“Most people who are serious about writing spend a lot of time alone in a room, staring at the wall, and thinking deeply about how to express something that will not only speak for them, but will also speak to a reader,” says Tom DeMarchi, director of the Sanibel Island Writers Conference. “That kind of solitude is necessary, but also very isolating.”
The annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference, put on by Florida Gulf Coast University, provides that sense of community and camaraderie for writers.
“I think people come to events like our conference to network, and to learn some new skills and hone their craft and get new ideas,” says Mr. DeMarchi. “But I think for a lot of people, they come to feel like they’re part of a community and feel less alone. That’s why they turn to books in the first place, to feel less alone.”
The Sanibel Island Writers Conference has been providing a haven for writers since 2006. Typically held the first full weekend each November, it has drawn participants from around the country as well as from the Caribbean, Australia, Canada and Europe. This year, its 10th anniversary, there are 36 presenters on the program and about 200 registrants.
“We’re international, baby,” Mr. DeMarchi says proudly.
Not bad for a conference with humble beginnings.
When Mr. DeMarchi first joined the faculty at FGCU, fellow teacher Jim Brock approached him and explained they’d been trying to develop a writers’ conference, but it had never gotten off the ground.
Would Mr. DeMarchi be willing to give it a shot?
“I said, ‘If you’re looking for someone with absolutely zero experience, I’m your man,’” Mr. DeMarchi recalls.
Over the years, the conference has offered classes, readings and keynote speeches by award-winning, best-selling authors such as Susan Orlean, Augusten Burroughs, Tim O’Brien, Sena Jeter Naslund, Richard Russo, Andre Dubus III and presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco.
This year’s line-up includes Christina Baker Kline (“Orphan Train”), Leslie Jamison (“The Empathy Exams”), poet and memoirist Nick Flynn (“Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” and “The Ticking is the Bomb”) and Mountain Goat musician John Darnielle (“Wolf in White Van”).
Award- winning novelist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Edwidge Danticat (“Krik? Krak!”, “Brother, I’m Dying”) is the keynote speaker. (Her talk at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in Schein Hall at BIG ARTS, is open to the public, and free.)
“It’s gotten better every year,” says poet and novelist Beth Ann Fennelly, who’s taught at the conference since it began. She notes that Mr. DeMarchi, an instructor in the department of language and literature at FGCU, teaches a class in which his students read conference presenters’ books prior to the event.
“That feels so nice when you’re an author,” Ms. Fennelly says. “You show up in Sanibel for the first time and don’t feel you’re facing a giant room of strangers who don’t know who you are. The person who picks you up at the airport has read your book. You don’t have the challenge of trying to win people over.”
She attends 10 to 12 conferences a year and says the Sanibel Island Writers Conference is the best of them all, calling it “a cross between a vacation and the summer camp that you never got to go to if you were a nerdy bookish kid who hated softball and loved sonnets.”
Like Ms. Fennelly, novelist John Dufresne (“The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction”) has also taught at the conference every year.
“It was a much smaller event in the beginning, and had more modest aspirations: Focus on writing, and let’s see what happens,” he says. “Tom was fortunate in finding a great venue, BIG ARTS, and finding a place where we could all stay together and develop a community and hang out together, make it very sociable.
“Writers are accessible to the students,” he says.
As the conference grew, Mr. DeMarchi added musicians and songwriting classes to the line-up.
The conference is so popular, Mr. DeMarchi keeps a list of 600 to 700 writers who’ve contacted him, who want to present at the conference.
He also has his own Wish List.
“This year, the No. 1 person I would’ve loved to have gotten was Elvis Costello,” he says, referring to the British musician who recently released his memoir, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.”
“That’s just my fan-boy wish list, my dream, someone whose work I admire so much. He truly is an inspirational figure, a wonderful storyteller and charismatic performer.”
Other writers at the top of his list are: Karen Russell, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, David Sedaris, New Yorker critic James Wood, Richard Ford and George Saunders. “I always try to put together a conference I would want to attend,” he says.
“We have a good idea of what to expect. There are the known knowns of what can go wrong, and then there are the unknowns,” he says.
