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My Turn: How I got my start at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference

Melinda Palacio -- June 21, 2011

The rebirth of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference begins next week, June 18-23, under the new ownership of Monte Schulz and Nicole Starczak. The conference has been on hold for two years. For many local Santa Barbara authors, the conference is where we got our start.

In 2001, I attended my first conference. I was timid and shy and didn't know anyone because I had moved to town the previous month. I arrived at the conference, clutching a hand-written critique by Barnaby Conrad of my manuscript. The submission was the opening scene of a novel-in-progress (for which there have been many) titled, Immigrant Souls, featuring two characters, Malloy and Isola. Maloy was a real-estate agent and Isola was convinced she needed to fix up the house in order to sell it. The scene may have be true and perhaps acceptable if I were writing copy for a Home Depot ad, but I had in mind a much more dramatic novel. I knew I needed help and was glad I had found a home at the SBWC.

The following year, I decided to take smaller steps and forget about writing a novel. I took on shorter forms of fiction and poetry. I quickly realized that a short story or poem could offer the type of instant satisfaction that a novel could not. As a journalist, I was used to deadlines and short non-fiction pieces. If I sat down, I could draft a short story or a poem in one sitting. In 2003, I won first place in poetry at the conference and in 2005, I won an honorable mention in the fiction contest for "The Last Time," a story now published in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, edited by La Bloga's Daniel Olivas. The awards ceremony at the end of the week is always a favorite event for conference attendees.

Perie Longo was my first poetry teacher and I'm grateful I discovered her at the conference and later at her annual Santa Barbara Poetry Workshop. Of my poetry, Perie Longo told me: "I recollect your poems told wonderful stories, each poem like a short, short novel. I loved your voice."

After two conferences, I also had the great idea to approach conference co-founder, Mary Conrad, for a volunteer position. Volunteering under Mary was a job made in heaven. She asked me to hand out registration packets (I quickly learned many faces and names). I was also in charge of making the coffee for Shelly's pirate workshop which begins at 9pm and goes until there is no one left standing, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning (and no we do not dress or talk like pirates, although there was one confused student who showed up in her finest pirate garb). The pirate workshops are for those who just can't get enough of the conference during the morning, afternoon, and evening speakers. According to legend or Shelly Lowenkopf, the pirate workshops are a safe place to gather with other writers and workshop your material. Sometimes workshops are so popular, a student might not be able to get feedback on their material. Shelly keeps the magic of the SBWC going year round with his writers' group, once known as the Lions Den because he co-hosted the group with Leonard Tourney (another favorite SBWC instructor). Today, Shelly calls his group the Luna-Tics Writers Groups because they meet Saturday mornings from 9:30 am to noon at Cafe Luna in Summerland.

In my first few years, someone once told me a secret, "If you want to read in Catherine Ryan Hyde's workshop, get there early to sign your name on the sign-up sheet." Some students cheated and had a friend sign their name while they read the same story in another workshop.

Catherine Ryan Hyde was a favorite instructor who began her conference years as a volunteer. Who wouldn't want to emulate the author of Pay It Forward and 16 other novels, her latest, Jumpstart the World? I went on to follow Ryan Hyde in other workshops she led around town because listening to her critic of other writers was invaluable, regardless of whether I had the chance to read. Catherine is not at all surprised that I've gone on to publish short stories, poetry, and now, my new novel, Ocotillo Dreams. Of my work, Catherine says:

"Melinda Palacio is just about the perfect example of the SBWC student who "comes up through the ranks" and becomes a published author. I doubt it's much of a surprise to anyone. Many of us have heard her read prize-winning poetry that stuns, character-driven scenes of fiction that rope the reader in and don't let go. Nice to see the publishing industry acknowledge what we've known all along."

This year's conference is limited in space, due to the conference's new location at the hotel Mar Monte, facing Santa Barbara's East Beach; no need to elbow your way to feedback this year. Over my seven years as a SBWC student, I've learned from almost all of the workshop leaders. My first two years, I did make the mistake of trying to do everything. What's lack of sleep for one week?

While the Santa Barbara Writers Conference happens one week every summer, success depends on a willingness to write year round and accept the awards and publications along with the countless rejections. In 2006, I published my first poem. In 2007, I was admitted to the PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship. PEN is currently accepting Emerging Voices applications. In 2008, I won a scholarship to the 2008 Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry week. By then I had published dozens of poems and some short stories. In 2009, I won the Kulupi Press Sense of Place competition for my poetry chapbook Folsom Lockdown, and that same year Gary Keller at Bilingual Press accepted my novel manuscript for publication. Review copies of Ocotillo Dreams have been sent out and I've set up a few readings and started working on a second novel.

Support your local bookstores and order Ocotillo Dreams. More info on my book signings and readings on my website.