(Courtesy of Author)

In Italy, among the literary A-list, I find my own siren song

At a swanky writing workshop, afraid my career is over, I try to square my literary ambition with its built-in risk

Lily Burana
July 12, 2019 11:00PM (UTC)

The weather this evening in Positano is 54 degrees and partly cloudy, with 100% chance of Elizabeth Gilbert in your lap.

I am enjoying this weather — the early spring temperature and the affectionate social climate — instead of having a bender or a breakdown.


Being an uneducated working writer means that I always write with a gun at my back. In the MFA or NYC? debate, I chose FTW. I had accidented my way into this endeavor after a dizzying, years-long slog in sex work that began when I was 18 years old. For two decades I shouldered into it as hard as my chronic depression would allow, and now, with a series of underperforming books on my hands, I was watching my career wither from strangulation as the freelance journalism market contracted around me. Writers I knew with degrees were retreating into teaching jobs (also increasingly sparse and prone to dwindling compensation) or technical writing, or working in public relations. My dropout ass was whirling in panic.

I needed a place to sort out my shit. I didn’t want to talk through this conundrum with a trained professional. That wouldn’t break the frame. If my professional prospects were dying, I would drive a jeweled spike into the coffin. I would not go to therapy. I would to go to Italy.

Sirenland is a five-day writers conference in the storied town of Positano, on the picturesque Amalfi coast. Founded in 2006 by writers Hannah Tinti, Dani Shapiro and Michael Maren, the conference takes place in early spring at Le Sireneuse, a posh hotel made famous in “Under the Tuscan Sun” and frequented by celebrities, including Sofia Vergara, who was recently photographed vamping with husband Joe Manganiello in the hotel's more 'gram-worthy spots.


Yes, I decided: That would be a superb destination for my mid-career crisis.

In the Positano brochures, they tell you about the view: the impossible blue of the sea, the colorful buildings socketed like Legos into the craggy hillside, the narrow alleyways of shops and restaurants. What they don’t tell you about are the waves.  If you step out onto one of the hotel’s many patios, you can hear them lapping the shore, along with the shriek of gulls and the heavy, heart-gladdening clang of church bells so close you feel their pealing behind your breastbone. The sounds are mysteriously welcoming, like returning to a home of your imagination. In the distance, at about 2 o’clock as you look to the horizon, lie three islands called Le Galli, home to the sirens, the mythic creatures whose song lured sailors to their doom.

I picked up my golden siren key at the front desk with a cheery grazie mille! and threaded my way through the maze of staircases and hallways to find my room. The door opening should have been accompanied by a harp flourish — this was luxury. Beyond the all-white canopied bed and brightly inlaid floor sat a private balcony with a perfect view of the pebbled Spiaggia Grande beach, the hillside, and the glittering tiled dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. Off the short hallway of the suite, a marble bath. I mean, a marble bath — floors, counters, walls. The tub had jacuzzi jets and a rainshower. This is some J-Lo level shit, I thought.


Before dinner on the first night, all 30 Sirenlanders convened for a meet-and-greet cocktail hour on the poolside patio, buffed by the amethyst twilight. It bears reminding: There are internal and cultural obstacles to writing as a parentto writing, especially, as a mother, to writing as a woman in a deeply sexist world. We have to juice ourselves up to run out from under the dictates of pretentious “show don’t tell” straight, white guy stankLet's not forget the temptation to modulate our voices for acceptance and prestige. To step up to the plate and swing at all requires a certain courage. We could’ve gone on a wellness retreat or a whitewater rafting adventure or taken a week of cooking classes at one of Positano’s many other inns. Instead, we were here, with a spiral-bound collection of class pages and our hearts in our hands.

Each Sirenlander drew a number from a basket as we entered the hotel restaurant, and I found a spot at Table 12, nestled among twinkling fairy lights woven into the branches of the potted lemon trees. The workshop was 80% women and vastly white. I seated myself between a divorcing screenwriter from LA and a world traveler who lives all around the globe but prefers New York City.


