Sunday, March 29, 2015

in which i heed the siren call of a dreamy writing workshop

1. nice work if you can get it


It's all fun and postcard views till Mt. Vesuvius gets pissed off again.
This is the view from my window right now (well, it was when I started this post). You might be thinking: What is someone with an eight-week-old child doing tossing back cappuccinos on the Amalfi Coast of Italy? It was certainly a question I asked myself.

As with many things in my literary life, I applied to this workshop called Sirenland on a whim. I heard about it through One Story (Hannah Tinti is one of the conference co-founders), a literary magazine which recently sent me an encouraging rejection. In my mind, “encouraging rejection from One Story” = “various famous writers really want me to hang out with them in Italy.” The pictures of Positano, Italy, where it took place, looked pretty. There was a mermaid motif. I get along well with mermaids.

Trash can at Le Sirenuse. I felt bad putting trash in it.
I found out I was accepted to Sirenland on the same day I talked to Dash’s birthmom for the first time. I have a stupid, self-defeating superstition that when things go well academically, they’re about to take a dive personally. Because why should I get to be a mom and a writer? But here I am (thanks to a birthday/Christmas present from my dad, support from AK and babysitting from Nana), in Positano, working on my memoir about defeating my self-defeating superstitions and becoming a mom.

Nana and Dash reading "Peanut Butter and Jeremy."
Positano: a pastel mosaic of tile-roofed houses built on the side of a cliff, overlooking a beach where bits of terra cotta wash up on the black sand. According to legend, locals built the many, many stone staircases unevenly so that invading pirates would have a hard time chasing them up the mountains. (This would not be a terribly reassuring form of protection, especially since the pursued had to run up the same staircases.) Pirates got their comeuppance when a Byzantine portrait of Madonna and child became possessed and started yelling, “Put me back! Put me back!” They freaked out and dropped her in the ocean. She washed up on the beach and now hangs in the domed church visible from my hotel window.

Beach terra cotta.
More recently, Positano inspired Patricia Highsmith to write The Talented Mr. Ripley and John Steinbeck to write a funny and enticing essay about Positano. It would be a nice club to join.

In this storied little village is a storied little hotel called Le Sirenuse, once the summer home of the storied Sersale family, who converted it to a hotel sometime after the Second World War and who still run it, applying a world traveler’s sensibility and a curator’s eye. It is probably the nicest place I will ever stay, both in terms of luxury and charm. Bougainvillea vines grow up the curved arches of the hotel restaurant. The staff memorizes who you are and what you like to drink immediately.

If I were a mermaid, I would crawl out of the ocean and lurch up the beach just to stay here.

My bed at home is smaller, and frequently sleeps three humans and three cats.
In my room, I recognized the sound of Lamby, Dash’s stuffed sheep who makes soothing ocean noises. Then I realized it was actually the ocean.

After a hot shower—and just showering every day is pretty fancy when you have a baby—I reached for a towel and was surprised by how small it was. Then I realized that was actually the hand towel, and the bath towels—roughly the size of a twin bed—were over there on the heated towel rack.

Most of the attendees were blown away by Positano and Le Sirenuse, but they were nevertheless a somewhat posh crowd, as you can imagine. They tended to be white women of a certain age, some of whom had their supportive, high-earning husbands in tow. I say this without judgment, because most were also kind and worldly and, if the memoir workshop was any indication, had taken their share of lumps in life. And even though I have a tendency to act like Annie in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion (“Oh boy! What do I clean first?!”), privilege is always relative. I was there, after all. I am a white woman of a certain age. As I left, I saw a Facebook post from a Homeboy trainee who was excited and nervous about her first plane ride, to Syracuse, New York.

In the TV room with Tamara, Alice, Lucinda and Katie: incredibly good writers and good company.
Dani Shapiro’s workshop met each day—after a breakfast of smoked salmon, local mozzarella, homemade granola and little tarts full of butter and crushed pistachios—in the “TV room,” a breezy nook with tile floors, elegant chairs and no television in sight. It took on the immediate and lovably absurd intimacy that such things do. A woman cried when we went around the circle and described what we were working on, and it wasn’t even me.

