Friday, August 01, 2014

Beyond Boundaries: Networking and Workshopping in Lake Como, Italy, Part I

Guest post by Thelma T. Reyna

I was invited by one of my publishers to attend a national/international conference they co-sponsored at Lake Como last month. This “Abroad Writers Conference” (AWC) was designed as advanced learning for published authors from the U.S. Their “faculty” included 4 Pultizer Prize winners and 2 National Book Award recipients teaching intensive one-week workshops. Embracing this rare opportunity, I headed to Lake Como in my first overseas networking, workshopping, poetry reading experience.

Renaissance-era Como, resort hometown of George Clooney, is famously gorgeous. The event was in an 18th century villa, where we sat in one or two personalized workshops with the Pulitzer winners of our choice, or with other top national award winners. In the evenings, some of us conducted formal readings of our published work before the whole assemblage of about 50 author participants and 10 faculty, sharing the stage with America’s top writers in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.           

                       Villa La Galleata, where we stayed and learned.
Iconic Lake Como is surrounded by lovely small                                                  
towns, with Como being the most prominent.

Learning and Re-Learning Poetry

My poetry workshop was with Rae Armantrout, whose book, Versed, won the Pulitzer in 2009. She had a reputation for being the most “cerebral” of the AWC poets; but, as a teacher, she blended sharp insights with down-to-earth critiques in a soft voice and unassuming demeanor. She pushed us to think harder.

There were 7 of us in this cohort. We met on a serene balcony entwined in wisteria and facing the lake, or in a formal parlor off the villa’s ballroom. We hailed from across America, and our group had a Korean-American and a Chinese-American. I was the lone Latina in the entire conference.

The camaraderie we established in one week belied our short time together. We opened our egos and ids to one another in the 10 poems each had provided for the workshop. Rae, my fellow poets, and I  slashed one another’s lines, dissected phrases, questioned purpose and voice, yet affirmed one another’s work. When several of us in our group took appointed turns onstage in the evenings to read from our publications, my workshop fellows in the audience were the loudest applauders with the broadest smiles of approval. Their support was genuine.

Our Fiction Workshop

Jane Smiley’s novel—A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of  Shakespeare’s King Lear—won the Pulitzer in 1992. Sometimes using colorful, edgy language, Jane shared her experiences as a writer; asked us endless analytical questions about our submitted fiction; and sprinkled her advice with examples from her favorite 100 novels. The writing skills of this workshop’s authors were quite high. All had completed novel manuscripts or short story collections.

One of Jane’s main tips: The climax of your novel comes around the 90% point of your narrative. Is it what you’d meant it to be? If not, go back and adjust. With a calculator, she took our fiction, identified where 90% of each manuscript ended, and analyzed if that was indeed our climax. Sometimes it wasn’t. By the end of the week, we each had to return to the proverbial drawing board. Pieces we thought were “final” were not. Directions we’d thought our writing needed to take turned out to be wrong turns. None of us escaped unscathed. We all emerged as stronger writers, though. This is why we paid the big bucks, I suppose: to hear what we may not have wanted to hear from the folks who know most about these things.


    Our Fiction Workshop: Jane Smiley  at the head of the table;
    Thelma is second from left, foreground.

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Stay Tuned for Part II on Tuesday: The second installment of this guest blog describes my poetry reading at Lake Como, where I debuted my new book. I will also briefly discuss the need for cultural diversity in international literary events. Thanks for stopping by.
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Photo by Jesus Treviño

Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D., is the author of four books, with the, a full-length collection of her selected and new poetry—Rising,Falling, All of Us—issued in summer 2014. Reyna’s short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, literary journals, textbooks, blogs and regional print media off and on for over 30 years.She resides in Pasadena, California.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This really nice, Dr. Reyna. I can hear your sweet voice. You are walking in my shoes, being a student again, I mean. No. When you are a student, you don't walk away unscathed!
I loved reading the whole thing!