I’m always self-conscious, as we all are, to qualify myself professionally upon introduction. We know the drill, what constitutes stellar success: A New York Times bestseller, brilliant reviews, rights sold to a raft of foreign markets, a movie deal, maybe even an anointing from Oprah. The book’s pub date heralded by so many publications and editors and influencers and terrifically loyal friends rushing in to amplify and exalt, you needn’t fret about looking careerist or craven in seeking publicity or visibility. This is the trajectory Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful "Wild" took, so my friend Marie and I call such outrageous fortune “the Full Cheryl.” As a middling performer, I've only glimpsed it from afar.

More than my weird job history, my sexual orientation or my lifelong struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, I feel most vulnerable around my underperformance. Like, for all the ways I may be out of plumb with the conventional female ideal, I had hoped I would end up buttressed by material and critical success: Well, yes, she’s a mutant, but look at all she’s done. Success will not only make me secure, I’d always told myself, it will make me safe. But here I am, mid-career, with a cratering freelance horizon, a piddly platform and a declining sales track. I may as well introduce myself as “scared shitless.” Sono io.

At a table at the far side of the room, Gilbert held court with her all-female table mates. Having sent her fan mail ages ago, prior to the "Eat, Pray, Love" explosion, we’d since exchanged pleasantries across social media but had never met. I walked over, said hi, and we hugged, circling each other with happy Labrador sniffs. Then she leapt up to go check in with her new boyfriend, seated at another table, and I grabbed her chair to chat with the girls. When she came back, she scanned for a place to sit, and I patted my thighs. She folded in, and that’s how dinner ended — with dessert and Liz Gilbert perched on me, her own personal tuffet.

* * *

The next day, as writer-in-residence, Gilbert kicked off a two-part workshop based in part on her book "Big Magic," an enthusiastic call to creativity. As a facilitator, she's a cross between Pippi Longstocking and a life coach. Her first exercise is an itemization of our fears. She remarked that virtually everyone she has ever had in workshop is afraid of going broke. “'Eat, Pray, Love' made me rich,” she said wryly, “and even I’m afraid of running out of money.” Everyone twittered. Her comment marked the first and only nod to the collective financial station of the attendees.

Nothing is gained by pretending that writers workshops, retreats and even, to a degree, university writing programs aren’t the province of the privileged. No one in Positano is here on scholarship, and the cost for the workshop alone is $5,000 (plus airfare, ground transportation, and most meals). Yawning at a pre-workshop breakfast (provided gratis by the hotel, and decadent enough to make Caligula blush), I snapped alert when I noticed I was sharing cappuccino and gossip with a woman wearing a $750 Hermes Clic Clac bracelet and a woman in $500 Golden Goose sneakers. Later, as I ate my dinner of pasta puttanesca (calculated cost $19USD) at Restaurant Bruno, I wasn’t sure how, or if, to contribute to the conversation when a couple of gals at the table began discussing their vineyards.

Please understand, I’m not a wraith in sackcloth among the tinseled brides of fortune. I paid my way to Positano after all. But it was a splurge, one that put me at odds with how exactly I will fund my SEP-IRA this year. When one conference attendee, a serial workshop-hopper, suggested I might try Squaw Valley next, I restrained myself from blurting out, “You buying?”


I have more assumptions about the wealthy than I have actual experience with them. I was learning that such assumptions don’t serve me, and aren’t particularly kind. Not everyone came from or married into money, for one thing. And it takes a special kind of Grinch to begrudge the prosperity of a daughter of refugees turned cancer researcher, or a woman whose family was so poor when she was growing up they didn’t have a car to drive her to her first day of college. Wealth does not automatically make someone an asshole. I needed this reminder.

Sometimes, I'm the asshole. I needed that reminder, too.

