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While hundreds of applicants hoped to be selected to participate in the Sirenland Writers Conference, only a handful of them were chosen to attend the week-long event in Positano, Italy. James Winter, an English lecturer on the Kent State Salem Campus, was one of 10 applicants selected for the fiction writing workshop last spring.
To apply for the conference, Winter had to submit qualifying fiction writing. The conference limited its selection to 10 writers for each of three workshops in mixed-genre, fiction and memoir writing.
“In submitting work to my peers, I was doing exactly what we do in the classroom, whether it is fiction writing or composition, and my peers at Sirenland were other professionals in my field,” Winter explained. “My instructors were well-known and awarded writers, all of whom teach currently or have, at some point, taught at the university level, whether it is at Williams College, NYU or Stanford. Other conference goers taught at places like Harvard.”
The limited number of participants in each workshop ensured individual attention from workshop instructors Dani Shapiro (best-selling author of Still Writing and, most recently, Hourglass, as well as a memoirist in Oprah’s Book Club); Richard Russo (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner); and Jim Shepard (National Book Award nominee). This year, Sirenland’s visiting writer was Tobias Wolff, recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2015.
Winter explained that during the week-long conference, each day focused on a two- to three-hour workshop, during which each attendee had his or her selected writing dissected, analyzed and discussed by the group. He attended the fiction workshop, led by Shepherd.
“The goal was to better my writing and understanding, and my pedagogy, or the act of teaching writing,” Winter said. “In my case, this is fiction writing, the focus of my graduate degree.”
Ironically, his workshop story, “These Forever Things,” about Fallujah during the Iraq War, also was accepted by Prairie Schooner, a literary magazine from the University of Nebraska Press and the Creative Writing Program of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department.
A secondary goal of the conference was to better understand the options available in the publishing industry, such as editing, writing or, perhaps, screenwriting.
“This area is one of our Kent State English majors’ main concerns: what do they do after graduation? I know what I did. I went into teaching and writing because that was easiest to do,” Winter shared.
“At Sirenland, each instructor seemed to have followed a different path. Some pursued writing alone; others taught while writing; and still others, like Hannah Tinti, editor of One Story, and Adrienne Broduer, who runs Aspen Words, started their own literary venture. Each path is viable. Now, I can give my English majors direct, specific answers about where to go and what to do after they graduate.”
Winter said that what he learned at the conference – a better understanding of the workshop method, creating literature and the array of opportunities in the field – have directly impacted his instruction, the English department and his students.
“While the workshops focused on me, and my peers’ writing, the private conferences and craft talks focused on writing, teaching and learning,” he said. “In this sense, I was having ‘office conferences’ with my instructors. This, of course, allowed me to see the classroom from a student’s perspective and to reflect upon what works and what doesn’t, or even what I hadn’t considered.
“I mean, I was talking about literature and teaching with Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool! That alone – and that my writing was picked for the conference – amazed me.”
Winter shared that he also benefited from the opportunity to present his work in a public setting. “When giving a reading, most writers come in with finished work, read and go home,” he said. “At Sirenland, however, I was reading from a work in progress. In doing so, I not only presented work akin to a regular conference, but I was engaged in the writing and revision process during the reading itself.”
While Winter noted that the conference was “career-affirming” and a “life-changing experience,” he is quick to point out that his students will also benefit from this opportunity.
“Sirenland has most impacted my students. The very week I returned to Kent State, I was instructing our senior seminar students. This course was the capstone to the English major and focused on students creating their own longer works of creative writing,” he shared.
“The course was team taught and the timing was perfect. When I returned (from the conference), I took over from Wendy Pfrenger, and instructed the students in short stories and novels, and then we ‘workshopped’ their pieces. I took the skills I learned in (Shepard’s) workshop and applied them to Kent State no sooner than the day after I came home.”
Winter said the contacts he made at the conference will certainly benefit him as he grows in his career. “Shapiro and Wolff encouraged me to finish my short story collection and start a memoir this summer. They really spent time with me and gave me pointed advice as to where I should begin and how I can construct and sustain a longer piece of writing.”
Other contacts invited him to apply to upcoming writing conferences and offered to help him work with agents.
“My head has been spinning for the last few weeks! It was the best academic/professional experience of my career.”