Now in its 35th year, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference has developed the kind of fervent, devoted fan club more commonly associated with boy bands, sports teams, and reality TV shows. Among Central Coast writers in particular, SBWC’s popularity has reached mythic proportions. The conference is the subject of breathless writers’ group discussions and Adult Ed night class lore. But the SBWC’s reputation also extends far beyond the county lines, drawing attendees from around the nation and the world every year. The fact that big name authors like Maya Angelou, Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, and Eudora Welty have graced the conference in years past may go some way toward explaining the feverish following, but the fact remains that for one week every summer, hundreds of writers converge on Santa Barbara not to sightsee, wine taste, or sunbathe, but to work hard. And they love it.
When writers speak about the conference, the conversation often centers on critiques. “The leader didn’t hold back;” one participant said with apparent glee, “she really let me have it.” That didn’t sound pleasant, but I’ve heard similar stories many times since, always told with exhilaration and pride. SBWC veterans know what they’re in for, and they welcome the risk of self-exposure, the honest critiques, the late nights and early mornings. In a culture bent on achieving comfort at any expense, the Santa Barbara Writers Conference offers something different: the chance to really work at writing; delve into the difficult, frustrating, and painful parts of the process; and come out, at the very least, a better writer.
“We’ve often said, ‘Look, come on, it isn’t all about publishing; it’s about learning to write better,’” says SBWC co-founder Barnaby Conrad (pictured above left, with Ray Bradbury), “but it’s a total lie. All writers want to get published. Sure, they enjoy writing and want to learn to write better, but they want to get published just the same.” Conrad and his wife Mary moved to Santa Barbara from San Francisco in the early ‘70s, when Barnaby was offered a teaching job at Cate School. “The headmaster said, ‘The school lies fallow during the summer months; why don’t you start a writers’ conference here?’” Conrad recalls. “I called Ray Bradbury right away-I’d met him but didn’t know him very well. I said, ‘Mr. Bradbury, I have the chance to hold a writers’ conference, and I’d like to have you there.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m not really that interested in that, but who else do you have?’ So I said ‘Well, Charles Schulz, Alex Haley, and Clifton Fadiman,’ none of whom I had, of course. And then when I got off the phone with Ray, I called Schulz, and he said, ‘Who have you got?’ and I just did the same thing again and again, and they all agreed. That’s how it started. It was a little duplicitous, but none of them seemed to regret it.”