Starting a writers conference had never been on my to-do list. As a novelist, I had taught for many years in various creative writing programs—NYU’s, Columbia’s, Wesleyan’s, Bennington’s—but as my writing life grew, my teaching life began to take a backseat. Then a couple of years ago, at a dinner party in Connecticut, my husband Michael and I met Antonio and Carla Sersale, owners of the stunning Le Sirenuse hotel on the Amalfi Coast. Soon after, Antonio sent me an e-mail with the subject “Ciao from Positano!” He wondered if I might want to bring a few writers to Le Sirenuse for a class. Michael and I found ourselves thinking a bit bigger: a real conference, a creative endeavor, something unique. We wanted to have a literary magazine involved, so we called our friend—and my former student—Hannah Tinti, a gifted writer herself and the editor of One Story, which publishes a single perfectly bound short story at a time. Would she be interested in partnering up? Sì, sì. And so the Sirenland Writers Conference was born.
Our first year, 2007, we had 70 applications for the 11 spots on offer. The pool was surprisingly strong: MFA students, adults who had been writing seriously for years, even a few published authors. We started small, with one workshop taught by me. It was such an incredibly special experience that we decided not only to continue but also to expand to two workshops for Sirenland 2008. We wanted to double the number of students yet retain the sense of intimacy, so I asked our friend the novelist John Burnham Schwartz to join me as a second teacher. What follows is my diary of those six incredible days this past March.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The Sirenlanders are arriving today. I don’t know what else to call them, really. Sirenlanders. They’re coming here to study writing, but they aren’t exactly students. Some of them are already accomplished writers—and some are decades older than me. This year the age range is 18 to 80. The youngest is a high school senior from Mendham, New Jersey, who said in her application that she’s reached a crossroads in her life as a writer. The oldest is a retired ad exec from Sedona, Arizona, who told us that creating meaningful short fiction is his life’s goal. There are a few attorneys, a political consultant, an entrepreneur, a smattering of stay-at-home moms. Participants? Guests? Literary aspirants? No. Sirenlanders puts them in a category by themselves, which is as it should be. It takes courage to make this trip, to fly to Italy clutching precious manuscript pages, prepared to live with—and be critiqued by—a group of strangers.
I think all of us in charge of this thing are a little nervous today. I know I am. Hannah, John and his wife, Aleksandra, Michael, and I have decided to take a drive through the hills to Ravello. None of us really wants to be around when the Sirenlanders trickle in. As we sit on the terrace of Villa Maria Hotel overlooking the coastline, eating linguine con vongole and drinking a perfect bottle of white wine, I am acutely aware that people are getting off planes, boarding trains, being met by vans and cars, and winding their way from Naples to Positano. They’re checking into Le Sirenuse one by one. Settling into their rooms. Flinging their shutters open to the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Li Galli islands in the distance. Reading the materials outlining the week’s schedule. I know that Michael, Hannah, and I all feel incredibly responsible. We want them to come away from this with nothing less than a life-altering experience. A tall order, but that was what happened last year, and it was such a huge rush, we want to do it again.
When we get back to the hotel in time for the first event—Antonio’s invitation to cocktail hour—they are milling about the bar. Somehow I can spot the Sirenlanders. That couple in the corner, he with the good loafers and creamy sweater tied around his shoulders, she wearing a colorful Etro blouse I recognize from Carla’s shop? Not Sirenlanders. They look too at ease. The writers are not at ease. They are a little bit awkward, wary, excited—and they have that outsiderish quality that all people serious about writing have. There’s one, standing near the windows. And another, sitting on a sofa reading Granta.
Antonio materializes by my side and we survey the crowd.
“There are a lot of people,” I whisper.
“Yes,” he whispers back. “And there are men.”
Last year all the Sirenlanders were women. We didn’t try to make it happen; it just worked out that way. This year about a third are men.
“I know!” I whisper.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” Antonio jokes. “You know, I like the women.”
Monday, March 17
The village of Positano is sleepy—it’s less than a week before Easter, boats are still turned upside down on the beach, and shopwindows are shuttered. Some restaurants are open, but mostly the place feels quiet. Even so, Le Sirenuse is hopping. This morning is the first workshop. First workshops are always nerve-racking, and no matter how many years I’ve been doing them I get butterflies in my stomach before every single one. Here the feeling is magnified. I couldn’t eat breakfast this morning—just stayed in our room and tried to get centered. These people have traveled far and risked a lot. And each of them has a single hour—one chance—to get a spectacular critique of his or her work. There’s no room for error, no room for an off day or even an off hour. We can’t warm up or get to know one another slowly. The single most important ingredient to a great writing workshop is trust. The people in the room have to form a bond that is, in many ways, unreasonable to ask of a disparate group of strangers. At its best, the workshop happens in a sacred space, not unlike what goes on in an analyst’s office, but here there are 12 people in the room. Everyone weighs in so that it’s really a chorus—of feedback and constructive criticism. My role is to shape the discussion, to make sure it stays on track. The trust that is so essential to any great writing workshop has to be established—by me—from minute one.
