Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California
“The Into the Fire retreat opened a door to honest writing for me.”
— J.C., Into the Fire attendee
Since 1974, The Sun has published the kind of brave, revealing writing that lives up to the magazine’s motto: “What is to give light must endure burning.” We invite you to join Sun readers, authors, and staff for a weekend of celebrating the written word. The authors will lead workshops geared to bring forth the best in your own essays, short stories, and poems. A Readers Write session will help get your pen moving. There will be opportunities to speak with editor and founder Sy Safransky. And the weekend will also include readings by Sy and the authors.
You don’t have to think of yourself as a writer to attend, because a big part of a Sun gathering is getting to meet people who appreciate the magazine’s compassionate, unflinching view of the world as much as you do. We hope you’ll join us.
Authors Scheduled to Appear
Doug Crandell is the author of the novel The Flawless Skin of Ugly People and six other books. His work appears in the Pushcart Prize anthology for 2017. Doug lives in Atlanta and works for the University of Georgia at the Institute on Human Development and Disability. Doug was recently awarded the Glimmer Train Prize for his short story "Manhood in the Veal Barns of the Hoosier Tundra."
Danusha Laméris’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, and The Gettysburg Review. Her first book, The Moons of August, was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye as the winner of the Autumn House Press poetry prize. Her work has been featured by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and in Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. She lives in Santa Cruz, California, and teaches private writing workshops. More at danushalameris.com.
Heather Sellers’s memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was an Oprah’s Book Club selection and an Editor’s Choice at The New York Times Book Review. She has a short-story collection titled Georgia under Water and two books of poetry, Drinking Girls and Their Dresses and The Boys I Borrow. Her books on writing include Page after Page and The Practice of Creative Writing. She was elected teacher of the year by the students of Hope College, where she taught creative writing for nearly twenty years. In 2013 she joined the MFA faculty at the University of South Florida.
Sparrow lives in a doublewide trailer in Phoenicia, New York, with his wife, Violet Snow. He is the longest-running contributor to The Sun and is the author of five books, the most recent being How to Survive the Coming Collapse of Civilization (and Other Helpful Hints). His app “Fake Wisdom” is available on iTunes. Sparrow plays flutophone in the fat-free pop group Foamola. Follow him on Twitter: @Sparrow14.
Joe Wilkins is the author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers, which won the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award, and three collections of poetry: When We Were Birds, Notes from the Journey Westward, and Killing the Murnion Dogs. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award finalist, Wilkins has published essays, poems, and stories in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Orion, and Slate. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.
“All of the workshops I attended were presented with a little humor, lots of heart. . . . The most difficult thing was choosing which workshops to attend.”
Most writers keep some sort of journal. We will focus on creating narrative purpose with journaling and using it to reflect on essays and short stories in progress. John Steinbeck’s rule was: “A great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” To practice this, we will intentionally reduce the “I” in journaling and vary the point of view, moving from the myopic to the communal. Doug will share his own journaling process as it relates to his memoir “Winter Wheat.”
Danusha Laméris POETRY
Every writer needs a trove of tricks to outsmart the inner critic and remain open to new ideas. We will explore some of Danusha’s favorite methods of getting the mind going, creating new associations, and making the most of the mind’s games. Also: Why you shouldn’t believe in writer’s block, and why every poet needs a timer. Be prepared to surprise yourself.
Writing in Flow
Heather Sellers NONFICTION
Procrastination issues? Writer’s block? Hard time finishing? Overwhelmed with ideas but struggling to shape your writing? We will practice four simple, effective strategies for writing “in flow.” Everyone will leave class with methods for deepening one’s practice, an understanding of why it’s wise to work in a series, and instructions for how to design a writing life in which the focus is on play. This is a workshop you can easily take home with you.
Every published essay is the product of long hours of revision, but how can one distinguish valuable sentences from worthless ones? Small Happiness is Sparrow’s self-help book about finding satisfaction in daily life. He will describe the process of editing that led to the final manuscript and offer exercises in revision and rewriting.
What We Really Mean to Say: Notes toward Evocative Prose
Joe Wilkins NONFICTION
Poet Richard Hugo claims, “All truth must conform to music,” for in music, he argues, we find a fuller, stronger truth. By attending to language, we not only write in more effective, vivid ways, but we discover what it is we really mean to say. We will discuss four techniques for attending to language and crafting evocative prose. Please bring an essay or story in progress, though prompts will also be given at the session.
Doug Crandell NONFICTION
“What to leave in, what to leave out?” writes Bob Seger. (Yes, that Bob Seger.) Whatever you think of his music, he’s hit upon a question all writers must ask. How does one provide just the right amount of detail without saturating the text with too much? We will focus on a few examples, use our own styles to purposefully overwrite, and then practice editing to find the right balance. Come prepared to be painstakingly (if only temporarily) specific.
The Ugly and the Beautiful: How to Praise
Danusha Laméris NONFICTION
How do we praise? Where is beauty hidden in the ugliness? How can I invoke compassion for my subject? The answers are not what we might think. We will learn tricks that can help us use opposites to create a heightened sense of beauty in our writing, as well as to complicate the way we talk about the undesirable. You will come away with tools to create more credibility and texture in your writing.
The Friendly Art of Reading Poetry (with Prompts for Writers)
Heather Sellers POETRY
Poetry can be meaningful, satisfying, and uplifting, but also difficult and mysterious. Perhaps we walk (or run) away too quickly when confronted with a poem that seems challenging. We will learn simple strategies for approaching poetry with more confidence and skill and learn to become better readers of not just poetry but any kind of writing. Being better readers makes us better writers, too. We will close with writing prompts and suggestions for jump-starting your prose-writing practice with poetry.