A particularly outspoken woman named Sarla—a yoga teacher in her early sixties who screamed and gave me a spontaneous hug the day she found out her husband’s roasted coffee had been accepted into Whole Foods—asked me about my boob job on the first day of class. I took it as a compliment. She explained nonchalantly that she’d had two lumpectomies and was getting fed up with it. If she got cancer again, they were coming off. Sarla also asked Tamara, who’d written about her attraction to women, if she was still with her husband (she is).

2. skip this part if you think that reading about writing is boring

I had submitted three excerpts from my memoir-in-progress, about the whole miscarriage-breakdown-cancer-baby thing. Imagine showing up at a party thinking that you’re wearing a stylish outfit that you haven’t yet had tailored, then discovering that, in fact, you wore your underwear. That’s kind of how I felt after my critique.

“But it was really beautiful underwear,” someone told me after I shared this analogy. And it’s true that it wasn’t a harsh critique.

Dani Shapiro: so nice and smart you barely notice that she's telling you it might take five more years to nail this draft.
I heard some things which I probably shouldn’t have had to fly to Italy to figure out; namely, that my draft was underwear. I introduced the project saying that I was taking a “scrapbook” approach—partly because I wanted to play with form (and I still do), partly because I AM LAZY AND WAS HOPING THAT ALL THE GLORIFIED JOURNAL ENTRIES I WROTE STARTING IN 2012 ADDED UP TO A MEMOIR AND ALL I NEEDED TO DO WAS SPELL-CHECK AND ADD A FEW FLASHBACKS.

Yeah, that’s not gonna cut it.

There was a lot of talk throughout the week about voice, some of which I almost tried to tune out because it felt like thinking about driving or breathing. Something that could fuck you in the head if you thought about it too much. But Dani did say a couple of things that I scribbled in big letters in my notebook:
  1. The story is the distance between who you were then and who you are now.
  2. You can use your “now” voice to give words to your “then” character. If you’re writing about childhood, you may describe the light that spread like fire beneath the door whenever your father came in your bedroom at night (that piece was as disturbing as it sounds). The child version of you would have had complex emotions and observations, but would have lacked the language to describe them. You gift the child with language when you inhabit her.
  3. A memoir requires a frame, which could be made by time or theme.
  4. You can write from the center of a thing if you have sufficient self-awareness.
  5. But the notes and journals made at the time may not serve you as well as memory does.
Dani, speaking from her own experience, encouraged me not to get too hung up on the pile of journal entries that got me through my cancer treatment and beyond. I wrote them as if I was looking back from a slightly safer and happier place, a wonderful narrative survival technique that may become a literary clusterfuck. They were written as memoir-from-the-center-of-a-thing, but I don’t know yet how they read. I have an unfortunate habit of not listening to good advice that I’m not ready to hear (I guess most people do), but I’m going to do my best not to let another year or another draft go by before I finally see the red flag Dani was gently waving.

Doodle of Dani's advice to Ana (and all memoirists). (Note previous photo: Dani does not have weird lips in real life.)
After talking with her and taking some cues from my classmates, my next step, I think, is going to be to write the events of 2010 to 2011 in third person. I’m shamelessly stealing that approach from Karen Gentry, a wonderfully spare writer and subversively funny woman in my workshop. I started doing a bit of this my second day in Positano, and it felt right and exciting. It would have to be, in order for me to stay inside despite a sparkling ocean and much of Southern Italy at my disposal.

One of the things I’m writing about is the time when I became a disastrously unreliable narrator in my own life. It’s easier to write about your craziest self in the third person.

After that, I’ll tackle the 2012 to 2015 stuff. What I was surprised to hear in my workshop were comments like “This narrator obviously doesn’t see herself as a victim,” “She compromises over and over but just keeps moving forward” and “She’s so humorous, but I wonder if that’s not a deflection—I want to see some real pain.”

As a person, this is refreshing to hear. I feel like I threw a four-year temper tantrum (“the howl of thwarted ambition,” in the wise words of Carrie Brownstein), so the idea that I might be good-humored, pragmatic and/or uncomplaining often feels like wishful thinking. But here were strangers saying I was just that!

