Conference Insider: Sanibel Island Writers Conference

Steve Almond, Julianna Baggott, and Karen Russell are just a few of the experts you’ll find at this beautiful seaside conference.

Sanibel Island
Sanibel Island

November in much of the U.S. can be a bleak month of leafless trees and rain or snow and cold. Not so on Sanibel Island in Florida, home to the Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Conference director Tom DeMarchi explains that the beach location lends a retreat-like vibe with an energy conducive to both creativity and camaraderie.  

Along with a four-day lineup of workshops, panels, readings, and keynotes, attendees enjoy walks on the beach, night swimming, and festive after-hours concerts and singalongs with critically acclaimed professional musicians invited to lead conference workshops on songwriting.  

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“We’re open to everyone writing regardless of genre,” DeMarchi says. “We want everyone from absolute beginners to people who might already be published novelists, but feel like they want to be surrounded by creative people to get the juices flowing again.” 

Attendees at the conference range from high school and college students to mid-career adults to writers in their 90s. “These older writers are at the stage in which they want to document their life in an interesting story to give as a book to their family members,” DeMarchi explains. “Older people say they love the energy and openness of younger students, and younger students love having older people there with so much experience and wisdom.” 

A few years back, he invited a very young student to attend the conference. He’d received a call from the mother of a grammar school child. “She said ‘My kid won’t stop writing stories. Can he attend the conference?’” DeMarchi recounts. “I said that was totally fine, as long as she came with him.” 

 What you’ll learn 

Previous presenters at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference include novelists Carl Hiaasen and Tim O’Brien, poet Richard Blanco, nonfiction author Susan Orlean, and punk rock legend Henry Rollins.  

Numerous best-selling authors will appear at the November 2019 conference, offering workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Novelist and short story writer Steve Almond will teach a workshop on characterization as well as lead a small-group manuscript workshop on creative nonfiction. Novelist and memoirist Joyce Maynard will lead a workshop on writing memoir, while novelist Julianna Baggott will teach a workshop focused on young adult fiction.  

Michael Ruhlman, who attended the Culinary Institute of America as a journalist, will share his knowledge of food writing. Screenwriting professor Mark Evan Schwartz will teach a workshop on screenwriting, while author and activist Stephanie Elizondo Griest will talk about travel writing. Poets Major Jackson, January Gill O’Neil, and Annemarie  Churreáin will lead workshops in poetry.  

For an extra $100, participants can meet privately with a writer, agent, or editor to discuss a particular manuscript or participate in a small-group manuscript workshop led by a presenter, in which writers discuss and critique each other’s manuscripts.  

Alastair Moock, 2018 Sanibel Island Writers Conference
Alastair Moock plays at the 2018 Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Photo by Tom DeMarchi

Featured presenters 

Participants will gain insights into professional publishing from Jill Bialosky, executive editor and vice president at W.W. Norton & Company, as well as from literary agents Christopher Schelling and Jenny Bent.  

DeMarchi is excited to welcome novelist and short story writer Karen Russell to the 2019 conference, as well as mystery and crime novelist Joe Clifford. Songwriter John K. Samson, who records and tours as a local musician, often teaches a workshop at the conference in which he shows slides of paintings that have inspired his songs. “He performs the song and annotates it as he goes along, talking about the decisions he makes relating to rhythm, tempo, and how chords come together,” DeMarchi says.  

Another singer-songwriter, Dan Bern, teaches an interactive workshop in which attendees sit in a large circle and start singing together, making up verses. “They get into the spirit of writing a song and becoming uninhibited,” DeMarchi says. “He talks about all the things you see in poetry workshops – attention to language and rhythm – and about the same things you see in fiction workshops, like character and suspense development in narrative.” 

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Advice for first-time attendees  

The casual beach atmosphere of the conference lends a feeling of celebration. Participants and faculty mingle to stroll along the beach, get together for meals, and play shuffleboard beside the pool until the wee hours. While conference staff provide morning coffee and pastries and a nightly cocktail party with appetizers, participants are responsible for their own meals. Often, they get together with writers they’ve just met to take advantage of local restaurants.  

As at any conference, making an effort to be outgoing and friendly can greatly enhance your experience. DeMarchi tells first-timers at the conference to show up with an open mind and a great deal of enthusiasm. “Bring a big notebook and some writing utensils,” he suggests, “along with some sunscreen and bug repellent.” 

Don’t forget your swimsuit…and, maybe, a guitar.  

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens(Sasquatch, 2019). melissahart.com.