There is a long history of well-known writers plying their trade by the ocean. Located only 80 miles from New York City, the Hamptons, a renowned resort area, has drawn its share of writers, artists and entertainers to its sunny summer shores for more than a century.
The legacy of the area includes such names as Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams and Harriet Beecher Stowe. For almost five decades, Stony Brook’s Southampton campus and its annual Southampton Writers Conference have been part of that rich history.
Founded in 1976, the conference has hosted renowned writers including Edward Albee and James Baldwin, and in the past decade has included Elizabeth Strout, Colson Whitehead, Sharon Olds, Natalie Diaz and Meg Wolitzer. In July, Stony Brook continued the tradition for the 48th consecutive year, with 123 attendees.
“These workshops are an opportunity for our MFA students to learn from outstanding writers who don’t live on the east coast or who don’t necessarily teach a traditional semester class,” said Christian McLean, a professor in Stony Brook’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literature and the conference director.
McLean said the conference has gone through different iterations over the years.
“Traditionally it was a 12-day conference,” he said. “At one point it was almost a month long and included a children’s literature conference, the writers conference, and a screenwriting conference. Since then, we scaled it back down to 12 days, and when the COVID pandemic hit we took it online and moved to a five-day format. We decided to keep that format when we returned and it’s been really successful. But it’s a busy five days.”
Programming begins the moment attendees arrive and continues through the evening. The schedule includes morning workshops and two lectures after lunch. Workshop leaders also host an evening reading after dinner. The workshops are available to anyone 18 years or older.
“We like to say participants are between 18 and 80, which is a wonderful thing,” said McLean. “With that diversity of life experience comes interesting conversation. It also brings together people who normally would not be together. A 20-year-old creative writing student doesn’t usually interact with a 75-year-old doctor. But in the workshop they do.”
McLean said attendees learn from each other, and the conference is all about community. “Writing is a lonely job,” he said. “So bringing 120 people together to support each other with the same goals is important. Hopefully when they leave after five days they’ve made connections that are going to lead them forward.”
Programs include the writers’ conference, a children’s literature conference that runs concurrently, and a listener series, which is designed for people who are interested in writing but don’t feel ready to take a workshop yet. Another program is BookEnds, a non-credit intensive effort to help writers turn their full-length manuscripts into polished form.
“This is both the start and graduation of the BookEnds program, which is a one-year program where a dozen writers work on individual projects over the course of a year with their mentors,” McLean said. “They come here during the conference and workshop their project, and then come back the next year and do a graduate reading.”
McLean has been involved with the workshop since 2005, when he took a playwriting workshop with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman.
“I found this great community that cared about what I cared about,” he said. “So I came back the next year, and then I came back again the next year.”
McLean was officially hired in 2009 as a conference coordinator. As he looks back at almost 20 years of experience with the workshop, McLean says that writing and writers remain remarkably stable in a constantly changing world.
“To writers, the writing has always been valuable,” he said. “But it fluctuates. A lot of the world is pushing towards STEM, which is important, but a lot of funding for the arts has been cut. For writers, writing has always been a crucial element because they understand what writing is and what it does for society. Every book, every TV show, everything on Netflix — someone wrote that. So the value of writers hasn’t really shifted, but the view from society on the outside fluctuates.”
McLean also spoke of the impact the conference has had on his own career, which includes works of fiction published in The Rumpus, Scores Anthology, and The Southampton Review, and poetry featured in a collaborative work at Dundee Contemporary Arts (Dundee, Scotland) in addition to his work as a faculty member in the MFA program.
“To find a place where every day you’re encouraged to be creative is really special, especially as a writer,” he said. “Every day I have a conversation about writing with like-minded people. And I think that’s really helped me continue to write because it’s a shared value system. And that’s really what the Writer’s Conference itself is. Those five days inspire me for weeks on end. These people inspire me to keep writing and I think that’s one of the major things — just being surrounded by community and creativity.”
In the end, McLean said the annual conference is about is about supporting fellow writers and lifting each other up.
“The feedback has been really positive. People have been really excited,” he said. “They feel supported, which I think is really crucial. And that’s what I want them to leave with. They’re doing this by themselves but there are other people out there that are pursuing the same thing.”
“I’ve been part of this for almost 20 years,” he added. “That’s a testament to how much it means to me. My hope is that it means that much to others.”
— Robert Emproto