Writers Gather on Sanibel

an interview by Andrew Elias

FLORIDA GULF COAST UNIVERSITY PRESENT the seventh annual Sanibel Writers Conference November 8-11 at BIG ARTS and the Sanibel Island Public Library. Aspiring and professional writers, as well as other devotees of the written word, can attend a variety of workshops, panel discussions, lectures and readings presented by celebrated writers and experienced editors and teachers.

Tom DeMarchi, author and English Professor at FGCU, is Director of the Writers Conference. I asked him a few questions about the upcoming conference.

The Writers Conference brings all kinds of writers and editors together for a weekend to help aspiring and professional writers at their craft and careers. How did the conference begin?

The conference is basically the result of a hallway conversation. In 2005, Jim Brock, a colleague of mine from Florida Gulf Coast University, said he’d been looking for someone to start a writers conference and asked if I was interested in being the director. We formed a committee, held meetings, and slapped together the first conference. That first year, 2006, we had 14 presenters and 48 attendees. Since then our numbers – numbers of presenters, attendees and workshops – have increased every year. This year we have 27 presenters. For the past three years we’ve filled all 150 workshop spots.

Two of our main goals were to provide a forum for local writers to meet and mingle with like-minded people and to attract writers to Southwest Florida. We said, “If someone held a writers conference, which authors would we want to see on the roster?” Those were the authors we invited.

What are you looking for when planning the conference as far as types and variety of speakers and workshops?

Invitations to present and lead workshops are sent to people who meet the following criteria: artistry, accessibility and availability. If there’s a consistent high quality to the writer’s work, I ask around to see if the writer has a good teaching reputation. If he can’t teach, if she has no interest in working or meeting with students, I don’t care how talented or popular she is. If he or she isn’t open and available to students, I don’t care how many prizes he’s won. There are amazingly talented writers we haven’t invited because they’ve said, “I’d love to speak at your conference, but I’m not interested in meeting with students.” People sign up for these conferences to learn, to network, to hone their skills. It would be irresponsible of me to invite a writer who doesn’t care about students. That being said, we’ve been incredibly fortunate in that a lot of the writers we’ve brought in – generous, accessible, talented, humble writers – also happen to be bestsellers and prize-winners.

For example, last year Henry Rollins did a night of storytelling. He spoke to a packed house for two hours without a break or even a sip of water. When it was over, about 200 people stood in line to meet with him, get autographs, pose for photos, etc. I said, “Henry, you haven’t eaten in eight hours. Let’s grab some dinner.” He said, “Thanks, but all these people want to meet me and I want to meet them. I have a Cliff bar to hold me over.” He met with people for the next two hours, talking with each person for as long as he or she wanted.

Another example: John K. Samson of The Weakerthans has run a couple of songwriting workshops for us. A few years ago, he was getting on his bike to ride to the beach. His workshop was over for the day. A student approached him and said he’d started writing a song in response to a prompt Samson had used during the workshop. John hopped off his bike and said, “Let’s hear it.” An hour later they were still developing the song, passing a guitar back and forth.

What kinds of workshops, meetings and readings can attendees expect?

We offer workshops in all the big genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and journalism. Within those larger categories, individual workshop leaders might focus on more specific things like short stories, developing scenes and plots, poetic forms, composing newspaper articles on an iPhone, etc. We also offer workshops in songwriting, blog writing, children’s lit, and screenwriting. Most of the workshops are general and open enrollment, which means anyone can take them, first-come-first-served. The only ones that are limited and require pre-registration are the small-group workshops. I’ve seen presenters come in with lots of writing exercises or general points of discussion. I’ve seen them walk in and say, “What do you want to learn over the next two days?” and then design a curriculum based on the response.

Authors can also get feedback on their manuscripts, too?

Attendees have two options for receiving feedback on their manuscripts. They can either meet privately with an author to discuss a ten-page writing sample or they can sign up for a small-group manuscript workshop. Everyone reads everyone else’s manuscripts before the conference begins. Then they meet to exchange feedback and suggestions.

