June 1984. I hadn’t noticed the man in back of me as I stood in line to pay for my breakfast at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Barbara – home of the famed Santa Barbara Writer’s conference. I’d just spoken to the young man who’d waited on our table about the difference between writer’s groups and business groups. He seemed bewildered by the noisy, rowdy gang of writers.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “By far, you guys make more noise than any other group I wait on. It’s like being caught in the middle of a hurricane of words.”
“That’s what this mayhem feels like to me, too,” I told him. “But what you probably don’t understand is writer’s work alone. So, when we have a chance to meet a roomful of other hermits, it’s like being tossed into the sunshine after months in a dark cave.”
Back to the cash register scene – there, I stood with my breakfast bill, my notebook, and purse. Suddenly the man standing behind me tapped me on the shoulder. It didn’t take long for me to recognize Jonathan Winters. He whispered, but in a voice loud enough for everyone nearby to hear, “Wasn’t last night fabulous?” he grinned. “I don’t know about you, but …for me…I’ll never forget…”
I decided to play along. “Oh, Jonathan,” I cooed. “Me too, but I think you should keep your voice down.”
People watched and listened with surprise and curiosity. Mr. Winters (Jonathan) paid for my breakfast, then asked if I’d come to a workshop, he was leading. During the walk to the classroom, I learned something about writing no instructor had ever taught. When he asked about my book, how I got to know John St. John, and what writing about crime and tragedy was like, I listened like a first-year student to a master teacher.
“My job is to make people laugh,” he said. “Your job is to make St. John’s dark, terrifying world real. So real, when they read your book, they’ll be afraid to take out the garbage at night. Whatever you do, write his truth.”
He told me about his writing life and how it wasn’t often funny. There were dark times. Then he told me how important it was when I finally publish my book to become part of the writing community and be a beacon for other writers.
A friend snapped this photo of me with him and his book. I kept the breakfast tab Mr. Jonathon Winters (Jonathon) paid, the picture of us, and promised to be a mentor to other writers when my day came. Final thought – no one is or was better at improv than Mr. Winters. I saw it in action.