The Sun Valley Writers Conference
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer
In a valley that has produced two of the finest writers of the 20th
century, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, it seems fitting that the area has become a
refuge for writers to exchange ideas, build friendships and enjoy a place of natural
It wasnt always this way. Just seven years ago, the Sun Valley
Writers Conference was nothing more than an idea batted around by friends at a
sunny, breakfast gathering. Now in its sixth year, the conference has taken its place in
the top echelon of writers conferences in the country.
From Aug. 25- 28, novelists and nonfiction writers, memoirists and poets
will convene at The Community School for this years conference, "Writing With
The list of writers participating reads like a whos who list of
American letters. Included are Jim Bellows, E. L. Doctorow, David Halbertstam, Peter
Matthiessen, Frank McCourt, W.S. Merwin, Anna Quindlen, Mark Salzman, and Lawrence
Weschler. All told, 27 writers will be sharing their experiences, insights and enthusiasm
for all that is written.
Perhaps a little known fact about the writers attending is that none of
them are paid. It is a testament not only to the appeal of this area, but also to the
relaxed yet intellectually stimulating atmosphere the organizers of the conference have
fostered over the years.
Reva Tooley, the executive director of the conference, recently spoke to a
reporter about the event. She pointed out that one of the reasons they have been able to
attract so many fine writers is that organizers have removed what they refer to as the
"obligations," such as fund-raising and press interviews, that writers usually
face at conferences.
Tooley said that the writers "spend evenings together, participate in
activities together. They can network and bond. Many friendships have been forged
here." She added that the other important factor is the audience here. "The
writers trust this audience, so they are relaxed. They feel free to open up."
When the conference began in 1995, 12 writers participated. Because Tooley
has been involved with journalism for most of her life, over half of the writers were
journalists. While journalists have always had a strong presence here, as Tooley put it,
"the number always waxes and wanes."
Tooley said they make an effort to create a blend between the repeat
participants, people whom she said "anchor the conference" with the younger
writers just beginning to make their mark in the field. Having Ethan Canin as an associate
director, Tooley said, has been instrumental in getting a wide spectrum of the best, young
writers to attend.
This years conference will offer some new programs. For one, there
will be what are termed "Master Classes." These are classes that will have as
"students" Mark Salzman, filmmaker Jessica Yu, former journalism teacher Sarah
Cavanaugh and Michigan State University student Scott Drake.
Lawrence Weschler, New Yorker staff writer, will teach a course on
nonfiction writing focusing on the topics of form and freedom. The audience will be, in
effect, auditing the courses. They will participate in the question portion of the
The conference organizers are also offering three fellowships this year.
These fellowships are awarded to emerging writers of exceptional promise. This years
SVWC Fellows are John Murray, a pediatrician who is currently a teaching/writing fellow at
the Iowa Writers Workshop; Marjorie Gellhorn Saadah, a creative nonfiction
fellow at the Sundance Institute; and Jennifer Vanderbes, a graduate of Yale University
and the Iowa Writers Workshop.
In addition to the major talks, master classes and readings, there will be
what are termed "breakout sessions." These are small group meetings with one or
two writers. The attendees and writers generally explore a specific topic more in depth
than they would otherwise be able to. It provides for a more intimate and informal setting
Which raises one of the dilemmas the conference organizers are beginning
to face: with the conference growing in popularity, it is increasingly difficult to
preserve the character of the event. As Tooley pointed out, "Intimacy has
limitations." Expanding too much would "destroy the conference."
With this in mind, Tooley and other organizers are trying hard to think of
ways to extend the conference to the community. One approach this year has been to work
with The Community Library to organize a talk by Mark Salzman. He will speak about the
writing life tonight at 6 p.m. at the library.
While tickets are sold out for this years conference, Tooley said
that interested people should be encouraged to sign up for next years waiting list.
She said this year they were able to accommodate almost everyone on the list. She added
that students with IDs would be admitted for free if there are seats available.