For example, they couldn’t predict last year’s lightning storm that blew out the generator, leaving them with only half the lights and air conditioning.
Then there was the year Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”) was supposed to be keynote speaker and instructor. Six moths before her memoir was released, Mr. DeMarchi had signed her on to attend. But just before the conference, she became ill and was told by her doctor she couldn’t travel.
“The hardest part, on my end, was telling the people who’d shown up for her,” Mr. DeMarchi says. “She ignites a fervor a bit above the norm. Groups of women from around the country, different states, had flown in together exclusively for Cheryl. There was a woman from Australia who was there specifically for Cheryl.”
They were disappointed, but understood.
Writer Steve Almond saved the day, he says, teaching Ms. Strayed’s workshops and meeting with those who’d signed up for manuscript consultations with her.
The literary world
Literary agent Christopher Schelling, who represents authors such as Augusten Burroughs, Rainbow Rowell and Kate Mulgrew, presented at the conference’s second year, as a favor to a friend of a friend.
“I could not have been more surprised at the conference’s quality,” he writes in an email. “I’ll keep coming back until Tom won’t have me anymore.
“There’s no better writers conference in the country. The quality of the students and the writers on the faculty is far beyond what I’ve seen anywhere else. Everything runs smoothly. Everyone’s happy. Everyone has a wonderful experience,” he says. “It’s not just a trip to Florida in November that makes it a good conference; it’s the time and energy and love that Tom DeMarchi puts into it, and the combination of literature and music is irresistible.”
Florida Weekly columnist Artis Henderson remembers the first time she attended the conference, in 2007.
“It was the first time I felt I had found my element, a group of people who were smart and passionate about reading and writing in the same way I was. I had never found a group of people like that.”
She still remembers Lynne Barrett’s class in story structure and uses the principles she learned.
“I’d been thinking of writing a book, but I didn’t believe it was possible. It just seemed like a crazy dream. The conference was the first time it occurred to me that it could actually happen.”
The conference, she says, showed her “that a literary world existed. Before, I didn’t know there was a literary world where writers hobnobbed. It seemed magical. It didn’t seem real. I dreamed of being a writer for so long. I didn’t realize people did this for a living, that they would teach, write books, go to conferences. I thought: I want that to be me.”
The conference was inspirational in ways she didn’t expect.
A conversation with presenter/novelist William Giraldi changed her life. He asked her, “What is the story you want to write? What is the story burning in you?” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I want to write a story about military wives.’ And he said, ‘Well then, you need to write that book.’”
Ms. Henderson, who attended a couple more conferences, as well as graduate school, wound up writing that book. “Unremarried Widow,” her memoir about rebuilding her life at 26 years old after her husband died in Iraq, was published by Simon & Schuster last year.
Mr. DeMarchi asked Ms. Henderson to present at the 2014 conference. She taught a class in memoir writing and read from her book just before bestselling novelist Richard Russo presented the keynote address.
“Long before Tom asked me to be a presenter, I had a wish list … and that was on my list, that I could go back to Sanibel as a presenter,” she says.
“One of the coolest things that has happened in this first decade that I would love to see happen again and again,” Mr. DeMarchi says, “is to have more people like Artis or Kimberly Lojewski (who’s presenting this year), who started off as attendees long ago and have developed into formidable writers themselves. To see that development, that growth, to see that constant in the writers, is incredible. It’s probably as good as it gets.
“The coolest thing,” he says, “would be that everyone who attended the conference wrote books that were so cool that we wanted to bring them all back as presenters.” ¦
The 10th annual Sanibel Island Writers Conference
>> When: Friday through Sunday, Nov. 5-8
>> Where: BIG ARTS, Sanibel
>> Cost: $500 ($400 for BIG ARTS members, $300 for any student with current ID)
>> Info: 590-7421 or fgcu.edu/SIWC
>> Evening concerts/readings are free and open to public (all start at 6 p.m.): Thursday, Nov. 5, John Darnielle; Friday, Nov. 6, Dan Bern; Saturday, Nov. 7, Edwidge Danticat (keynote address)