Event | The Sun in California | The Sun Magazine

The Sun in California

past event October 19, 2018 Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California

Program Description

This experience was priceless. I look back at it as a defining moment in my writing life.

— Amy Clay, Into the Fire attendee

Events - Into The Fire
Since 1974, The Sun has published the kind of brave, revealing writing that lives up to the magazine’s motto: “What is to give light must endure burning.” We invite you to join Sun readers, authors, and staff for a weekend retreat celebrating the written word. The authors will lead workshops geared to bring forth the best in your own essays, short stories, and poems. A Readers Write session will help get your pen moving. There will be opportunities to speak with editor and founder Sy Safransky, and readings by Sy and the workshop leaders.

You don’t have to think of yourself as a writer to attend, because the best part of a Sun gathering is getting to meet people who appreciate the magazine’s compassionate, unflinching view of the world as much as you do. We hope you’ll join us.

Authors Scheduled to Appear

John Brehm is the author of two award-winning books of poems, Help Is on the Way and Sea of Faith. He is also the associate editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and the editor of the anthology The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and teaches for the Literary Arts and Mountain Writers Series in Portland and for the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. (johnbrehm.net)

Frances Lefkowitz is the author of To Have Not, a memoir of growing up poor in 1970s San Francisco. She is at work on a second memoir, When I Was Invincible, about fear and surfing. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, and Good Housekeeping, and earned notable mentions from the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. She lives in Northern California and has taught at The Sun’s writing retreats on both coasts. (franceslefkowitz.net)

Sy Safransky is editor and publisher of The Sun.

Heather Sellers taught creative writing for nearly twenty years at Hope College in Michigan. In 2013 she joined the faculty at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She is the author of three books on the craft of writing and the memoir You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know.

Sparrow lives in a doublewide trailer in Phoenicia, New York, with his wife, Violet Snow. He is the longest-running contributor to The Sun and is the author of seven books, the most recent being On certain nights everyone in the USA has the same dream, a journal of his 2016 presidential campaign. His app, Fake Wisdom, is available on iTunes for free. Sparrow plays flutophone in the neo-invisible pop group Foamola. Follow him on Twitter: @Sparrow14.

Joe Wilkins is the author of the memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on the Big Dry and three books of poetry, Notes from the Journey Westward, Killing the Murnion Dogs, and When We Were Birds, which won the 2017 Stafford/Hall Prize in Poetry from the Oregon Book Awards. His debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in 2019. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he directs the creative-writing program at Linfield College. (joewilkins.org)


John Brehm
Writing The Short Poem

A great short poem can linger in the mind for years. A striking image, a sudden insight, a vivid idea or emotion delivered without build-up or elaboration can be profound. What elements are common to powerful short poems? We’ll look at extraordinary short poems by Saigyō, Issa, Emily Dickinson, Yannis Ritsos, Anna Swir, A.R. Ammons, and others, and then we’ll try our hand at writing short poems of our own.

The Magic Of Metaphor

Metaphor is at the heart of poetic practice, a kind of perceptual magic that reveals the hidden similarities and deep connections between seemingly dissimilar things. When Shakespeare compares leafless branches to “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” the image is both right and surprising. We’ll examine arresting metaphors from Pablo Neruda, Kay Ryan, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Carson, James Schuyler, and others, to see how they work and the effects they create. Then we’ll experiment with the pleasures and challenges of making metaphor ourselves.

The Power Of A Question

Do we see our poems as expressions of what we already know or as opportunities for imaginative exploration? Is our writing energized more by assertions or questions? We’ll explore how a provocative inquiry can spark a poem and deepen the reader’s engagement.

Frances Lefkowitz
Flash Fiction And Micro-Memoir
Nonfiction, Fiction

The short-short form — one hundred to a thousand words — works well for both fiction and memoir. Writing micro stories and essays helps us locate what’s urgent in a story and zero in on salient details. It’s also a great way to jump-start a longer work. We’ll read samples from contemporary writers and then write to provocative prompts. This is an energetic workshop that gets the words flowing.

Wrangling Your Writing Voice
Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry

It’s hard to say what, exactly, “voice” is in writing. Is it attitude, opinion, language, or all these and more? We will read Jamaica Kincaid, Jane Wong, and other writers with distinctive voices and then try several approaches to discovering and liberating our own voices.

Rewrite Your History

The stories we tell about the past wield great power over us in the present. To write deep memoir, we need to look at these old stories with fresh eyes and reinterpret the tales we’ve long told about who we are and where we come from. We’ll start with a core story, then build on it, adding layers of perspective and insight.

Heather Sellers
Breaking Through Writer’s Block
Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin,” writes Donald Barthelme. Do you have occasional or regular bouts of writer’s block? Procrastination issues? A hard time finishing? We will talk about the psychology behind the block (it might not be what you think) and learn some simple methods for breaking through and developing a healthy writing practice.

The Art Of Reflection

We’re told “Show, don’t tell,” but good writing frequently employs telling — the reflective writer tells us what an experience means. So what is the difference between telling something well and telling it poorly? We will practice showing (via scene) and telling (using reflection) while avoiding over-explanation. We’ll also examine examples of reflection in memoir and leave with techniques for practicing the art of reflection.

How To Write About What Scares You (And Not Cause People To Freak Out)
Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry

Many of us are called to share the stories that matter most to us, but sometimes this material is potentially overwhelming. How do we write about dark, complex, or traumatic events without pushing readers away? We will learn four techniques for handling intense subjects, from fantastic joy to passionate suffering. We can write boldly and keep the reader with us.