Liz, our trusty inspirational elf, pivoted away from fear (financial and otherwise) to make a strong case for curiosity. If you follow your curiosity instead of your fear, she asked, where might you go? Her next assignment was to make a list of all our enchantments — things big or small that make us feel well, engaged, and happy to be alive. I balked. It sounded so . . . indulgent. I’m an old punk rock cuss. No, I do not want to make a dopey “enchantments” list. I will not do it on an enchanted plane, I will not do it on an enchanted train.

Then I remembered why I came here. To break the frame.


I made my list.

* * *

I will tell you something else about affluence that I hadn’t fully taken in until I got to Sirenland: It smells amazing. The oily aroma of citrus flower hung heavy in the hotel common spaces, emanating from the countless potted lemon trees dotted with star-like white blossoms. The salt-kissed breeze off the Tyrrhenian Sea had a gentleness so different than the briny punch of the quartz-green Jersey shore Atlantic I’m used to. Meandering the shop-lined alleys of Positano, I inhaled the scent of newly cut leather, citronella, and warm, fresh waffles poised to be topped with gelato. Even the hotel’s L’eau D’Italie bath products smelled sublime, and you know darn well I loaded up my travel kit with every bottle of lotion, shampoo, conditioner and bath gel I could get my sybaritic mitts on.

I begged off the evening gatherings in the bar in favor of a hot bath, so I could mull over an idea that had become something of an obsession — a project about life after sex work, how connection evolves and endures in marginalized communities, and the wild ride of commodifying myself at a young age. The idea both terrifies and seduces me. One problem I faced in getting it out into the world was, a publishing professional said, my rickety social media presence. The irony wasn’t lost on me, this desire to write a high-stakes book about reckoning with viewing myself as a commodity, only to be stayed by the cautionary comment that I need to work on my platform. My brand. In other words, in order to sell a book that is in part about seeing myself as a product, I had to make myself more attractive as a product.

Be yourself, but viral.


In a non-fiction book proposal, you present a Competition and Market Analysis, listing existing titles that resemble yours — your “comps,” like in real estate. You liken your book to the others, with enough of a twist that illustrates how you and your book are similar enough to sell well but different enough to be a necessary addition to the market. The point is to create a grabby elevator pitch: “My book is Kiese Laymon’s 'Heavy' crossed with 'The Hunger Games' or “My journey is like that of Tara Westover, but she ends up at a tattoo parlor instead of Harvard” or “I see myself as The Ina Garten of Personal Finance.” What is the comp for an essay-quilt that encompasses sex work, spirituality, feminism, femme queerness, Goth and punk music, mental illness,  the AIDS crisis, church in its myriad forms, politics and, as one must center these days, trauma? But, you know, I make it fashion.

I lay in the spa tub, thinking up options:

Bimbo Leslie Jamison

Roxane Gay 2: Becky Boogaloo


Titty Bar Anne Lamott

I was seated in the jaws of the grim paradox of being genuine but relatable and also bankable. I pulled myself out of my head long enough to remember that I was also seated in an exquisite marble bath with jacuzzi jets and enough fluffy white towels to blanket all of the Amalfi coast.

I opened the hot water spigot and lay back as the jets massaged my lower back and the soles of my feet, the ritzy fragrance of L’eau D’Italie — billed on the packet as the smell of sun-warmed terracotta, wild herbs and lemon flowers, the salty sea breeze, incense from the churches after the evening Mass —­wafting from the surface. I closed my eyes.

Titty Bar Anne Lamott. Definitely.

* * *

I applied to Sirenland because of this year’s guest workshop leader, Alexander Chee. Even as a clerk at A Different Light bookstore on Castro Street where I met him in passing in the early '90s, he was marked for stardom, shelving books and bagging purchases with his own desultory shimmer. The acclaim heaped upon his latest book, the essay collection “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” is the type of peer success I’m greedy to behold. He survived our plague years, he’s worked hard and helped others along the way. From his involvement in ACT-UP and Queer Nation to his instrumental contributions to the first OutWrite conferences, he exhibits a particular comfort with holding the edges of things.