Not just a little pressure. I know John is feeling it, too. He’s down the hall, in a large room that Antonio has converted into a lovely classroom. My class is in a sunlit alcove, one of the many amazing nooks and crannies in this magnificent, meandering hotel.
In they file, one by one. Wearing their lucky shoes, or carrying their lucky pens. Writers are nothing if not full of superstitions. They settle in a semicircle. Adjusting themselves in their seats, flipping through the bound copies of manuscripts they were sent to read in advance. I know a few of them, returnees from last year’s conference. The rest are new to me.
I have them go around the room introducing themselves and invite them to say something about what they hope to accomplish at Sirenland. I get a little choked up as I listen. Cindy, a lawyer from Columbus, Georgia, is at work on her third novel. The first two won awards but haven’t been published. Greg, a middle school teacher from Atlanta, has written ten pages of an enormously compelling memoir about his boyhood. As he talks, I can see the boy inside the man. I’m awed all over again at the grace and guts it takes to try to tell the truth on the page.
We start with Jackie, a mother of four from Long Island. Her submission is a very interesting novel excerpt narrated by a man who seems to be digging a grave for his wife. Before we get too far into the discussion, I realize with a jolt of absolute horror that we have all misread Jackie’s pages.
“So what you intend—” I begin to ask, “is that the narrator is already dead?”
Jackie nods. Already dead, yes. How had I missed that?
“Does he know he’s dead?” asks one of the participants.
“Well...he knows he’s dead, but he doesn’t know the circumstances of his death,” says Jackie.
Only in a writing workshop would such a conversation ever take place. If it weren’t the first day it would be funny. How to rescue this workshop and give her what she needs to go on? We dig in. All 12 of us give Jackie’s 30 pages our absolute focus, our best selves. And by the end of the hour, she understands aspects of her novel and its narration that she hadn’t before.
Tuesday, March 18
Last night everyone bonded—and it didn’t have anything to do with me. I had been worried because the schedule was open for dinner; this was one of only a few nights we hadn’t planned a reading or a panel discussion, and a huge thunderstorm blew through Positano right around dinnertime. I had no idea what they’d do. I pictured a bunch of hungry, wet, lonely people. Sad writers, all dressed up with no place to go. But it turns out that the same resourcefulness that got them to this conference also got them some very good dinner. They climbed down the steps to the beach, to La Cambusa Ristorante, where Vito took great care of them. Bowls of steaming pasta, the freshest fish straight from the sea, and endless delicious wine.
The storm seems to have carried away any lingering fears, defensiveness, insecurities in its wake. This morning everything is washed clean. As we settle into the workshop after breakfast there is a palpable difference in the room, much less nervousness. Everyone is at ease. About halfway through today’s class there is the sound I’ve been waiting for: sudden, uncontrollable, almost-falling-off-the-chair laughter. Once that happens I know we’re home free.
Tonight Sarah Manguso, the winner of the 2007–08 Rome Prize in literature from the American Academy in Rome, comes to give a reading. Sarah, it turns out, is absolutely amazing. A revelation to me—I hadn’t known her work. She stands in the dining room in front of the crowd (more than 30 of us, since a few Sirenlanders brought their spouses or partners) and reads from her new, completely devastating poetic memoir called The Two Kinds of Decay. I’m struck by the disconnect of seeing this tall, beautiful young woman and hearing her heartrending story of enduring a terrible illness. A brave piece of work—the applause went on and on.
Wednesday, March 19
It’s hard to believe the conference is already at its midpoint. Today we’re discussing the manuscript of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the Sirenland Fellowship winner who received a fully funded trip to the conference. Last year’s recipient was Dalia Sofer, who has since gone on to win other major awards, including a Whiting. I have a feeling Saïd is on the same path. He’s working on a terrific memoir about growing up with Communist parents—an Iranian father and an American Jewish mother—that the Dial Press will publish next spring. We’re also critiquing Jenny, one of my private students from back home—the only one to come to Positano so far. Jenny is the real deal: She’s been working on her novel for nine years—ever since I was first her professor in the graduate writing program at the New School. Often people don’t understand what it takes—to really do the work required to make a manuscript good. Every once in a while someone will come up to me at a cocktail party and tell me that they’re going to write a book someday, “when they have time.” Good luck with that, I feel like saying.
We end up having an inspired workshop—the group has come together, working as a single, focused organism. I put Jenny on the spot and ask her to explain to the group her process over the past nine years with this novel. Haltingly she describes the ups and downs, the frustrations, the self-questioning. I see so many nodding heads; a few people wipe away tears. Because here, on her manuscript pages, is the result of that roller coaster, and it’s very, very strong. In fact, it reads as a good book should: effortlessly. Ha.
