WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS France, Part III: The Hotel Le Mozart – a Little Piece of Heaven. And Our Retreat and What We Learned There.

After our poetry reading at the Book ‘n Bar that first evening, my pink roll-on, with all my special things inside, appears at the Hotel Le Mozart, courtesy of Air France. The small hotel, with its spacious hallways and broad marble stairs, its gardens and patio, its charming staff, is familiar now, almost like a second home. Inside my little room, I happily dump my stuff on the extra bed, open the louvers on the French door onto the balcony with its wrought iron rail and view of the rooftops of Aix. This is where, the next morning, and every morning for the rest of the week, I’ll be served a yummy breakfast of café with hot milk, a fat, buttery croissant with jam, and if I can eat that much, yoghurt and a fruit compote. It’s also where I’ll meet with the Zona Rosans for private conferences, and along with my bed, will soon to be strewn with books and their manuscripts, where I’ll continue to read their pages.

The next six days, as I knew they would be, are a blur of excitement of working with the women.  I know all of them except Deborah, from the Florida Keys, and we’ve just meet for the first time the night before. There is always something thrilling to me about getting to know a person through his or her writing, and this is the way I feel about Deborah — or Debbie, as she suggests we call her. An attractive, 50-ish blonde, I knew I’d love her when I Googled her web page and saw a photo of her nose to nose with the dolphin she’d adopted.

Indeed, Debbie’s story — which I won’t share here; you’ll have to wait for her memoir — knocked me out, as it does everyone else the next afternoon at our first workshop. It’s highly personal, like much of our best work, and Debbie is – understandably – both excited and a little shaky about having it read aloud. And afterwards, she fills us in on the rest of the story, which is even more riveting than what we’ve just heard. Like many beginning writers, she’s left out some of the most dramatic parts of what happened, and I explain that beginning writers often do this. Often, we become carried away, especially when we’re writing our own story, and, in our haste, write in a kind of shorthand, assuming the reader knows what we know, omitting the little details that will might it alive for the reader.And that, thank the Goddess, is why we have revision – and, as I recommend, notebooks to remind ourselves of all the things we forgot to say.

Also, as for many of us, the shocking events chronicled in Debbie’s story were what opened the door — many believe the Chinese word for crisis means danger plus opportunity – for her to make major changes in her life, including her decision to devote the next part of it to writing. One of our most profound “exorcises” in Zona Rosa is to write about the thing you most don’t want to write about. And if you can’t do that, to write about why you can’t write about the thing you most don’t want to write about. I’ve seen people transformed – seemingly, almost overnight – by this exorcise, as though some great boulder has rolled away, leaving their creativity soaring, and this never ceases to amaze me. As one of our Zona Rosa credos states, “Revision revises us.” Writing is as much about revising ourselves, our lives, as our pages, and this happens along the away as we hone our truths – almost like suddenly getting that difficult Zumba step right without a feeling of great effort.

I’m still reading the first 189 pages of Suzan’s delicious, impeccably researched novel set in 12th century England. She’s been working on it for years, patiently revising each time she’s come upon new information that might change the story, and also adding detail to enhance its emotional intensity. I’m happy to hear that this year, she plans to get the novel out there – as we call sending a book out into the world – as I’m equally eager to read her next two novels, which are already in the works.

Then there’s vivacious Pat, a psychotherapist from our Atlanta Alpha Babes Zona Rosa group –despite a heavy work schedule and caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, her long-lashed blue eyes always seem to be sparkling – and Stephanie, a tall, beautiful American poet who lives in Brussels with her Belgian husband and son. At last year’s retreat, they bonded, along with Sherry, from California, to form the “the Three Museketeers,” giving one another long distance support for their writing via e-mail each week for their projects – Pat’s book on the innovative therapy she has developed to help clients help themselves through trauma, Stephanie’s pithy, biting poetry (the title of one of which has become the title of Pat’s book in progress), and Sherry’s moving stories of people who’ve gone “Beyond Forgiveness,” as her book is tentatively titled.

Also with us is my sister Anne, a masterful and prolific poet who’s already published her first collection, A History of Nursing, long-listed – and for good reason! – for the National Book Award in 2009. Another of our poets is Claudia, whose pieces are always like a sock to the solar plexus to me — partly because of her craft, and partly because we’ve shared life experiences, such as grief for an adult child’s difficult life and for the loss of a loved one.