Having your writing workshopped is sort of like being dissected while still alive — in the case of Sirenland, by nine friendly scientists. They analyze, with benevolent curiosity, the pit and pith of your writing, while you sit, listen and take notes. The writing I brought to workshop featured some of the most difficult I’ve ever done, including a lengthy essay about my worst moments in sex work that I placed for publication three times but kept having to withdraw as the horrors I describe still make me want to vomit or explode in post-traumatic rage.

I felt myself straining to be teacher’s pet. (To his credit, there didn’t appear to be one.) And yet there was something off-putting to me at first about Chee’s demeanor. His default expression when engaging with me, as I perceived it, implied I was being considered and perhaps found wanting.

There are numerous conventions recited to goad you into turning pain into art: You have to be fearless. You have to write into the pain. You have to risk everything. Open a vein! What rarely gets discussed is the blast radius of this all-or-nothing approach.

My classmates wondered why my narrator’s voice was so angry, so defensive, as if assuming a hostile readership. Chee said to them, “When you write about sex work, you’re doing emotional labor for the entire culture.”

Damn if he wasn’t right. So often, when I publish stories about my experience as a stripper and peepshow girl, I end up feeling like a psychic dartboard for everyone’s agita about women, sex, power and representation. The bro who can’t be bothered to view me as human, let alone worthy of credence; the refined lady who works out all her anxiety about competing with porn via veiled attacks; the newbie stripper who declares my perspective on my work “whorephobic” because I don’t dilute my misgivings with sex-positive bromides.

My classmates offered lovely, thoughtful suggestions about how I might rework my pieces to show more self-compassion and less reactive fury.

I waited for Chee to speak, to pump me up with cri de coeur platitudes about fire walks and slitting wrists and bleeding all over the page. But he didn’t. He looked me in the eye and said, slowly and evenly, as if channeling from a fourth-dimensional place, “My concern with you publishing this is that you might retraumatize yourself.”

I felt a mushroom cloud explode in my heart. I had never been seen in this way. I had never been advised to prioritize my emotional well-being over my output.

How then do I navigate that welter of warring opinion and etheric turbulence? I asked. How do I present a searching and honest account, when every statement sets off a firestorm?

Chee’s advice sent the entire group’s pens scratching across the page: “Tell yourself the truth first.”

* * *

A few weeks prior, I had attended a panel on writing about trauma at Yale anchored by Roxane Gay. Her fellow panelists were Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Terese Marie Mailhot, Aubrey Hirsch, and Saeed Jones. I showed up already starstuck, in the dazzle-goggles we wear near artists who, we assume, have what we want. What they said about writing trauma, by turns, was that you can pour your pain into a book with exquisite, gut-wrenching detail and have people still doubt you, have the agony still stalk you. In some respects, the publishing process itself amplifies your pain and alienation. Your anguish commercialized, you become an exhibit in the Trauma Zoo.

Writers are drawn, for earnest reasons, to the idea of writing our way to healing. And it is easy to say, well, the trauma already took place. Let me make sense of it through story, let me reap the bounty of it. What gets lost in that thinking is that once you tell your story, it is no longer entirely yours. The panelists elucidated the cost of taking your pain public. Jones likened publishing work about trauma to walking into a hurricane. When he said something along the lines of no amount of success in the world makes up for the worst night of your life, I realized I was sweating through my shirt.

* * *

The fourth night of Sirenland, a rainstorm churned the water. Angry waves crashed against the seawall. I opened my patio doors and let them thunder. It’s lovely when a sunny day can snap you out of yourself. But don’t you feel blessed on the dark nights when the weather meets you where you are?

I tossed and turned in the 800-count Frette sheets, wondering how the fuck I could publish a book about my own emotional third rail when I couldn’t bring myself to publish one article. What if I wrote this book, awakened all that anguish, and nuked myself all over again? What if I want to do this not because I’m artistically curious but because I’m drawn to the peril of it?

