists and poets and essayists loudly celebrating each other’s company in the meeting rooms and corridors of the place, talking animatedly and touching each other’s arms like charmed nerds at band camp? Writers! I had brought along some of my terrific, if wildly overwritten, typing for discussion and fulsome praise. I secretly hoped that the conference would end in a salving group hug that would cure me of my ostentatious syllable-flinging. Oh dang…there I go again!
Full disclosure. I am indeed a writer. I—what? I AM SO a writer. You want more convincing? Look at all the words I’ve produced. There are many many words in my oeuvre, some of them occupying brief stretches of something very like coherence. Not to toot my own horn, but I am a big deal around here. People recognize me on the street. “Aren’t you Charles Nelson Reilly?” No madam. “Wally Cox?” No. I am the author of a column so popular and universally beloved that parrots all over town are known to recite my prose verbatim with very little prompting. It’s almost as if my work has been introduced into the bird’s cage in some form.
My local and—dare I say it—REGIONAL renown, though, did not precede me to the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, if you can imagine. There was no red carpet for me to prance down, no phalanx of flashbulb-popping photogs to record my arrival. I got there in time for the orientation in the grand El Cabrillo room. Having received my folder and name badge, I made my way to the large carpeted cavern at the top of a staircase whose verticality seemed to call for a rope and pitons. I made the top landing and comically clutched my chest, my heart fluttering like that of a cholesterol-plagued hummingbird. I staggered to an empty seat and surveyed the scene and mood.
The longtime attendees were easy to spot, sprawled in their chairs and chatting amiably. They seemed almost to leer at we newbies, like battle-worn Marines welcoming the greenhorns to hell. “Fresh meat for the killing fields,” I thought, and anxiously fiddled with my pencil and brochures and little name badge. We sat bolt upright in our lightly cushioned hotel conference chairs as Director Grace Rachow unceremoniously, and in a spirit of wry esprit de corps, introduced the instructors and workshop leaders who themselves then explained the coming gauntlet whose instructive torments would turn lead into you-know-what. My friend David, a madly successful technology writer, would join me later for the Welcome Dinner, where he would make glittering and productive conversation with the other writers around the table while I forlornly watched the cheese congeal atop my pasta.
Full Frontal Reading
Every packed day of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference (SBWC) was taken up with a variety of workshops and classes and guest speakers whose collective mission was to answer this question: what will it take to get your baby read and embraced by an adoring public? This rhetorical query was answered with mercilessly hurled chunks of concrete in the workshops, which included the full frontal reading of one’s work aloud followed by its frank, anaesthesia-free dissection by the gathered executioners—or “fellow writers”, as it were. This process would prove the refining fire out of which would emerge many a purified work of genius, and more than occasionally the smoldering corpse of an adverb fanatic.
The readings were as varied as the writers. One day a woman to my right read aloud a delicately realized portrait of an afternoon’s sand dollar-seeking on a breezy beach. The man next to her picked up where she left off—but in South Vietnam, tensely aiming a rifle into the smothering jungle darkness, bracing to fight off an implacable and invisible enemy bent on tearing him apart with bullets and bayonets. There were no sand dollars in his telling. I looked around the table at this convened grab-bag of fellow writers and pictured each of them sitting alone by lamplight with pad and paper, summoning inner stories and artfully bridging the chasm between imagining and expressing.
Whose Words These Are I Think I Know
I attended a poetry workshop led by local Poet Laureate Perie Longo (2007 – 2009), a thoughtful and quietly reverent artist whose penetrating comments were absorbed with gratitude by the cohort of dedicated expressionists in attendance. Ms. Longo would gently and socratically lead the morning poetry workshops, while the afternoon sessions were led by Laure-Anne Bosselaar; a force of nature with a voice like Anne Bancroft scolding Dustin Hoffman. Ms. Bosselaar’s introduction to us near the end of Perie’s first session was marked by her entering the workshop in a gust of unspoken self-announcement that seemed almost to scatter the desks in the room. Whenever Ms. Bosselaar was present, Perie could be seen peering at her colleague over the tops of her spectacles with an expression, I thought, of bemused endearment. These two deeply poetic mentors complemented each other so exactingly I’ve only begun to understand the force of their shared wisdom. Amazing and edifying.
A Healing Denouement
When finally I summoned the courage to read, it was in the context of one of the infamous late night “Pirate Workshops”. Near-legendary in the SBWC firmament, these late night sessions were reportedly conducted in a spirit of bleary, unfiltered honesty, and that was just the forum I needed to receive the unvarnished beating I’d long realized to be my writerly due, as evidenced by this very sentence. Each writer would be given a total of 15 nerve-wracking minutes in a house-facing comfy chair; time taken up with the reading aloud of his or her work and receipt of incisive feedback. My gifted friend Dave took his place in the comfy chair and read aloud from his novel-in-progress, in turn receiving that species of praise and instruction reserved for those whose work, the gathered listeners concur, will likely one day enter the marketplace and attract a readership.
By the time I sat myself down in the iron maiden, all but four of the attendees had left. I handed the workshop leader a copy, and carefully read aloud the whole of my short story. When I finished reading, there was a longish “pause” that even the stunned crickets dared not invade. Shortly, the churlish leader waded into the silence and was short on equivocation. “When I read the first few sentences,” he intoned, “I thought this might be the best short story of the conference.” Two, three. “It ain’t.” Instead he’d found “…a writer listening to himself write!” Yeah? And? A fellow conference attendee, one of the few remaining in the room and a gifted writer himself, offered that the story was “okay, but so very tiring”. An opinion likely shared at one time or another by you, dear beleaguered reader.
Today is the first day of the rest of my writing life. My name is Jeff, and I am an irrevocably altered essayist whose supernumerary transgressions have been known to invite calumny. Yes, I have joined Overwriter’s Anonymous. If I can stay with the program I shall become a changed man. From here on out I’ll keep my writing indefatigably disambiguation-based. That I can almost promise.
[Jeff would like to thank gentle giant Jim Alexander, laconic den mother Grace Rachow, workshop Magus Max Talley, Power Poet Laureate Perie Longo, versifying whirlwind Laure-Anne Bosselaar, the enjoyably Mandarin Monte Schulz, the genuinely encouraging Julie Hill, the inspiringly sardonic Toni Lopopolo, the patience-saint BJ Robbins, the soul-scouring John Reed, Editor of Geniuses Steve Gilbar, the stately Mary Conrad, and the late, great Barnaby—and in fact the Whole Sick Crew [Pynchon – “V”] of the SBWC for a terrific week in the company of supportive and ecstatic fellow writers. SBWC rocks…]