Jim Shepard: The Importance of Being a Teacher

On May 6, One Story, at its annual Debutante Ball honored Jim Shepard with its mentor of the year award. Accepting the award, Jim gave an inspiring speech about what teaching means to him, and why he puts so much of his time and energy into mentoring and help others to become better writers.  The text of that speech is below.



Thank you Josh, and thank you Hannah and Maribeth, and all of the One Story staffers, for the work you’ve poured into this celebration, a celebration that it helps me, when I’m feeling particularly unworthy, to remember is both a fundraiser and an acknowledgement of the indispensability of One Story in particular, and small literary magazines in general, to what remains of American intellectual culture.

Because if I don’t think of it that way, I end up being very moved, and a little appalled, that so many of you came so far to be a part of this.  I trust and hope that running into lots of old friends, and a shitload of free liquor, has helped to make it all worthwhile.   If it hasn’t, then once I’m finished talking, there’s still time to chat up some celebrities like Josh Ferris or Dani Shapiro or Karen Russell.

I recently introduced three ex-students, each of whom are here tonight, who were giving a reading in Manhattan, by noting that when you teach for as long as I have – and at this point some of my undergraduates think I was a contemporary of John Quincy Adams – you not only get to know a mass of students who are strikingly talented, but also a number who are just astonishingly appealing and impressive human beings.

In other words, when you teach, if you take it seriously, you not only occasionally have to deal with people who make you want to hang yourself from a shower head.   Because of the peculiar intimacy of what you’re up to, you also encounter an increasing number of people who move into the category of your favorite people on earth.   And right now a startling percentage of that category in my case is gathered in this room.

It’s always seemed to me that humility, for all its importance, should be one of the easiest virtues to cultivate.   Given that mostly what we’re doing when engaged in literary writing is confronting our own limitations, I’ve always been in the mode of trying to learn something myself, and doing my best to allow whomever wanted to be nearby access to that process.   And I’ve tried to model a way in which one method for dealing with the hopelessness of our limitations, and for maximizing our capacities for patience and for engagement with the world around us, is to remember to stay in touch with play.

With the passionate engagement that we all manage, as children.   That’s been part of what’s been behind my strategy – if such a thing could be called a strategy — of teasing everyone and everything.    That willingness to play is what keeps us going, and what helps us out of all those cul-de-sacs and unpaved roads down which we’ve strayed, so that every so often we can arrive at those little intersections of accomplishment and joy.  And play is what lets us imagine, each time we arrive there, that this is just the beginning.

I want to thank each and every one of you who has worked with me for your willingness to indulge what you’ve probably experienced as the disconcerting intensity of my obsession with close reading.   Close reading as a  way of waging war on where we’re headed as a collective.   As a way of fighting what feels like a rear-guard holding action on reading and writing’s behalf.

I want to do whatever I can to remind people of the sorts of things that many of you have heard me advocate many times in many different ways:  that all writing is political writing; that privilege will always have the impulse to turn away from suffering; that we need to remain alert to the ways in which we continually fail one another; of the spiritual and practical importance of tenderness; and of the ways that we need to allow hope to grow, even as we see clearly what’s likely to destroy that promise.

I came from a town, and a high school, that polite people called shitholes, and partly for that reason, I cherished those teachers I had who never stopped working to remind me how fortunate any of us who got out of such places truly were, and how much our good fortune so often depended on what others had given us.

As many of you already know very well, giving yourself over to other people is expensive, in terms of time.   Being an adequate teacher, never mind a good one, means having less opportunity and energy to do your own work.   But as a teacher, turning over my imagination to someone else’s work is very much like the way as a writer I’m also turning over my imagination to distant and initially strange sensibilities.

In both cases in doing so I’m continually giving myself away, in both senses of the phrase, and I’m also continuing to try to renew myself, and to make myself a more interesting, and less socially inept, human being.    And many of you right now are looking at me and going, “Well, that didn’t work out.”

When two people work together on something about which they care passionately, it often looks like this:  one offers what help she can, and the other accepts it, and together they construct something amazing.  And in doing that work together, they’re the ones who’ve been smart enough to recognize the luck that has come their way, perceptive enough to see each other with an enviable clarity, and generous enough to have said to one other, Here I am for you.

If all literary writers are in some ways exiles, negotiating an isolation imposed from without and within, then part of what we offer one another when we offer the gift of a more perfect attention is a temporary home.  The feeling there’s at least one place we belong.   The chance to become one another’s relief.

And it’s mostly through that coming together — on the page or across a desk – that we make any progress at all in that search for a more ideal version of ourselves: a version more willing to put in the hard work of making sense of the world, a version more likely to continue to attempt to extend its empathetic reach, and a version that strives to be more even-handed, and even more generative, when it comes to compassion.

So: for everyone here with whom I’ve worked, or even interacted:  thank you – for putting up with this – and for all you’ve done to make me a better person.

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Reptile House Sidewind Across America Tour


Reptile House

I saw Dani and Michael today at AWP in Minneapolis and they told me to blog the Reptile House Sidewind Across America Tour. Since I always do what they say, I’m starting now. I will be crashing on Sirenlander couches all over America. The list is long, as in… California, here I come, etc.

– Robin McLean

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The 2015 Sirenland Fellow is…..

The Sirenland Writers Conference, along with Literary Affairs, is pleased to announce the winner of the 2015 Sirenland Literary Affairs Fellowship: Mia Alvar.

