Jane St. Clair Blogs About her First SBWC

Full CircleJane St. Clair

In June of 1992 I pulled into the Miramar in my '81 Datsun hatchback. I’d just graduated from CalArts and this was the first stop out of that creative hothouse, after three years of holy uninterrupted work. I’d sent a VHS copy (yes, it was that long ago) of the musical that was my master’s thesis and Mary Conrad wrote back with a scholarship invitation, courtesy of Robert Fulghum in honor of his retired fictitious secretary, Emily Phipps. When I met Mary in the registration line late that afternoon, I wished I’d dressed for the occasion. Because this woman was put together. If Lauren Bacall were to have a savvy sister in To Have and Have Not, it would have been Mary. She exuded an offhanded elegance that made me want to run change out of my shorts into something nice for dinner. And to further her rank, she treated me like gold. She brought me into the fold with a name tag and congratulations and introductions to teachers and students all around. I masked my terror of large groups with a cheerful face, which she saw right through as she put her arm around me, nodded to the mayhem and smiled.

“Thank you—” I began. “Have fun,” she said. Barnaby took my hand, almost as an afterthought: relaxed in his linen shirt and killer hat, as if to say, ‘Don’t sweat it, kid.’

That first night Ray Bradbury reminded me that it was my birthright and privilege to witness and celebrate with words on the page — and to never give up. But it was the first dark morning after midnight that set the tone for the next 18 years to come. Little did I suspect it at the time as I sat in the basement of the Conference building, with Shelly Lowenkopf presiding over his Pirate Workshop. I listened with an insatiable appetite for the well-told story and was not disappointed. This was the opposite of AA: this was Story Central, with a room full of insomniacs. A handful of them have since become family. When it was my turn to read that first time, I felt the room gather around me. That same morning and some little time before sunrise, Monte Schulz introduced himself and asked to see the pages I’d brought. He read them and walked me across the parking lot with his characteristic fifth-gear vigor and filled me in on his latest chapter, favorite writers and then asked me how much of this one or that one I’d read. This was a magic time that began that June and continued for a handful of years until the Miramar was sold. The stories, chapters and scenes read during Shelly’s Pirate workshops are still with me: Yvonne Nelson Perry, Jean Harfenist, Marianne Dougherty, Monte, Carmen Madden, Catherine Ryan Hyde — each took a turn at the podium and the sense of homecoming for me was palpable and electric. And lunchtime, as I downed an extra large coffee in the bright sunlight at the Boxcar Cafe, I felt like Dorothy when she woke to the black-and-white world and looked around to all the familiar faces: “And you were there. And you...and you!” Waves were breaking outside my window and my heroes were speaking after dinner: William Styron, the elder statesmen of truth and risk who woke the sleepwalkers with his elegant prose; I remember walking behind him, en route to the dinner late one afternoon, too smitten to speak. This is now a big regret. Charles M. Schulz, who gave me, a once blanket-toting toddler and often bossy little girl, the green light to be exactly who I was. I heard him speak in the Conference room several times over the years. One night he came into the Pirate workshop and there was an empty chair beside me on the last row, where he sat as Monte read from his big book, Crossing Eden, long before it turned into three novels. He smiled when Monte finished reading and I saw it and counted another conference moment I’d pocket for treasure.

Fast forward to this last June and Monte is at the head of a long table in the conference room of the Mar Monte hotel, telling all the workshop leaders there that the Santa Barbara Writers Conference is not something he chose to take on out of anything more than a wish: that it not die. Monte, in his rough-coat bravado, was speaking in a few sentences to what it is I’ve spent two long paragraphs on here. I’m sure he has his own reserve of moments that have informed this decision, but never mind, because just at that moment, in they come: Barnaby and Mary, characteristic elegance in legato now, as Barnaby’s ensemble now includes a cane to go with the hat, a cane that no doubt carries its own short story. They cross the room to applause, subdued panache unchanged.

“How’s everything?” I ask Mary after the group breaks up to tour the rooms for the upcoming June conference. “Good. Barney’s just out of surgery.” “He looks good,” I say. And he does. “How are you?” Not one to bow to sentiment, she returns with a line to do Bacall proud. “Well, I don’t have to worry about your scholarships anymore.” Scholarships that she processed for many years to come after that first summer at the Miramar. She smiles when I laugh. “Thank you.” And I say it again when Barnaby takes my hand.

Jane St. Clair is a published poet and songwriter, living in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara. http://www.janestclair.com/