Then again…as a writer, the idea that I might unwittingly perform a coping mechanism on the page is embarrassing, not to mention unproductive from a literary standpoint.

And if I were the person and writer I aspire to be, I probably would have put more pain on the page and spared my family, friends, coworkers and innocent bystanders at Starbucks.

You can write to figure out what you think (did Joan Didion say that?), and I did/do. It might be harder to write to figure out what you feel. 

3. life beyond le sirenuse

When I wasn’t contemplating my underwear-clusterfuck of a memoir, I was usually eating seafood or pasta, or drinking wine or a Negroni. On Thursday night I had a lovely dinner with Frank, the father of co-worker Alexa, who just happens to live in Positano. Over a huge dish of seafood soup, swimming with miniature lobsters and tiny purple octopi, he told me most of the Positano facts and legends mentioned above. He grew up in New York, the kid of Italian immigrants, but he’s lived in Positano for something like fifteen years. He knew everyone who passed by our table, from waiters to tourists.

Appetizer at Tres Sorelle restaurant.

Negroni at the hotel bar. New favorite drink alert!
We talked about the double-edged sword of American ambition, meditation and UFO’s.

Earlier that day, I did my one big calorie-burner of the week, a two-hour hike along the Walk of the Gods, a trail at the top of the bluffs. It goes for quite a ways, but my workshop-mate Tamara and I just did the part between Positano and Priano, which was plenty. Tamara is an Australian who calls England home but currently lives in Jordan. She submitted a beautiful and tightly written essay about being a “hasbian” speculating about the sexuality of her personal trainer in a conservative Muslim country. It’s good stuff, and I hope she writes a whole book.

We talked about identity, rebellion and motherhood—whether it ambushes you or eludes you, and how similar those things can feel—and L.A. and Jordan and The L Word.

Mortal on the Walk of the Gods.

The vertical life.
We stopped for cake and lemonade at a tiny cliff-side shack. We ran into a herd of goats wearing bells and their minder, who all seemed straight out of another century. Another hiker described them as “full of latte.” I wouldn’t have minded a grande at that point.

We made our way on jello legs to the small town of Priano, a place of cobblestone streets and moth-eaten sweaters, where young kids played soccer in a church courtyard.

Most of the world has too little and some of the world has too much, but you get the feeling that Southern Italy has unintentionally found some sort of sustainable middle ground. Everyone was growing cabbage and lemons in small tiered plots on the side of the hill.

We asked about a cab, and they summoned a professorial-looking man who was eating an orange popsicle. He called a friend and soon we had a ride back to Le Sirenuse.

I think everyone at Sirenland would agree that the best night was Wednesday, when the Sersales hosted dinner and an open mic at their home, which looks like an extension of Le Sirenuse, right down to the colorful embroidered pillows. We ate pasta and prawns and tiny cakes sopping wet with some sort of delicious liqueur.

Students stood in front of the fireplace and read pieces that were funny (see Jonathan’s “The Panther in the Closet” and Karen’s meta piece about trying to describe a writing workshop to her husband over a bad phone connection: “It’s not crying like ‘boo hoo hoo,’ it’s crying like ‘the beauty, the humanity’”) or intense (Sandra’s story about a bulimic teenage girl who daydreams about being a high-priced prostitute) or sad (Antonio Sersale’s homage to his late father, whom many of the people present knew). Lauren ended the night by playing “Over the Rainbow” on her guitar, and I thought of my mom and felt grateful and sad.

There were times this week when I missed Dash so much I thought he was a figment of my imagination (although how egotistical is that?)—when it felt like I would somehow be starting from scratch upon returning home—but I’m just a few hours away now.

[Editor’s note: Home at last! Happy to return to the land of Dashaboo and AK, cats and friends, and readily available almond milk.]

Good night, everyone.


1 comment:

Claire said...

Wow, what an amazing week! Congratulations on getting to go to such a fantastic location for a writing workshop.

And welcome home!