Letter from Andros : the Aegean Arts Circle Writing Workshop 2017

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.

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Andros Holiday Hotel

 

 

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View from the Dining Terrace

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.

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A Sketch of the Past in Moments of Being provided inspiration

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

and experimented with Margo Livesey’s recipe for creating characters in which bad characters must have good points and good characters have flaws.  We also looked at some ideas from Donald Maas’  book   Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact  Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14523534-writing-21st-century-fiction

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.

 

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.

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This year’s writers

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

shopping list

articles of clothing for a special occasion

keys

failures

mistakes, lovers, enemies,

births, deaths, illnesses

celebrations

Free Write:  The Keys to the Kingdom     Free associate.  What does this expression mean to you?

More Exercises may be found in The Soul of Place A Creative Writing Workshop: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci  which provided ideas for other workshop activities.

Goodbye  Andros,  hope to see you again next year!  Linda Lappin

Greece Cruise ship
Kalo Taxithi!
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The Talking Heads of Giuseppe Utano in Bolsena

The fanciful sculptures of Giuseppe Utano body forth from the dark pagan heart of Italy pulsing beneath Lake Bolsena…

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The Bolsena Sphinx

One morning a cryptic message flashed across my cell phone: “Have you met the Sphinx in Bolsena yet?”

The text was from a friend who owns a house near  Italy’s secret jewel:  Lake Bolsena, Europe’s largest volcanic lake and the spiritual hub of many cultures. For the Etruscans, this lake was the omphalos, the world navel, where once a year high priests congregated to perform rituals of renewal in the dense woods fringing its banks.  The medieval pilgrim route to Rome, the Francigena, looped around its black, pebbled shores. In May each year in the village of Marta, pagan and Christian traditions interweave in the opulent blessing of the Fish. The dainty footsteps of a saint are pressed upon a miraculous stone beneath an altar in a lakeside church and an island out in the middle was once believed to be the portal to the underworld.  With such a history behind it, I could surely believe sphinxes inhabited Bolsena,  the town from which the lake takes its name, known in Etruscan times as Volsinii.

“Not yet,” I texted back.  “How can I find her?”  Sphinxes are, generally, feminine.

Her reply was puzzling. “Just follow the pot-heads to the castle.”

??Pot heads??

My friend, a genteel English lady of aristocratic bent,  was probably  unfamiliar with the associations that the word “Pot-Head” might have for someone growing up in the seventies.  I wondered if perhaps she had made a  typo and that “Pot heads” might be “Potter Heads” – referring  perhaps to  a book publicity event celebrating the magical escapades of H. Potter, who might have felt quite at home in Bolsena’ s labyrinthine,  medieval streets.

Nevertheless, one cold spring day, we were intrigued enough to set out in search of the sphinx. The air was crisp, the lake unruffled  indigo where  chattering water birds floated and dived.  We parked along an avenue fronted by pastel villas, shaded by stout  linden trees and six-foot high hydrangeas.   Once we had stepped through the gates into the old town,  we  immediately ran into the pot-heads. These were, literally, clay pots shaped like life-size heads whose faces recalled Etruscan gods and ancient Roman ladies, strung up all along the street, suspended by  macramé ropes.  In place of hair, scraggly ferns and ivy sprouted from the tops.

We followed the bobbing heads all the way up to the Etruscan museum , where  a lusty, terracotta sphinx planter crouched at the bottom of a steep flight of steps.  Upon enquiry, we learned that this remarkable creature had been made by a local artist who kept a shop on the main street.   Finding the museum shut,  we climbed back down to look for his shop, but  that was closed as well. So we went off to lunch at Il Moro, a trattoria built over the water, where you have the illusion of being on a  houseboat, and  after a leisurely lunch of local fish,  we wandered back to the shop,  still shuttered tight. “You’ll probably find him in his studio,”  advised the shopkeeper next door, explaining how to get there.  We set off again in the direction of the castle, and when we came to a small yard strewn with terracotta sculptures, we knew we had arrived.

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Inside Mr. Utano’s studio

We rang the bell once, and after a long wait, the artist, looking as though he had just woken up from a nap, answered the door, and graciously invited us in. While he put on a pot of coffee,   we sat down on worn leather chairs drawn up to a  worktable spattered with daubs of dried clay. Row upon row of dusty heads – satyrs, goddesses, nymphs, gargoyles  seemed to observe us as we sipped our espresso.  I could very well imagine Mr. Utano carrying on long conversations with this army of heads.  It occurred to me that when no one was there at night, all those heads chattering together probably made one hell of a noise.

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That was our first trip of many trips to the shop and studio of Mr. Utano, whose fantastical creatures now fill my home and garden.  Utano, a transported Sicilian who studied marble sculpture at the Carusi Workshop in Carrara, has also worked as a painter and restorer, and has even tried his hand at acting.  His fanciful sculptures body forth  from  the dark  pagan heart of Italy pulsing  beneath Lake Bolsena, and from the sun-drenched, temples of Magna Graecia in his Sicilian homeland.

For an artist like Giuseppe Utano  who fishes for iconic figures in the great sea of the unconscious, Bolsena and the surrounding areas of Tuscia and Maremma are a rich terrain for research.  Etruscan tombs with their satyrs, mermaids, chimeras, and masks –  gothic gargoyles and bestiaries,  baroque sculpture gardens, like Villa Lante or Bomarzo, with their sculptural itineraries of enlightenment, alchemy, and transgression are situated within a short drive from here, as is one of the twentieth century’s greatest esoteric sculpture gardens, the Tarot Garden of Niki de Saint Phalle.  There is just something in this myth-saturated landscape, in these mossy old stones blunted with time,   that  conjures beautiful monsters to the mind.

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In baroque garden design, some scholars believe, the sculptures embodied human consciousness and emotion.  Proper placement could alter fate, or  transmit an epiphany  or even ecstasy to visitors to the garden.  Utano’s better pieces crackle with emotion, wit, and sensuality. Some smile benignly, while others snarl, howl,  laugh, beguile you with a penetrating stare.  Some chastely hold candles, others flaunt conical breasts, or ripple sexy mermaid tails.  The bolder ones display Utano’s theatrical genius for the grotesque and the demonic, evoking that  great spirit of gardens and nature, Pan.  What must be remembered is that the energy irradiating from a work of art  is conferred to matter by the artist’s hands  — it’s that spark that gets lost in mechanical reproduction.  Each of these pieces is unique and not mass produced in series.  That’s what gives them their peculiar lifelikeness.

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Placing gargoyles, masks, or monsters outside homes or sanctuaries was a way to warn intruders or the evil-intentioned.  With that in mind, we commissioned Utano to make us  a Gorgon to protect the gate of our private courtyard which we wished to shield from indiscreet gazes.

“Some people tell me they think this one is too ugly,”  he said,  pointing out a boyish satyr with a seraphic expression.

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We couldn’t disagree more.

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Mr. Utano at work
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Our protective gorgon

Mr. Utano’s shop is now called La Medusa.   For instructions on how to find it, click here.

Copyright Linda Lappin, author of The Etruscan, Signatures in Stone: A Bomarzo Mystery, and The Soul of Place: A Creative Writing Workbook.  Photo credits, L. Lappin, S. Baldassarre, G. Utano.