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For the week of August 23 through 29, 2000

Writer’s refuge

The Sun Valley Writers’ Conference

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 beauty.

It wasn’t 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 year’s conference, "Writing With Conscience."

The list of writers participating reads like a who’s 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 year’s 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 classes.

The conference organizers are also offering three fellowships this year. These fellowships are awarded to emerging writers of exceptional promise. This year’s SVWC Fellows are John Murray, a pediatrician who is currently a teaching/writing fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Marjorie Gellhorn Sa’adah, 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 for discussion.

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 year’s conference, Tooley said that interested people should be encouraged to sign up for next year’s waiting list. She said this year they were able to accommodate almost everyone on the list. She added that students with ID’s would be admitted for free if there are seats available.


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