Mia  was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City. Her work has appeared in One Story, The Missouri Review, FiveChapters, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Yaddo, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. A graduate of Harvard College and the School of the Arts at Columbia University, she lives in New York City. Her first book, In the Country, will be published by Knopf in June 2015.Mia Alvar_6313 (1)

The Sirenland Literary Affairs Fellowship provides the opportunity for the winner to attend the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. It is given to a writer who is in the process of completing a project, but has not published a book before March, 2015. Candidates are nominated by a panel of publishing professionals. All entries are read blind and the winner is chosen by Dani Shapiro. Past winners of the Fellowship include Scott Cheshire (High as the Horses’ Bridles), Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Robin Black (If I Loved You I Would Tell You this) Sai?d Sayrafiezadeh (When Skateboards Will Be Free) and Dalia Sofer (The Septembers of Shiraz). The 2015 fellowship is sponsored by Literary Affairs.

Founded in 2007 by Antonio Sersale, Michael Maren, Dani Shapiro and Hannah Tinti, the Sirenland Writers Conference takes place each spring at Le Sirenuse Hotel, in Positano, Italy. Each day begins with an intensive advanced writing workshop. Afternoons feature one-on-one conferences, private writing time, lectures and talks about living the writer’s life. Evenings include student and instructor readings, distinguished visiting authors, and fantastic meals overlooking the Tirreno Sea. This year’s teachers include Anthony Doerr, Jim Shepard and Dani Shapiro. For more information, visit: www.sirenland.net.

In business for twenty years, Literary Affairs’ mission is to promote great literature and foster a community of book lovers. The brainchild of lifelong bibliophile and entrepreneur Julie Robinson, Literary Affairs is unique in its commitment to offering a full range of services tailored to the literary lifestyle, including book clubs, conversations with acclaimed authors in intimate locales, literary travel adventures, and an annual fall book festival in Beverly Hills, California. As facilitators of over 40 book clubs per month, Literary Affairs believes that reading books enriches our lives, makes us more human and helps us better understand and have compassion for the world we live in.

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The 2014 Sirenland Fellow is….


2014 Sirenland Fellow, Scott Cheshire

Scott Cheshire has been named the  Sirenland Literary Affairs Fellow for 2014.  He earned his MFA from Hunter College. He is the interview editor at the Tottenville Review and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. His work has been published in Slice, AGNI, Guernica, and the Picador anthology, The Book of Men.  His first novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles is forthcoming from Henry Holt.  He lives in New York City.

The 2014 Sirenland Fellowship is sponsored by Literary Affairs. It provides travel, room and board and expenses for attending the Sirenland Writers Conference.  It is given to a writer who is in the process of completing a project, but has not yet published a book before March, 2014.  Candidates are nominated by a panel of publishing professionals.

Literary Affairs‘ mission is to promote great literature and foster a community of book lovers.  The brainchild of lifelong bibliophile and entrepreneur Julie Robinson, Literary Affairs is unique in its commitment to offering a full range of services tailored to the literary lifestyle, including book clubs, conversations with acclaimed authors in intimate locales, literary travel adventures and an annual Fall book festival.

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Images from Sirenland 2012

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Sirenland Covered in the Financial Times

If you’ve been to Sirenland or are thinking of applying, you’ll want to read this article in The Financial Times.  It speaks for itself.


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Susan Orlean to Teach at Sirenland 2012

The faculty roster for Sirenland 2012 is now set.  Dani Shapiro will be teaching for the sixth year, while Jim Shepard will be returning for the fourth time. They will be joined by Susan Orlean, who will be teaching a workshop in creative non-fiction.

Susan is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Orchid Thief,  Saturday Night, and other books. Her newest book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, will be published in September.

Applications for Sirenland 2012 will be accepted from September 15, until October 30, 2011.

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Sirenland 2011 (the video)

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The Sirenland Mug(s)

The Sirenland Mug: Available in Positano

This is the official Sirenland coffee mug; it’s handmade in Positano, and every one of them is unique. (I know, because I compared them all.) The design is based on the original drawing by world famous and highly controversial illustrator (he of the famous New Yorker ‘Obama fist-bump cover,’ etal.) Barry Blitt. We asked Barry if he’d be willing to go to Italy and personally redraw the illustration on each of 200 coffee mugs, and he said, “sure, for like a thousand dollars apiece.”  So we said to hell with that and we rounded up some Italian children to copy the image at a fraction of the price and we passed out the cups as party favors to the 30 lucky writers who attended Sirenland this year.

Many Sirenlanders from previous years have complained that they didn’t get mugs, only the “lousy T-shirts” we used to give out. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Belfer. And you’ve asked how you could get the mugs. Well, we’ve still got more than 100 mugs sitting in a box in Positano (and for sale at Emporio Le Sirenuse). But if we shipped them all over here, repacked them and shipped them back out to you it would have been cheaper to send Barry Blitt to your house with a sharpie to draw pictures on your existing chinaware. So, if you want to get one of those mugs here’s what you have to do:

1.) Reapply to Sirenland for next year.

2.) Get accepted back.

3.) Come back to Italy and pick one up.

Can’t wait?  Here’s the alternative.  We do have mugs for sale with the ORIGINAL Barry Blitt (signed!) drawing on them. I’m told that each one was meticulously copied by a robot. Though I may have misunderstood that part.

Proceeds from the sale of these mugs will be used to make more mugs. It’s a beautiful system. Until then, I’ll be drinking my morning coffee from my Italian Sirenland mug.


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Sirenland 2011 Slideshow

This slideshow is a work in progress.  We’ll be adding new photos every day. Double click the image viewer to get to larger images.



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