Susan Orlean is the Keynote Speaker this year. What are you looking for in a keynote speaker? What can attendees expect from Orlean?

We choose the keynoter based on a long record of publishing accomplishments, and, of course, on how well they connect with an audience. I saw Orlean speak in Miami last year. She was so funny and gracious and smart and charismatic that all I could think was, “I really hope she likes seashells, because I want her to keynote next year’s conference.” Later that night I insinuated myself next to her at a bar by hip-checking a well-known author out of the way. Somehow I didn’t scare her. As for what she’ll talk about on Sanibel, I’m not entirely sure. I’m guessing she’ll talk about writing in general and her process in particular. Whatever she says will be funny. She’s hysterical.

Tell us about Guest Speaker Tim O'Brien and what he will be talking about.

All the freshman students at FGCU are reading The Things They Carried as their First Year Reading Project. Tim knows this – in fact it’s the main reason he accepted our invitation – so I’m guessing he’ll at minimum mention that book, if not read from it. But he won’t just read. Just last week he told me that he puts a lot of time and effort into preparing a talk that will be engaging, entertaining, and informative.

You always feature a songwriter among the authors you present at the conference. You're bringing Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes to Sanibel this year. Why Goldsmith?

Taylor is the whole package – he writes catchy songs with smart, literary lyrics, plays a mean guitar, and has a goose bumps-inducing voice. I’ve seen him a few times in concert and his stage presence is utterly captivating. From the way he’s bouncing around and smiling without missing a single note, you can tell he’s fully committed to his art and he’s having the time of his life. He’s very excited about working with the students at the conference. Any rock and roll fan reading this interview should get a copy of Dawes’s latest album, Nothing is Wrong. Taylor’s in the studio now recording Dawes’ new album. The night after he performs at Sanibel, Dawes is opening for Mumford & Sons at the Hollywood Bowl.

What kinds of people and writers attend the conference?

Aspiring writers who want to bring their skills to the next level. Veteran writers who’ve written and published quite a bit and want to network with the agents and editors. Beginning writers who’ve written very little and want advice on how to realize an idea or project. Some people sign up to work with a favorite author. A lot of people make friends at the conference and form writing groups that meet long after the conference ends. Writing, as you know, can be a lonely business. You spend hours every day alone in a room hunched over a keyboard trying not to log onto Facebook. People want to meet with others who spend their days similarly so they feel a little less alone, a little more connected to a community. That community is crucial to sustaining a writer through periods of doubt and anxiety.

Is there anyone you're particularly excited about having at the conference this year?

This is always the hardest question for me to answer. I’m an admirer of everyone we’ve invited. That being said, there’s a lot of excitement around Cheryl Strayed this year. Her book Wild is a phenomenon, a best-seller that inspired Oprah to reopen her book club. Cheryl came out as Dear Sugar, the previously anonymous advice columnist with a cult-like following on TheRumpus.net. Another one of our presenters, core faculty member Steve Almond, was the original Dear Sugar before handing it over to Strayed. So I am curious to see how her fans react to meeting and working with her.

What would you like to say to writers in Southwest Florida about why they should attend the conference in November?

The lineup and location kinda speak for themselves. If you’re not excited about at least one of the writers coming to Sanibel, I’d say the conference is not for you. If you care at all about writing sentences; if you want to write the kinds of poems, stories, books, songs, and screenplays that you enjoy; if you’re looking for an enthusiastic and open community of writers; come to the conference. Bring some pencils, a notebook, and an open mind.

For more information about the Sanibel Island Writers Conference – speakers, schedule, registration, etc. – call 590-7421. •

from the November-December 2012 issue

There’s a lot of excitement
around Cheryl Strayed this
year. Her book Wild is
a best-seller that inspired
Oprah to reopen her
book club.

People sign up for these
conferences to learn,
to network,
to hone their skills.

Singer/songwriter Taylor Goldsmith
of the band Dawes performs
on November 9 at 6pm.
Tom DeMarchi, author and
English Professor at FGCU, is
Director of the Writers Conference.