Santa Barbara Born Novel Returns Home

by Zoe Ghahremani When I exchanged a dental practice in Chicago for a typewriter in California, I had already finished the first drafts of two novels. It was hard to believe that from then on, writing would be my life and that I no longer had to search for a free moment to do what I had always believed was my vocation.

I enrolled in workshops and extension classes at UCSD to make sure I was on the right track, but it wasn’t until I joined SBWC that I became a committed writer. Ten years ago, I packed my manuscripts, sharpened my pencil and drove to Santa Barbara. Having lived at home during college, Westmont was my first real "college experience." As a mother of two college kids and having taught at Northwestern, I was familiar with dorm rooms, cafeteria food, and lines of students waiting to use the computer room. How alluring were those scenes now that I was once again the student.

I had no idea as to which of the many workshops and classes would be best to attend, but soon realized that it didn’t really matter. After sitting in a couple of classes I knew that I’d benefit from each and every one offered. By the second day, I had met students of all ages, who had come from around the country. Some of those friendships have lasted to this day and their support and camaraderie has seen me through years of struggle. It was one such friend, who encouraged me to stay up at night and join one of the “pirate workshops.”

That night, a few hours after dinner, using the flashlight she had brought along, we walked through the wooded campus to the to east side and entered the den of ‘pirate writers.’ People of all ages sat wherever they could find a seat and their conversation filled the large room with a pleasant buzz. Shelly Lowenkopf was in a wing chair at the top of the room. I knew his name because I had pre-submitted a portion of my manuscript for his preview. He was busy talking, a large dog at his feet.

A young girl held a clipboard and went around to take down names. When she reached me, I wrote mine and had no idea that was the list of volunteers who’d read that night. Looking back, I recall many of those writers’ names, including some who were already established, such as Monte Schulz, and am amazed that I had found the courage to read a few paragraphs. It was the first time I read my Sky of Red Poppies to a crowd and I felt as if I had just revealed my biggest secret to complete strangers.

Throughout that first conference, a Mark Twain quote echoed in my mind. "Don’t let schooling interfere with your education." I was determined to receive the education that my schooling had deprived me of. My writer’s life had just begun and SBWC was at Westmont College to make sure I was educated. I had arrived with a bag full of rough drafts and a heart heavy with uncertainty. Little did I know that on the drive home I would carry enough hope to see me through years of hard work.

The legendary Ray Bradbury taught me to seek knowledge in the library, Shelly Lowenkopf said, "You were born a writer." Sid Stebel found the point where my story should begin, and John Daniel helped me to hone my prose. Yvonne Nelson Perry taught me to be "visceral". Later, she also made sure I understood punctuation. "You’re allowed ONE exclamation mark per lifetime!" Her loving, caring ways helped me to pass a few more steppingstones long after the conference. Marla Miller taught me to speak up and present myself. And so it was that at the conclusion of the following conference they called my name and I walked upstage to Cork Milner and received my first award for "Excellence In Writing."

After a short absence I now return to Santa Barbara, but this time I’m not empty handed. My born-in-Santa-Barbara novel is going back with me to celebrate its triumph over obstacles such as education, motherhood, career, even age. There is much to learn and many more books to write, but this time I won’t simply absorb and dream. In a way, I envy the newcomers because what is now an expectation to me will be a most pleasant surprise for them.

Too many teachers and fellow students have touched my life and I won’t ever be able to thank them all. So I hope they hear me when I say, "I’m bringing you the first harvest of the seeds you sowed, Santa Barbara Writers Conference, because Sky of Red Poppies is as much your novel as it is mine. "