I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never recovered from several of Jim Shepard‘s extraordinary short stories. He is also a brilliant and inspiring teacher. Actually I’m still recovering from a workshop I did with him at Sirenland this year!
At the end of March, I returned to Sirenland, the writers conference in Positano, Italy. Last year I titled my blog “Sirenland – a writers conference in heaven,” and my opinion has not changed, in fact it was an even richer experience this second time around, perhaps because I spent (a little) less time with my mouth agape at the beauty of the view from my window…. and more time soaking up inspiration and ideas and support from the group.
What I find so remarkable is that both times I’ve attended, the organisers and the three workshop leaders are completely ‘available’, even outside of workshop time and the other events. And because no one else is staying at the hotel, it feels very cosy but with this lovely glow, since the Le Sirenuse, where the event is held is one of the most beautiful ’boutique’ hotels in the world.
I was in Dani Shapiro’s group this year and last year. She writes both memoir and fiction. I recently finished her memoir, “Slow Motion” and couldn’t put it down. She is a remarkable teacher and group leader, able to ‘evoke’ a whole novel from just 25 pages of submitted work, supporting the writer to find out where the strengths and weaknesses might be, and what to do about them. The quality of feedback from the other participants was, again, excellent.
Kathleen Lawrence and Rebecca Stead, participants in Dani Shapiro’s group
The other two workshop leaders were the inimitable Jim Shepard, and Susan Orlean who took the non-fiction group. Jim once again brought his wife, the author Karen Shepard, and his two sons and daughter – all three talented writers. Dani’s son, Jake Maren again produced the highlight of our open mic night by writing and directing a play (Jake’s just turned 13). Hannah Tinti gave her exceptional talk on getting published and entertained us with her ukelele playing (and singing). Michael Maren, as always, made sure everyone and everything was alright, and made sure the event was captured on film (he took the photograph of me, below). All of the workshop leaders read from their work on other evenings, Jim Shepard choosing to read a new work, a flash story that had me weeping.
I highly recommend this conference. I came away feeling supported and encouraged. Friendships were cemented or begun: people with whom I will be able to exchange writing feedback. This alone is such a gift. Both times I’ve left Sirenland feeling part of a ‘family’, one that will be there for me and for my writing in years to come. And it’s not just a feeling: after last year’s conference I stayed in touch with several of the participants, and received very helpful feedback on work that I shared with them.
I do talk a little more about the general schedule of the conference my blog about it from last year, so if you want to know more have a read.
Applications are open for next year’s Sirenland on September 15th.
I returned home from Sirenland to find a letter from the Arts Council of Ireland informing that they had awarded me a literature bursary to help me complete my novel. Arts funding has of course been slashed in the past years, so I feel especially honoured and grateful. What a blessing, and great encouragement for the final leg of the work, which seems to get harder and harder the closer I am to finishing…especially as my mentorship with Marina Endicott from the Banff Centre’s Wired Writing Studio is now complete.
I have to say I’m not sure I could have managed the long grey winter without Marina’s excellent guidance and editing. My weekly ‘date’ was sometimes the only thing that kept me from giving up on my novel – and myself! I’d re-edit a chapter and send it along to her, and receive back in a few days her comments and line edit suggestions. I would go through these and then work on the next chapter and send it off, and so on. The work she did with me brought my novel much closer to final draft, and taught me a lot about the process of editing a longer work. I am still in touch with some of the other participants from Banff, and hope to meet up in Toronto in July.
I’m not yet at final draft, but close.
I will be a guest writer at the 12th International Conference on the Short Story in English, June 27 – 30, but more about that in my next post.
I have recently returned from Positano, Italy, where I was a lucky participant in the Sirenland Writers Conference. It was an extraordinary experience.
The conference is held at Le Sirenuse, surely one of the world’s most beautiful hotels. I had a room overlooking the bay and my view was simply breathtaking. Although it’s such a luxurious hotel, I felt completely at home, everyone who worked there took care of me as if I was their closest family. The hotel is family run concern, owned by the Sersales, a house turned into a hotel, lovingly taken care of and every room individual, gorgeous artwork on the walls, a fantastic spa, swimming pool.
Sirenland is held at Le Sirenuse because the manager, Antonio Sersale, loves literature, and he is the official host. But essentially the event is organised by Hannah Tinti (author of The Good Thief and the editor of One Story magazine) Dani Shapiro (author and professor of creative writing) and Dani’s husband, Michael Maren (journalist and screenwriter).
There were 30 writers (participants) and many had brought family or friends. The thirty writers were divided into mixed-genre groups of three, each under the tutelage of either Dani Shapiro, Jim Shepard or Hannah Tinti (normally this would have been Peter Cameron, but he was unable to attend this year).
Every morning two of us were ‘workshopped’. We had submitted 25 pages for this purpose, a few weeks prior to the event. The afternoons were free. The quality of the teaching was exceptional – I had Dani Shapiro who is quite wonderful, both as a person and as a teacher. I was impressed how she was able not only to give each of us specific help on what we had submitted, but – in the case of those who submitted portions of longer pieces – she was also able to consider the whole story. To my mind, essentially everyone came away with a way to radically increase the potential of their work – whether novel, short story or memoir. We also had a half hour one on one with Dani which was very helpful. The standard of feedback by the other participants was extremely high.
Each day there were different early evening events, readings of work by the teachers and the Sirenland Fellow, who this year was Karen Thompson Walker (who has just sold her first novel The Age of Miracles to Random House), a talk on publishing, on the writing life and so on. We had an informal talk with Jim Shepard, for example. Jim is the reason I sought out Sirenland, I am a huge fan of his writing. Although initially I was disappointed not to be in his group, it seemed to me that Dani was the perfect choice for me and what I’m writing at the moment. And Jim is very approachable, so I had some time to chat with him outside of the workshop mornings. He is a delightful man: funny, wise, irreverent, gives the best hugs. He came with his family, including his wife, the writer Karen Shepard, and each of them added something special to the week. Andrew Sean Greer gave a reading from his novel in progress, (I’ve just finished his wonderful A Story of A Marriage).
Some evenings there were ’sponsored’ cocktail events, and gourmet dinners, others we had free to eat in the village. In the afternoons Judy Becker gave yoga sessions. I only did one of these on the last day, but regretted not doing more as it was such a lovely, meditative experience. A good contrast to the active socializing the rest of the time.
My favourite evening we were all invited to dinner at Antonio and Carla Sersale’s home, and that’s where we had ‘open mic’ night… everyone had 2 minutes (if they wanted) to read something. I was going to read a recent story, but when I timed out 2 minutes it just didn’t have enough punch for a short read, I ended up reading a memoir piece about my first colonic which seemed to stay in people’s minds afterwards (perhaps not in a good way…). Jim’s kids gave readings.. his son, Emmett read a story of his (very impressive writing) soon be published in Subtropics; and we had a performance of a hilarious skit on Justin Bieber written (and performed) by Jake, Dani Shapiro’s son.
I met some wonderful people, many who I will stay in touch with, particularly to share work. And all the teachers and those involved in the publishing industry made themselves very available for ongoing connection and support.
I cannot recommend this conference highly enough. Although I am not an experienced conference participant, I suspect Sirenland is quite unique in that it is kept small and focussed: you truly feel you are part of a family, a family that will not abandon you when you leave. In some ways it was similar to my recent experience of being a participant at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, a combination of luxury and literature that I could very easily get accustomed to.