Author and conference co-director Les Standiford opened each evening reading at the Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise with a “guy walks into a bar” joke. The terrible punchlines usually earned an equal measure of giggles and groans from the enthusiastic audience of writers and readers in Eckerd’s Dan and Mary Miller Auditorium.
During the day, from Jan. 13–20, Eckerd’s Continuing Education Center at the front of campus filled with writers from all over the country wearing neck lanyards and embroidered, blue ball caps.
The conference, which has run each January since 2005, is an eight-day immersion in education, community and sanctuary for writers of all ages and experience levels. Founded by acclaimed authors Sterling Watson ’69 and Dennis Lehane ’88, Writers in Paradise has a mission to provide talented and hardworking writers the opportunity to learn from successful authors.
Each weeklong workshop, led by a professional author, focuses on a particular genre to provide the most effective feedback for participants. Genres include novel, short story, memoir, nonfiction, poetry, crime fiction and suspense. Faculty spend upwards of 20 hours of quality time helping participants refine their work.
Select Eckerd creative writing and communication students participate in the conference each year for a Winter Term course credit. This year, four students attended the conference: Braydon Tomasic, a junior from Kansas City, Kansas, participated in poetry; Avery Allen, a senior from Atlanta, Georgia, studied short story; Lila Cook, a junior from Succasunna, New Jersey, focused on novel; and Ashlyn Fransen (yours truly), a senior from Anderson, South Carolina, explored memoir.
This year’s faculty included Ann Hood, Madeleine Blais, Andre Dubus III, Luis Alberto Urrea, Stuart O’Nan, Laura Lippman, Denise Duhamel, Ana Menéndez, Les Standiford and Lori Roy, who stepped in last minute when Michael Koryta was unable to attend.
In addition to leading daily workshops, faculty gave evening readings and book signings, which were free and open to the public, in the Miller Auditorium. Laughter echoed through the audience at Urrea’s theatrical reading; Hood brought the audience to tears with an excerpt from her memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief; and former St. Petersburg Poet Laureate and former Professor of Creative Writing at Eckerd College Helen Pruitt Wallace, Ph.D., earned sentimental awe with her poem that featured the book titles of each faculty member.
Many of the faculty continued the trend in their “million-dollar” introductions. Crime fiction author Lippman noted that the introductions were often more interesting than the readings themselves because the longtime conference faculty cared so deeply about one another.
Writers in Paradise kicked off on Jan. 13 with a reading by Morgan Jerkins, author of The New York Times bestseller This Will Be My Undoing. Each year, the conference highlights new voices in the literary community by inviting “emerging artists” in fiction and poetry to give craft talks, participate in panel discussions and read their work. This year’s emerging artists included Jennifer Maritza McCauley (fiction) and current St. Petersburg Poet Laureate, former Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eckerd College Gloria Muñoz (poetry). Jonathan Escoffery closed the conference on Jan. 20 with a reading from his short story collection If I Survive You, which had been longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction.
Panel discussions in the afternoon were designed to give participants insight into the publishing industry. Conference alumni Gale Massey, John Vanek and Anjanette Delgado discussed their experiences when publishing their books after Writers in Paradise. Later in the week, Mitchell Kaplan (founder of Books & Books in Miami), Richard Pine (agent at InkWell Management) and Les Standiford (the Peter Meinke Chair in Creative Writing at Eckerd) talked about the nuances of publishing, agency and distribution.
A fun, yet sometimes painful, staple of Writers in Paradise is an exercise called “Writer Idol”—modeled after the reality show American Idol. Participants are invited to anonymously submit the first page of their manuscript. The pages are then read aloud in front of the conference audience to a panel of three faculty judges. When a judge feels turned off by the content of the first page, they raise their hand. The reading continues to the end of the page unless at least two judges raise their hands. Upon the second hand-raising, the reading stops, and the judges explain their action. This exercise is incredibly helpful for writers to see the principles of momentum and holding readers’ attention in action and can provide insight into writing the perfect first page to attract an agent, publisher or reader.
On the final day of the conference, participants ate brunch together in Fox Hall, and one member from each workshop was elected to read an excerpt of their work to all in attendance, faculty and students alike. These readings gave participants a glimpse into the other workshops and the literature that came out of them—and evoked a deep sense of pride and camaraderie for participants across genres. It bolstered a renewed sense of motivation to share art with the world.
Writers in Paradise is a widely renowned writing conference in the literary community. Dubus III said this is because participants “show up with their hearts.”
Before Standiford expressed gratitude for the hard work of all participants and faculty, Urrea said, “There’s a palpable love in this space that you don’t find at other conferences.”