The purpose of art is to tell secrets without getting caught. One way to accomplish this is to tell just a piece of the story. In “My Jets Cap” Sparrow tells the family secret of how his father can lose his temper — in this case at Sparrow for playing under the grandstand at a Columbia Lions football game. We will explore how to use memoir and short-story writing to reveal forbidden truths.
Layers of Landscape: Harnessing the Power of Place
Joe Wilkins NONFICTION
Though we live in a world of chain stores, on-screen communications, and cross-country airplane travel, we ignore the power of place at our peril. Place and landscape shape and reshape us; they offer us foundation and refuge. We will raise our awareness of place and try to harness its power in our writing.
Your Family, My Family, the Human Family
Doug Crandell NONFICTION
It’s a concern most writers have had: How do I write honestly about my family — our flaws, dysfunctions, and even crimes? We will learn to balance the negative with the positive and think about our family members as multi-dimensional people, capable of change and as vulnerable on the page as we all are in life. Doug will facilitate writing exercises and share tips that have kept his own family from disowning him — at least, so far.
The Broken Body: Invoking the Sacred
Danusha Laméris POETRY
What do a poem and a ritual have in common? How is writing and reading poetry a kind of sacred act? How can we invite the heightened awareness that comes with the sacred into our work? We live in a culture with few rituals, yet we crave transcendence. We will learn to go beyond the ordinary in our writing, not through loftiness but by digging into the dirt of the actual. Memoir and fiction writers welcome.
Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir
Heather Sellers NONFICTION
Flash fiction and micro memoir are powerful stories in tiny packages. We’ll hone our ability to compress, focus, and write taut narratives. We’ll also learn how character, plot, and crisp use of detail combine to create rich subtext. Very short works depend on strong opening lines and stunning last ones. We’ll explore strategies that can easily be applied to other kinds of writing. Prose poetry will also be addressed.
The Problem of Evil
How does one write about evil? (This is particularly difficult if one is not a Protestant minister.) An essay is not a sermon, and readers don’t want to be lectured to, but they are highly curious about evil. How do we oppose evil as writers, while admitting that we are attracted to the selfish and cruel? We’ll discuss how “Embarrassed to Be an American,” Sparrow’s account of his 2016 campaign for president, confronts modern cruelty.
Our First Gods: Finding the Father through Personal Writing
Joe Wilkins NONFICTION
Too often unapproachable or absent, our fathers are our first gods. How have we known them? How might we know them now? And are we ready for our fathers to fall from their thrones and become the human beings they are? We will think and write about our own fathers in the hopes of leaving with the beginnings of a number of personal pieces, and perhaps a fuller understanding of these men.
Please note: We do not register participants for workshops in advance. This way you can decide which ones to attend after you meet the presenters on Friday night. Most classrooms are large enough to accommodate everyone who shows up.
The retreat runs Friday, October 20, through Sunday, October, 22.
Friday: Check-in begins at four in the afternoon. Dinner is followed by the Into the Fire Opening Session and a reading featuring Sun authors.
Saturday: Workshops will begin after breakfast and run until 9:30 PM, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Individual meetings with Sy Safransky will run throughout the workshop sessions on Saturday.
Sunday: A panel discussion (topic to be announced) will be held after breakfast, along with a reading by Sy Safransky and then the closing session. Lunch will follow at 12:15. We’ll depart afterward.
Registered attendees will receive a detailed schedule via e-mail.
Esalen is situated on twenty-seven acres of spectacular Big Sur coastline with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply behind. The institute is known for its blend of Eastern and Western philosophies and offers access to natural hot springs, a massage area, and a swimming pool. (Swimsuits are optional and nudity is common in these areas.)
Accessibility: Esalen’s terrain is mountainous, and many of the walkways are steep and uneven. Access to some parts of the property may be difficult depending on your level of mobility. If you have special health needs, please contact Esalen as soon as possible. They can answer any questions you have and help you make arrangements.
A large enrollment is expected, and spaces are limited. We recommend registering soon.
The Sun is offering four full scholarships to writers who would benefit from this retreat but are unable to afford it. Scholarships cover lodging, meals, and tuition for the weekend.
The scholarship application deadline has passed. We will notify applicants of our decision by September 5.
What to Bring
Please bring the following items with you to Esalen:
A notebook or journal in which to write and your favorite pen or pencil. (Laptops or tablets are welcome as long as you silence your device. Please note that power outlets are limited in the workshop rooms.)
Your bio written in the form of a contributor’s note — thirty words maximum. See The Sun’s inside front cover for examples. We’re all contributors for the weekend, and we’ll read our notes aloud as introductions on Friday night. You don’t have to participate, but if you do, please write your note in advance. To help you get started, here’s what we ask Sun contributors to consider as they write their notes:
In addition to the usual information — where you live, your occupation, any previous publications — tell us something unique about you. What are your hobbies, pet projects, bad habits? What are you most proud of, or most embarrassed by? Is there something special about where you live, or with whom? Tell us one or two things about yourself that are not true of anyone else you know.
Please note: The thirty-word limit is strict.
Esalen recommends that you bring: a flashlight, ear plugs for sleeping, comfortable shoes, an alarm clock, and casual, layered clothes for 40– to 70-degree weather.
“I have long been seeking ‘my’ people, and I think I found them this weekend: openhearted, smart, funny, loving.”