Summer Writing Workshops in Greece Imagine an island awash in a turquoise sea — and your own writing room with a balcony overlooking the blue. Yes, sort of like Lawrence Durrell, when he wrote Prospero’s Cell. Imagine working intensely for a few hours at your desk, then plunging into the sea to revitalize your brain and body. Imagine workshopping your new fiction and essays together with writers from all over the world and sharing exquisite meals of fresh produce, fish, and cheese, accompanied by the robust reds and tangy white wines of this sunbaked soil. These and other impressions are all yours at the Aegean Arts Circle where I had the pleasure of leading workshops for a couple of years. This year’s group is taught by Kitsi Watterson. Previous teachers include Thomas E. Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler. There may be a place or two left. Contact Amalia Melis at the website linked above for information.
If you can’t join the fun this year — try your hand at these exercises from my 2016 workshop Ten Writing Prompts on the Theme of Islands
Or check out this video interview with director Amalia Melis here
“This is a book about how to enhance our awareness of places and find in the environments around us inspiration and material for artistic and writing projects . It’s very much a personal journey, retracing my own creative process and discoveries as a writer, reader, teacher, and traveler. Its most basic premise is that there is a power or energy at work in certain places that speaks directly to our imaginations and nourishes them.
Many writers, artists, photographers, psychogeographers have recorded eloquent testimonies of the ways particular places have inspired them, and it would take to long to share even a few. They boil down to a few concepts: “Landscape is character,” in the words of Henry James. For Lawrence Durrell, “We are expressions of our landscape.” And the houses and rooms we live in, are analogues for the self. We keep up an ongoing dialogue with the places we live of which we are totally unaware. Houses and landscape inhabit us just as much as we inhabit them.”
In 2014, I was invited by the Center for North American Studies at Christian Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany to participate in a creative writing project sponsored by the Jubilee fund. Among the special events organized to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of the university was an undergraduate literature and writing course in English, focusing on Writing the City, taught by Prof. Barbara Röckl and teaching assistant Dr. Tristan Kugland. I was brought in during the last phase to help students create a literary guidebook to their town, featuring places, itineraries, and atmospheres of particular interest to the student population.
Kiel, not far from Hamburg, and previously a Danish city, was quite a discovery for me and September proved to be an excellent time to visit. Lonely Planet’s description of the place as grottenhässlich — ugly as sin – just doesn’t do justice to this vibrant and hospitable university town, which hosts both the world’s largest sailing event as well as one of Europe’s most prestigious universities. Kiel is a fascinating patchwork of ambiences. From the dizzying heights of the rathaus clock tower, as straying gulls dip near your nose, you may enjoy a view of the naval yards, the harbor, the new town, and the countryside – while in the lower depths of the building, you may meditate on somber sculptures commemorating the suffering of the people of Kiel under the allied bombs which destroyed much of the town during World War II.
The university’s sprawling, modern campus is well-connected to the city center with buses, which unlike Rome’s transport system, seem to have been made in heaven. Its quiet neighborhoods are interspersed with lush nature parks inhabited by boar and bison. In its traditional coffee shops, ladies meet to sip hot beverages and taste delectable cakes made with chocolate, ginger, berries, whipped cream — Barbara and I sampled a few during my stay.
But the port is the main attraction. Splendidly situated on the Kiel fjord, the sea front area seems to stretch to infinity, mingling sea and sky. In the harbor, antique sailing ships, cruisers, and ferries bound for Sweden, Norway, and Russia, energize you with their constant movement and promise of imminent departure: you just want to grab your bag and hop aboard for adventure.
During my stay, the class met every morning to work on materials, prompts, themes, and exercises drawn from my craft book The Soul of Place, to ferret out the heart of this Baltic sea port, producing pieces of flash fiction and memoirs deeply imbued with the genius loci. I was very impressed by the students’ superior linguistic skills – by the unique range of their talents, backgrounds, and interests and by the quality of their prose, which speaks highly of the standards maintained by the German scholastic system. Beyond that, their knack for writing, powers of observation, curiosity and enthusiasm were truly extraordinary. Some students were already skilled writers — poets and journalists. One or two discovered they had a talent for writing in English which they had not expected.
A brewery haunted by a medieval monk, a bar resembling the entryway to the underworld, a treacherous labyrinth beneath the rathaus where we thought we had lost one of the students during our guided tour, windswept beaches, a stadium where the local team always loses, a laundromat where the rhythm of the washers produces its own poetry, a flea market, a no man’s land of squats and gardens torn down to build a megastore, lonely bus stops, old salts hanging around the port reminiscing on old times, the fishy salt tang of kieler sprotte or mouth- puckering desserts made of sugarless plums only for connoisseurs, a tower where a lover dreams of flying – these were among the subjects of the pieces written during the course.
The students kept working for several more months, followed by a phase of long-distance editing and selection of only 36 pieces from among many more for the book, coordinated by Prof. Röckl. A search for a publisher followed, and thanks to Barbara Röckl’s persistence, arrangements were made with Wachholtz Murmann Publishers to publish FEEL KIEL the Ultimate Kiel Guide for Urban Explorers in 2016. The photos by Finja Dirksdóttir blend sleek, post-modern street photography techniques with stunning landscapes and elegant architectural shots. Each prose piece is accompanied by a photo and a short description of the place and its role in the town.
