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Blog(s) and Ruminations

The wonder of workshops

In these days of Covid-19-induced social distancing, technology has broadened my world. In a limited space, with limited activity permitted, my writing life has never been so intense. I put that down to Zoom-enabled workshops.


Our local writers' group moved to Zoom in the early days of France's "confinement." Shortly afterwards, it more or less fell apart, which wasn't the result I'd have anticipated. But we're largely an older crew and therefore categorized here in France as "fragile." Combined with the inevitable changes - people moving away, techno-phobia, and the inescapable fact that even the simplest things take longer - even the core group has succumbed. I have every hope that when brighter days return, the group will rise again, phoenix-like, from the ashes.


And - meanwhile - of course, I joined two workshops. Back to back, just to add a dose of stress and complexity.


Tuesdays with Luke Winter, aka Petit Prance, a Scottish street writer whom I met in Granada, on a terrace overlooking the Alhambra.

Wednesdays with Joni Cole, a professional writer/editor/workshop leader whom I have yet to meet in real life. 


Luke's wonderfully creative  - and this was his first venture into teaching writing, although he writes every day. Give him a theme, a question, a word, an image and he'll write a story for you on the spot. Pay what you want. You get something totally unique, created on an old Olivetti portable with colored-ink ribbon. You can see what he's done and what he's up to now on his website Stories for Strangers. The only two "regulars" in the first workshop were a young man in Santiago, Chile...and me. Lots of prompts, lots of free writing for timed intervals, lots of alternating intensity and silliness. I loved every minute. My Chilean friend and I even did an extra-curricular project - creating a translation of a Pushkin poem, "Ya vas lyubil/I loved you." I hope we'll be friends forever. And it's a given that Luke's going to be in my writing life, whether he knows it or not.


Workshopping with Joni was equally joyous and life-giving. And full of information, craft, and coaching. I'm what the French call "accro." Translation - an addict! Witness the fact that now I've done four workshops, two of them with one group of writers, the others with work-shoppers new to me. All I can say is "wow!" Well...no, that's not all, but it's a start. Joni's workshops are a place to bring your writing and have your manuscript be met with respect, understanding, and suggestions which, in my experience, are universally valuable. That doesn't mean taking all the feedback literally, nor does it imply there's a right or wrong "next step," but it's a technique which allows each writer to build on that hard-won draft, refine it, edit it, make it something worth reading and mulling over. Joni's latest book, Good Naked, is that unusual combination - hilarious and genuinely helpful.


I came into Covid-time as a bit of a loner, but I'll be leaving it (when the time comes) a member of a community that stretches from Chile to Scotland to Arizona to Vermont to France...and beyond. A world full of words and wonders. 


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Returning to my roots? ἄριστος Ἀχαιῶν - Achilles, best of the Achaeans

The books I've re-read most frequently are The Iliad and War and Peace, so perhaps it's not surprising that right now I seem to be returning "home" to Greece. To those who love the classics for their stories–who doesn't?—the retellings by Madeline Miller in The Song of Achilles and Circe are engrossing, captivating, rich in images and in language, just as the originals are. (At least in the excerpts I've read in Greek) 

It's also tempting to follow Ms Miller's example and look for a proven formula. Perhaps that's a way forward for my currently-stymied attempt to sort out the plot of Danish Hospitality...or whatever it's going to be called. 

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Flying kimonos, flying beds - story threads

A fellow writer asked me recently whether I'd lived in Japan. The short answer is "no." The longer is more complicated. I was lucky enough to work there, with colleagues I respected and admired, and who more or less "adopted" me - arranging a tea ceremony, giving me a wonderful photo of a camellia in a vase (after measuring my suitcase to see if it would fit), regaling me with stories of how their wives handled the family pocket money, and many other tales. Visiting Tokyo, I always managed to find time to explore on my own, wandering the small alleys, pondering the shrines with red-scarved foxes, eating in tiny restaurants. We participated in the late-night conference calls and I stumbled back to my hotel while my colleagues took the hour-long train ride home. Somewhere in there, Japan lodged itself in my heart. And then...Kyoto. A month, two months...and back again. An elegant man crossed the street, his kimono fluttering in the breeze. Although it's relatively common to see a woman in kimono, it's rare for a man, except at a shrine or temple. Who was he? What prompted him to choose that garb? Almost before I knew it, he stood before me: Yoshi, the protagonist of The Thirteen Hour Man. So...no, I never lived in Japan - but he does.


Kimonos aren't the only things that fly. Beds do, too. At least if you're in Palermo. A scorching hot day, a horse neighing from a stall in a courtyard, a hose connected to the water main running up to a balcony, and another mystery to be solved: who launched that mattress from the third floor? and why? Put it down to a Midsummer fantasy. A dream.  Roberto knows all about those. So does Giovanna. 


On such thin threads are stories woven.

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The power of a writing group

I'm not a joiner. At least it's not what I usually do. But about 3 or 4 years ago, I turned up at a writers group meeting. Since then, it's been quite a ride. The group members have changed, we've gotten more organized, and we seem to have done something which got a lot of us moving.

What we writers often need is a kick-start. Or maybe just a kick, to get started.

Formed "way back" in  1992 or so, the Writers Club of Crossroads in Fontainebleau, the local Anglophone organization, attracted a small group of writers. (I only know that because one of the members is still an active participant.) For years, a changing membership met to do group exercises and discuss each other's stories. Publication was an elusive goal for most. Many of the group even questioned its value.  

Last year that changed with the publication of the anthology, Blue Fountain. It's been an interesting ride since then. Suddenly, even those who questioned the value of publishing were adamant - we have to do another anthology, they announced. New writers joined - and they, too, caught the bug. Now there's a second anthology in the offing, and three members are publishing their works independently, with a fourth in the queue - everybody wants to play. 

Is the second anthology going to be great art? probably not. Neither was the first. But the stories are pretty good and some of them are better than good. The effort itself brought the group together in a new way. The weeks and months ahead are going to be difficult and tiring, but also liberating and exhilirating. 

One of our sister groups got inspired, too..they're publishing in June. We'll publish either then or a little bit earlier. Crossing my fingers for everyone's success and hoping that all the good writers out there will take a deep breath and plunge in. 

I'm still not a joiner. But now I've seen - and experienced - the value of being part of a community of writers. For that, I'm grateful. 


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