The Essay As Letter

One way to write an essay is as a letter to a friend or hero. A letter has the virtues of intimacy and spontaneity, and often culminates in a revelation. Using his “Letter to the President,” plus fragments of other essays, Sparrow will show us how to shape an essay in the form of a letter. (This can also improve our correspondence with friends.)

When A Writer Travels

Travel is invigorating and nourishing. When we go to a new place — whether Nepal or Pittsburgh — we often have the urge to describe it in writing, but frequently we end up with mundane lists of restaurants and streets. How can we translate a city or an island into prose? How can we convey in words the transformative power of ten days in Amsterdam? Using his essay “My Iceland,” Sparrow will lead exercises in “landscape prose.”

Faith Or Doubt?
Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry

Faith and doubt mirror and provoke each other. A deep belief in God might suddenly collapse into paralyzing uncertainty. A long-cherished agnosticism might blossom into an awareness of the Divine. If a car rushes toward us as we cross the street, a fugitive prayer escapes our lips. A day later we walk into a church, sit in a pew — and feel empty. In his essay “Beyond Belief” Sparrow confronts both God and the absence of God. We will explore how to write about this “razor’s edge” of spiritual faith and doubt.

Joe Wilkins
What We Really Mean To Say: Notes Toward Evocative Prose
Nonfiction, Fiction

In paying attention to language, we not only write more effective, vivid prose, but we very often discover new ways to express ourselves. We will discuss four techniques that help us attend to language and write to prompts using these techniques.

Layers Of Landscape: Harnessing The Power Of Place
Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry

We live in a world of chain restaurants and department stores, online communication and airplane travel, but place and landscape are active forces in our lives. They shape and reshape us; they offer us foundation and refuge; they challenge us to take care of them. We will discuss four ways to begin to understand and harness the power of place in our writing.

Our First Gods: Finding The Father Through Personal Writing
Nonfiction, Poetry

Our fathers are our first gods, but too often they are unapproachable or absent. How might we know them better? How deep is our ache that we don’t know them more fully? And are we ready, if we get to know them, for our fathers to fall from their thrones and become not gods (or devils) but human beings? We will think, discuss, and write about our fathers as a way of more fully knowing them.

Please note: You don’t need to register for workshops in advance. This gives you the flexibility to decide which ones to attend after you meet the presenters on Friday night. Most classrooms are large enough to accommodate everyone who shows up.


The retreat runs Friday, October 19, through Sunday, October 21.

Friday: Check-in begins in the afternoon. Dinner is followed by the Into the Fire Opening Session and a reading featuring Sun authors.


Saturday: Workshops begin after breakfast and run until 9:30 PM with breaks for lunch and dinner.

Individual meetings with Sy Safransky will run throughout the workshop sessions on Saturday.


Sunday: A panel discussion (topic to be announced) will be held after breakfast, along with a reading by Sy Safransky and then the Closing Session. Brunch will follow at 12:15. We’ll depart afterward.

Registered attendees will receive a detailed schedule via e-mail.

The retreat did what all good writing teachers will do — it made me want to write more.

— Robert McGee, Into the Fire attendee


Esalen is situated on twenty-seven acres of spectacular Big Sur coastline with the Santa Lucia Mountains rising sharply behind. The institute is known for its blend of Eastern and Western philosophies and offers access to natural hot springs, a massage area, and a swimming pool. (Swimsuits are optional and nudity is common in these areas.)

Accessibility: Esalen’s terrain is mountainous, and many of the walkways are steep and uneven. Access to some parts of the property may be difficult depending on your level of mobility. If you have special health needs, please contact Esalen as soon as possible. They can answer any questions you have and help you make arrangements.

Esalen Institute
55000 Highway One
Big Sur, CA 93920
(888) 837-2536


For information on how to get to Esalen, please visit: http://www.esalen.org/page/getting-here.

Registration and Cost


Esalen’s weekend cost is based on the type of lodging you select; it includes tuition, meals, and accommodations. For details, visit: http://www.esalen.org/page/esalen-workshop-tuition-including-accommodations.


Call Esalen at (888) 837-2536 or register online. You can also download and complete Esalen’s registration form and fax it to (831) 667-2724.

A large enrollment is expected, and spaces are limited. We recommend registering soon.


The Sun is offering four full scholarships to the event, which cover tuition, lodging, and food for the weekend. Each recipient will also receive a $300 stipend to cover the cost of travel, childcare, or other retreat-related expenses. The application deadline has passed. We will notify applicants of our decision by September 5.​

What to Bring

  • A notebook or journal in which to write and your favorite pen or pencil. (Laptops or tablets are welcome as long as you silence your device. Power outlets may be limited in the workshop rooms, so bring a paper journal as a backup.)
  • Your bio written in the form of a contributor’s note thirty words maximum, including your name. See The Sun’s inside front cover for examples. We’re all contributors for the weekend, and we’ll read our notes aloud as introductions at the Opening Session on Friday night.

    To help you get started, here’s what we ask Sun contributors to consider as they write their notes:

In addition to the usual information — where you live, your occupation, any previous publications — tell us something unique about you. What are your hobbies, pet projects, bad habits? What are you most proud of, or most embarrassed by? Is there something special about where you live, or with whom you live? Think of one or two things about yourself that are not true of anyone else you know, and tell us what they are.

Please note: The thirty-word limit is strict.

  • Esalen recommends that you bring: a flashlight, ear plugs, comfortable shoes, an alarm clock, and casual, layered clothes for 40-70 degree weather.

I have long been seeking “my” people, and I think I found them this weekend: openhearted, smart, funny, loving.

— P.S., Into the Fire attendee

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