For the past 38 years, the sprawling campus at Southampton has experienced various incarnations. But one thing has remained constant: Writers have gathered searching for inspiration, community, productivity and pleasure. From longtime conference faculty member Frank McCourt to Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman, many of the brightest literary figures of our time have called the Southampton Writers Conference their summer home.
“From the beginning,” said Robert Reeves, associate provost of the Southampton Arts campus and longtime helmsman of the conference, “the writers conference has been closely identified with the cultural strength and legacy of the East End. We’ve flourished for almost four decades without regard to the particular ups and downs of the surrounding campus.”
In recent years however, the conference has taken significant leaps. From 3 or 4 workshops and around a dozen faculty and guest artists, the conference now boasts 15 full-fledged workshops. Last year, 83 faculty members and guest lecturers offered insight on the art of storytelling.
“Through our association with Stony Brook University,” said Reeves, “there’s been a dramatic expansion. We now offer advanced training not only in all the disciplines in creative writing, but also in directing, acting, visual arts and digital filmmaking.”
This year, a few innovations will benefit the community at large as well as conference participants. The Listeners’ Pass is a way for anyone to sign up to attend all lectures, readings, screening and events without actually enrolling in a workshop. Also, the Moth Radio Hour will record a live storytelling event at the campus’s Avram Theater on July 18. This event, which will air on the Moth (moth.org), celebrates the launch of the newest issue of The Southampton Review (TSR), the MFA program’s literary journal.
“The issue of TSR has an emphasis on oral and personal history,” said Julie Sheehan, MFA program director. “The idea of storytelling couldn’t be more in keeping with that. The theme [of the Moth Radio Hour] is fish out of water, very appropriate for a bunch of writers assembled on the Atlantic Ocean.”
The esteemed faculty of the Southampton Writers Conference is what draws in the students. With past mentors like Nobel prize winner Derek Walcott, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker, Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award winner Jules Feiffer on hand, the opportunity to study intimately with a master is within reach for aspiring writers. But the heart of the Southampton Writers Conference is more evident in what draws those literary greats back, year after year.
Meg Wolitzer, whose ninth novel, The Interestings, was recently called “acutely perceptive” and “remarkable” by The New York Times, has been leading a course on fiction at the conference for nearly a decade. She also led a workshop in Florence as part of Stony Brook Southampton’s Winter Conference. What keeps her coming back?
“It’s the students,” she said, “and of course the faculty. The feeling of the whole place is very familial, very friendly and I think that the work the students do has meaning for them. It’s wonderful to see that take place.”
At a time when the printed word is often thought to be in jeopardy, the SWC exists to keep it alive.
“We are living at a time when our culture is rapidly discarding the written word,” said Reeves. “Touchscreens take the place of keyboards. Apple abandons the stylus. So communities of writers, who share a belief in writing as art, are crucial to the future of writing.”
Reeves believes that the call to write is a noble one and he offers a level of respect to all students who pass through the doors. “Very few activities in life require, as writing does, such a high level of commitment, intelligence and labor over an extended period of time,” he said. “And all this without any certainty of reward. For me, supporting those creative endeavors through the Southampton Writers Conference and our graduate programs is a privilege.”
The Southampton Writers Conference will take place from July 9-20. The Moth and the TSR launch will be at the Avram Theater on July 18 at 7:30pm and is open to the public. Tickets can be purchased in advance at themoth.org. Call (631) 632-5007 or go to stonybrook.edu for more information.