This highly subjective, elective, personal, and even quirky guide charts out a tour of Kiel, which visitors and long time residents alike, won’t want to miss, in search of that unique quality– the true essence of place. I was delighted to be part of this project and immensely proud of the students and the book they produced. Thanks again to Barbara and Tristan for including me, and to the students for their fabulous work. Order your copy from amazon de https://www.amazon.de/Kiel-ultimate-Guide-Urban-Explorers/dp/3529051314
Again this year, I had the great good fortune to lead the Creative Writing Workshop organized on the Cycladic island of Andros by the Aegean Arts Circle founded by artist and writer Amalia Melis. This year marked the fifteenth anniversary of the summer workshop, first held in 2002. Given the climate of uncertainty pervading so many cultural endeavors and institutions in these times of economic crisis, it is remarkable that the Aegean Arts Circle has continued to thrive, and attract writers from all over Europe and the US. Past instructors include Dorothy Allison, Thomas E Kennedy, David Lazar, and Robert Owen Butler.
Half of the workshoppers were “returnees” coming back to a setting they loved in order to move forward with projects — one participant had even been present at the very first workshop back in 2002. Others instead were newcomers and some had never been to Greece before.
Our group of gifted writers included a professional British journalist working on her first novel, in the dystopic vein. We also had a professor of philosophy from a prestigious US college working on a memoir about his teaching experiences in an exciting experimental school, an inspirational blogger writing hilariously about her life as a pet sitter, a diplomat writing an autobiographical novel that hinges on a search for mysterious origins, a poet with a background in science who started her first novel at the workshop, a survivor interned during the Second World War, writing of her childhood in the camp, the daughter of a sea-going family of many generations writing about her love affair with boats, a Greek-English writer working on a multivoiced novel entwining two generations of islanders, and Greek American writer working on a second novel, set in Greece.
As usual we were hosted by the Andros Holiday Hotel, a magnificent structure with spacious, air conditioned rooms and huge private terraces overlooking the water, wifi, salt water pool, private beach, and a first rate chef who prepared luscious traditional Greek meals accompanied by lots of salads, vegetables, and fine local wine.
During class time, we critiqued two manuscripts per session submitted prior to the workshop, did free writes, and shared writing exercises done as homework. The focus for the workshop was “World Building” in the larger sense – how we translate, transform and reconstruct the world around us in our writing. We took some inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s essays “Life and the Novelist” and “A Sketch of the Past,” to examine our own writing process. From where do our new ideas , stories, characters and imagery come? We also took a few tips from T.S. Eliot’s essay on the Metaphysical Poets to enquire into how our minds select random details from our experience and reassemble them in meaningful ways.
We began by scrutinizing our immediate environment and recent experiences to find imagery or stories we might otherwise have overlooked, calling all the senses into play. Woolf says that although writers “can no more cease to receive impressions than a fish in mid-ocean can cease to let the water rush through his gills,” they must learn to master their sensibility and make it serve their purposes. Our first day, we discussed the ways the creative impulse first manifests when we start writing a new piece – for some it begins with one or more characters suddenly piping up in the mind’s ear. For others places and settings generate stories and characters. Others found that intensely personal stories worked themselves out through imaginary characters and plots in exotic settings. For yet others, a striking image set a story in motion.
CHARACTER was another area of intense investigation. We looked at Woolf’s idea in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown” on the challenge of rendering a complete character
PLACE was another major topic. “Fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of What happened, Who’s here? Who’s coming? And that is the heart’s field” writes Eudora Welty. We discussed the ways places can express emotion, manifest consciousness, or become a character as Lawrence Durrell suggests.
Lawrence Durrell “Landscape IS character”
Eudora Welty “Fiction depends for its life on place”
Early on in the workshop, we remarked how so many of the stories we were telling hinged on the Quest Motif and we explored the ways that pattern fit our projects. POINT OF VIEW , PLOT STRUCTURES, DUAL TIMELINES, and BACKSTORY were key issues.
Workshop events included group gourmet dinners attended also by local writers and friends of the Workshop, private readings in the evening from work-in-progress, a public reading at which I read from Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, winner of the 2013 Daphne Du Maurier Award, and a public showing of 2 video shorts by Sergio Baldassarre – The Professor’s Teeth and his newest SF fairy tale, The Cosmic Omelette.
It was sad to leave our island. After nine nights and eight days of intense work, we had formed a real community and we all had made headway on the projects we had come with.
TWO EXERCISES FROM THIS YEAR’S WORKSHOP
From Homer’s catalogue of ships in the Iliad, to James Joyce’s inventory of the objects in Bloom’s drawer in Ulysses, lists are tools for world building. List-making also can be a dynamic generative exercise when exploring characters or settings. Novelist and critic Umberto Eco has praised lists as the origin of culture, for they impose order on chaos; we love lists, he claims, because we don’t want to die.
MAKE A LIST – fiction writers : choose a character and make a list, using the ideas below for inspiration. Memoir writers, focus on a setting or episode and make a list related to it.
contents of a drawer, medicine chest, kitchen cupboard, pocket, purse, tool kit, mess kit, trunk
articles of clothing for a special occasion
mistakes, lovers, enemies,
births, deaths, illnesses
Free Write: The Keys to the Kingdom Free associate. What does this expression mean to you?