Thursday, March 20
Last night in the bar, people started dancing. I don’t mean a little subtle shuffling to quiet music. No, this group got down. Furniture was pushed to the side and Jacob—our eight-year-old—brought out his iPod and replaced the hotel’s eighties pop mix with The Clash.
Of course it turns out that Carla is an amazing dancer. She’s amazing at everything else, so why not dancing, too? At one point I pulled her to the side and asked if this kind of thing happened often at Le Sirenuse. I was picturing the high season: elegant Europeans, a warm breeze, a big house party. “Never,” she said, “never once!” I think this might be why the Sersales like having us here.
The workshops today were glorious but tinged with a bit of sadness. So hard to believe it’s almost over. Tonight is open-mike night, one of the highlights of the conference. Antonio and Carla make the group dinner at their spectacular home, a ten-minute walk from the hotel. After an eggplant Parmesan so delicious that I ask Carla for the recipe, the group settles down in the Sersales’ living room.
Antonio goes first. I’m so glad he decided to read; he didn’t participate in the workshops because he was busy with hotel business, but I know that deep down he wanted to. He’s chosen an eloquent piece about trekking through Nepal. Then about a dozen Sirenlanders read parts of their work. This is the one chance people in John’s workshop have to hear the work of the people in my workshop and vice versa. Even Jacob gets in on the act. He’s put together a two-minute play, titled Positano. In it a character named Antonio (played by Antonio) asks a character named Jacob (played by guess who) how long he plans to stay at Le Sirenuse. Fifty years!
Friday, March 21
A bittersweet day. the final workshop. We critique Gail and Nina, who are both returnees. Gail’s piece is a lovely meditation on a summer camp her family owned in Wisconsin. Nina’s is a memoir about her father’s obsessive-compulsive disorder—very darkly funny stuff.
Hannah, Michael, and I have had so many people come up to us today to say that this was a life-changing experience. A student of John’s told me that this conference came second only to her marriage and the birth of her children. There’s clearly some kind of magic in the combination of the warmth of the Sersales, this gorgeous setting away from it all, and serious attention to the creative act.
Tonight Hannah, Saïd, John, and I give readings in the candlelit dining room, all from new work. Hannah reads from her upcoming novel, The Good Thief, John from his just-published novel, The Commoner, and Saïd from his memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free. I read brand-new pages from a work in progress, something I normally never do, but here it feels right. I mean, I’ve asked them to take risks all week. So what about practicing what I preach?
Dinner is glorious. A guitar-and-mandolin-playing duo stroll the room. Toasts are made, more tears shed. And after dinner—the dancing, dancing, and more dancing. We end up closing the joint. Roberto, Le Sirenuse’s wonderful bartender, hugs us each goodbye. No, not goodbye. Arrivederci.
Till we meet again.
Sirenland Writers Conference 2009 will take place March 15–21. Applications are due October 31, 2008. For more information and to apply, go to sirenland.net.
Have Pen, Will Travel: Reading and Writing Workshops
Writing serves as a second calling in many people’s lives, and time off for them is time to turn attention to their manuscripts. As a result writing workshops have sprung up all over. How to know the satisfyingly rigorous from the disappointingly banal? Dani Shapiro says five stand out as ideal for serious students at all levels.
Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference
Since 1926 writers have convened at Vermont’s Middlebury College to workshop their manuscripts. Highly selective, the conference accepted only 21 percent of last year’s applicants, but it does take beginners. Among former Bread Loafers are Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri; Louise Glück and John Irving have facilitated classes. middlebury.edu/blwc
Summer Literary Seminars
In addition to the regular prose and poetry seminars, this two- to three-week program in St. Petersburg, Russia, offers courses on playwriting, travel writing, and translation. For nearly ten years writers like Dave Eggers, Aimee Bender, and Robert Coover have joined the conference’s participants at Herzen University, adjacent to Nevsky Prospekt. sumlitsem.org
Tin House Summer Writers Workshop
Magazine and book publisher Tin House holds its weeklong workshop at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, with help from esteemed authors like Dorothy Allison, Andrea Barrett, and Colson Whitehead. tinhouse.com
Zoetrope Short Story Writers’ Workshop
Founded by Francis Ford Coppola and run by the editors of the award-winning literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, this one-week Belize-based intensive focuses on short fiction. Former teachers have included Robert Olen Butler, George Saunders, and Charles D’Ambrosio. all-story.com
Under the Volcano
Based in the Mexican village of Tepoztlán, this weeklong program offers prose and poetry workshops in both English and Spanish, taught by an international group of writers that includes Elena Poniatowska, Jessica Hagedorn, and Breyten Breytenbach. underthevolcano.org