Since 2007, along with my mentor, author Dani Shapiro, and her husband, the screenwriter Michael Maren, I’ve been organizing a writer’s conference called Sirenland. A beautiful name, but even more beautiful is the spot where it takes place: Le Sirenuse Hotel in Positano, Italy. Our 2010 conference has just ended. Our Sirenlanders have flown back to their homes across the world. This year we were lucky to have master storytellers Jim Shepard and Ron Carlson teaching workshops along with Dani Shapiro. We also had a visit from One Story author Nam Le, who gave an excellent reading from his award-winning collection, The Boat. Other highlights, beyond the amazing view, exquisite food, and steam room (where I went everyday to try and clear a badly-timed cold) was a reading by Dani, Jim, Ron and our 2010 Sirenland fellow, Bruce Machart, whose first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, will be published this fall. But my favorite evening was open mic night, generously hosted by the owners of the hotel, Carla and Antonio Sersale, at their home, where nearly every Sirenlander got up and shared a bit of their work around the fireside. There were even a few songs, and a play, where I was cast as a sadistic babysitter (I was killed by the children in the third act). It takes an enormous amount of work to put this conference together, but as soon as I arrive each year in Positano, it feels like coming home. This group of strangers, each struggling with their own writing, anxious and a bit jet-lagged, quickly comes together and forms a supportive community.
For the first time, I stayed in Positano for Palm Sunday, and witnessed a wonderful tradition. Instead of palm fronds, people carry olive branches, decorated with candy, small cheeses, salami, and even loaves of bread. The priest blesses them in the square, and after mass, the villagers break off branches and hand them out to friends, sharing the bounty. A simple act, but a lovely one. All of us at Sirenland this year went home with our own bits of branches, given to us by Antonio, Carla, Michael, Dani, Ron, Jim, Bruce and our fellow writers, covered with insights, inspiration, memories and new friendships. I can’t wait for next year to come.