Those men who perished upon the rocks for surrendering to the sirens’ euphonious call are the myth’s tragic protagonists—the cautionary tale we embrace. But the storyline that gets lost is that the sirens themselves would die if a mortal resisted their beckoning.

For those of us addicted to danger, we can find in our journeys that we are sailor and siren both.

I prayed into the natural rage of the night: If I sail toward that alluring melody, will it wreck me? If nobody hears my song, will I die?

* * *

After dinner one evening, I found myself trudging up the hill toward the hotel next to longtime Sirenland instructor, novelist Jim Shepard.

I hadn’t spent any time with Jim and Karen Shepard, the George Burns and Gracie Allen of Sirenland, but I’d glimpsed their warmth and largesse in passing. They joked around a lot. Jim, especially, had a calibrated sarcasm, like a guy who’s lived enough to know that a little salt can add flavor, but too much can poison.

Jim, salty Jim of the push broom mustache and the big laugh, asked me how I was doing.

Why not just name the fear that brought me here? “I’m kind of afraid my career is over.”

He flung an arm around my shoulder, Chin-up, slugger! style. “I can tell you about at least nine different writers I know who were sure their careers were over, then they wrote what was really in their heart, and that was when they had their first big hit.”

Maybe I have to pry apart desperation and desire. Maybe I have to stop saying to the marketplace, “there is no me without you,” and instead turn an ear to the stories that call out, “But there is no me without you.”

The sirens were singing again.

* * *

On departure day, I approached Chee where he sat alone at breakfast and asked him sign my copy of his collection. He considered my request. Seriously, what is the deal with this guy? Then I realized: He wasn’t judging. He was listening. To me. An actual man pausing, thinking, then giving a thought-out reply. I’m so used to being discounted by men, talked over, brushed off, dismissed over a lack of fuckability or professional usefulness, that a guy taking a moment before engaging with me was so extraordinary as to be unidentifiable.

The inscription read, “Here’s to whatever you choose to do next.” He knew that more than I needed validation or creative counsel, I needed an escape hatch.

Perhaps the transformative alchemy — the Big Magic, if you will — occurs in the space between what you’re afraid of and what you long for. Maybe compassion, as much as curiosity, gets you there.

I doubt I’ll ever completely stop seeing myself, and my work, as a commodity. But I can at least now intuit a greater worth beyond the number of followers I have, how many units I can move, beyond even how I’ve experienced myself.

The siren song of this book will be broken down, note by note — the trills of literary conquest, the wily rhythm of my daredevil heart. I will ask myself as I go: Why am I doing this? Is it curiosity, or is it compulsion? Chee’s caution at least bought me a beat or two to examine all possibilities. His inscription was the gift of an open door.

* * *

Hannah Tinti, the foundational rock of Sirenland, reminds me of a boho children’s librarian who slides you an approving look when you check out books above your reading level. She carries an Edgar Allen Poe print tote bag and wears cat-eye glasses. Each year, she gives out wishing stones collected from the Positano beach — dark, with a white band that wraps unbroken all the way around. Throw yours into a body of water, she instructs, and make your Sirenland wish.

My waking image the morning my alarm rang on Sirenland’s final day was winding through the empty Positano alleyways, back to the pebbly beach. In the distance, the three islands lay like slumbering forms, host to myth and vision. I raised my arm back, and, in an arc of motion, threw my wishing stone into the infinite winking blue.

I closed my eyes as the stone left my fingers, sailing through the air toward Le Galli. I want to be one with the sea, the sunlight, and the dark night winds that churn the tide. I want to swim toward that song.

This is my wish.

Risk is my enchantment.

I belong to the sirens now.

Lily Burana

Lily Burana is the author of four books, most recently, “Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith” (W/Harper). Follow her @lilyburana

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