Writing in Paradise

Eckerd College Celebrates 20th Year of
Esteemed Writing Conference


Author and conference co-director Les Standiford opened each evening reading at last month’s Eckerd College Writers’ Conference: Writers in Paradise with a “guy walks into a bar” joke. The terrible punchlines usually earned an equal measure of giggles and groans from the enthusiastic audience of writers and readers in Eckerd’s Dan and Mary Miller Auditorium.

During the day, from January 13–20, Eckerd’s Continuing Education Center at the front of campus filled with writers from all over the country wearing neck lanyards and embroidered blue ball caps.

The conference, which has run each January since 2005, is an eight-day immersion in education, community and sanctuary for writers of all ages and experience levels. Founded by acclaimed authors Sterling Watson ’69 and Dennis Lehane ’88, Writers in Paradise has a mission to provide talented and hardworking writers the opportunity to learn from successful authors.

Conference attendees enter Miller Auditorium for an evening reading
– photos by Penh Alicandro

Each weeklong workshop, led by a professional author, focuses on a particular genre to provide effective feedback for participants. Genres include novel, short story, memoir, nonfiction, poetry, crime fiction and suspense. Faculty spend upwards of 20 hours of quality time helping participants refine their work.

Select Eckerd creative writing and communication students participate in the conference each year for a Winter Term course credit. This year, four students attended the conference – Braydon Tomasic, a junior from Kansas City KS participated in poetry; Avery Allen, a senior from Atlanta GA studied short story; Lila Cook, a junior from Succasunna NJ focused on novel; and Ashlyn Fransen (yours truly), a senior from Anderson SC explored memoir.

This year’s faculty included novelists, nonfiction writers, poets and journalists Ann Hood, Madeleine Blais, Andre Dubus III, Luis Alberto Urrea, Stuart O’Nan, Laura Lippman, Denise Duhamel, Ana Menéndez, Les Standiford and Lori Roy, who stepped in last minute when Michael Koryta was unable to attend.

In addition to leading daily workshops, Eckerd faculty gave evening readings and book signings, which were free and open to the public, in the Miller Auditorium.

Laughter echoed through the audience at Urrea’s theatrical reading, Hood brought the audience to tears with an excerpt from her memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, and former St. Petersburg Poet Laureate and former Professor of Creative Writing at Eckerd College Helen Pruitt Wallace, Ph.D., earned sentimental awe with her poem that featured the book titles of each faculty member.


Noir Cento
by Helen Pruitt Wallace


The most dangerous things meet you in hell
. . . . when trying to return home. A faithful townie, you think
you’re on the last train to paradise, but you’re wandering in strange lands
. . . . . . . . where every secret thing about you is a life sentence
to the devil’s highway—that bent road, that mystic river
. . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . where you’re gone baby gone.
Gone so long toward big trouble that this will be [your] undoing.
. . . . . . .  . Adios, happy homeland! The last war in this city of secrets
left Washington burning and dirty love with blind tongues
. . . . . . . .  fighting in the shade. Where the man who invented christmas
becomes a prom mom who hosts the knitting circle.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Who cares? In Cuba I was a German
shepherd! Besides, the heart is an instrument; in these girls,
. . . . . . . . .hope is a muscle—scar on/scar off—
the red thread tugging where your biome has found you. Check
. . . . . . . .  
your picture window: ka-ching! You’re in the pink
and queen for a day. Until she comes home. Gone too long,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. it’s battle for the big top. Goodnight,
Irene—sweet dream, baby. If I survive you in this ocean state,
. . . . . . . . .I’ll meet you in hell, that suitcase city west of sunset
where the book that matters most is the one you write
. . . . . . . . .
when trying to return home. Home to your house
of broken angels, that house of sand and fog
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .where I’d know you anywhere.


Except for the italicized words, this poem is assembled gratefully from titles of work by the writers from the Writers in Paradise Conference, 2024 – Andre Dubus III, Laura Lippman, Les Standiford, Jennifer Maritza McCauley, Stewart O’Nan, Morgan Jerkins, Luis Alberto Urrea, Lori Roy, Dennis Lehane, Sterling Watson, Ana Menéndez, Ann Hood, Madeleine Blais, Gloria Muñoz, Marina Pruna, Denise Duhamel, Nicholas Garnett and  Jonathan Escoffery.

The beautiful Eckerd College campus in south St. Petersburg – photo courtesy of Eckerd College social media

Many of the faculty continued the trend in their “million-dollar” introductions. Crime fiction author Lippman noted that the introductions were often more interesting than the readings themselves because the longtime conference faculty cared so deeply about one another.

Writers in Paradise kicked off on January 13 with a reading by Morgan Jerkins, journalist, educator and author of The New York Times bestseller This Will Be My Undoing.

Each year, the conference highlights new voices in the literary community by inviting “emerging artists” in fiction and poetry to give craft talks, participate in panel discussions and read their work. This year’s emerging artists included Jennifer Maritza McCauley (fiction) and current St. Petersburg Poet Laureate and former Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eckerd College Gloria Muñoz (poetry).

Jonathan Escoffery closed the conference on January 20 with a reading from his short story collection If I Survive You, which had been longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction.

Writer Jonathan Escoffery spoke to the audience before an on-stage Q&A with Conference Director Les Standiford.

Panel discussions in the afternoon were designed to give participants insight into the publishing industry. Conference alumni Gale Massey, John Vanek and Anjanette Delgado discussed their experiences when publishing their books after Writers in Paradise.

Later in the week, Mitchell Kaplan (founder of Books & Books in Miami), Richard Pine (agent at InkWell Management literary agency) and Les Standiford (the Peter Meinke Chair in Creative Writing at Eckerd) talked about the nuances of publishing, agency and distribution.

A fun, yet sometimes painful, staple of Writers in Paradise is an exercise called “Writer Idol”—modeled after the reality show American Idol. Participants are invited to anonymously submit the first page of their manuscript. The pages are then read aloud in front of the conference audience to a panel of three faculty judges.

When a judge feels turned off by the content of the first page, they raise their hand. The reading continues to the end of the page unless at least two judges raise their hands. Upon the second hand-raising, the reading stops, and the judges explain their action.

This exercise is incredibly helpful for writers to see the principles of momentum and holding readers’ attention in action and can provide insight into writing the perfect first page to attract an agent, publisher or reader.

Evening Reading attendees enjoy speaking with authors while buying their books – author Ann Hood is second from the right

On the final day of the conference, participants ate brunch together in Fox Hall, and one member from each workshop was elected to read an excerpt of their work to all in attendance, faculty and students alike. These readings gave participants a glimpse into the other workshops and the literature that came out of them — and evoked a deep sense of pride and camaraderie for participants across genres.

It bolstered a renewed sense of motivation to share art with the world.

Writers in Paradise is a widely renowned writing conference in the literary community. Dubus III said this is because participants “show up with their hearts.”

Before Standiford expressed gratitude for the hard work of all participants and faculty, Urrea said, “There’s a palpable love in this space that you don’t find at other conferences.”




Originally published in the Eckerd College Newsroom

The 20th Writers in Paradise conference took place January 13–20, 2024 – photos by Penh Alicandro ’22

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