At one point, Claudia – a hospice nurse widowed two years from her beloved Clint — jumps up and down with excitement in Suzan’s living room after her iPhone rings and it’s her college boyfriend from Texas, whom she hasn’t heard from in decades and who doesn’t even know she’s in France. (For more about this , see Claudia’s wonderful, oh-so-honest blog about dating again after widowhood at http://mysortofboyfriend.wordpress.com)

A couple of days later, 30-something, long-time Zona Rosan Connie – a purple streak in her pale blonde hair, turquoise tattoos on her shoulder and back, joins us from San Francisco. Connie’s had a complicated last few months, but she’s also a born traveler and wasn’t about to let having to get a last minute flight interfere with her plans to be with us. During the week, she’ll shares more of her edgy, ongoing series of stories about women’s experiences with the men in their lives – and again “it’s complicated.” (Connie’s other interest is animal welfare – while in Aix, and the next week, in Paris, she visits their version of ASPC, in order to write about it back in the States. But more about that later.)

And then, there’s expat Liz, who’s lived here in Aix for many years. She hasn’t done much work on her wonderful rags-to-riches memoir during the past year, she admits, as she entertains and feeds us in her glorious garden. But she tells a story that we all love: after a divorce in Washington, D.C., she went to a retreat in which she was asked to write down her dream. “To move to France and marry a Frenchman,” she wrote, though she couldn’t speak French, and had no idea how this would come about. “Why such a far-fetched goal?” the retreat leader asked. But within a year, Liz had moved to Aix and gotten an apartment– a difficult move at first, as she had her not-to-happy teenage daughter with her – and before long, had met Pierre, the love of her life to whom she’s been married for 38 years (and this part of her story is so French — despite that he had a wife and five children, plus a mistress with a baby, at the time that they met.). But for Liz, whom I loved seeing riding a motorcycle behind the handsome Pierre, her chic gray bob flying, still dressed in her oh-so-French outfit, obviously isn’t one to be deterred by obstacles!

And then there’s their amazing energy:  On our last workshop day, Pat, who has not wasted a minute of her time in Aix, tells us she stayed up until three a.m., working on a new poem, which she shares in our workshop, and which turns out to a be moving account of how her father gave up his dreams – something Pat definitely isn’t willing to do. She knew she had to write it, she says, when, the day before, as she talked about her father, Claudia looked at her to say “There’s a poem in there!” Indeed, the best part of the week may be the way the women spark off one another. As I’ve long since learned in Zona Rosa, just as in reading a good novel, we don’t have to share another’s experiences exactly in order to identify with them.

The week passes quickly – too quickly – as we meet in Suzan charming condo, Liz’s garden and a book store/café. Leading the workshops is never, for a moment, a static activity – one in which I impart what I’ve learned – but rather a dynamic and exciting event in which my own creative juices are stirred. I’m bombarded with ideas – both for my own writing and for theirs, as well as for means to facilitate them. One night, remembering Paul Bowles’ novel, The Sheltering Sky — one of my all-time favorites — I dream of a traveling to a wild, desert landscape, where I choose to stay, leaving my old home in America behind forever, like the woman in Bowles’ powerful story. The next day, I tell the women that we must willingly travel to the wild places in our psyches if we are to find the images that raise our writing above the ordinary– those reaches that at first might not even occur to us, but which lift our writing, giving it the frisson, the thrilling difference that will make it unique from all that has gone before.

By the end of the week, I’m so obsessed with their work that I’m waking in the middle of the night, thinking about them. Is Anne – who has a gift for metaphor – actually using too many of them in her wonderful poems? How can Claudia translate her various, emotionally devastating blogs into memoir? Should Connie use the relationship she’s now writing about as a minor subplot to a larger story that she’s already begun?  And should Debbie – who turns out to be multi-talented – finish her memoir first, or embark on the commercial fiction for which we’ve just learned she has a gift?

As the week goes on, I also meet with them individually, and this is one of the most rewarding parts of the retreat for me, the time when we are able to really get down to where they are with their writing and lives, where they’d like to be a year from now, and what they need to do to get there.  To have the chance to discuss someone’s work in depth is a joy, and it’s also a bit like figuring out the solution to a mystery story or a puzzle: what is this writer’s work truly about, and how can I best help her bring it to the best possible fruition – a fruition that may push her beyond her original dreams?

Every night, we troop together to another charming sidewalk café charming outdoor cafe where we sit outdoors, laughing, talking, eating and drinking wine – red or the pink that is famous here the only question — and having so much fun that back at home that I’ll remember these meals like a dream. The last day we talk about reentry, and how we’ll integrate the insights we’ve had here once we’re back in our everyday lives. Caught up in the euphoria of our week together, it’s hard to imagine that will be hard. I know that doing so will take conscious effort our parts, and I want to help them help them with that in any way I can.

But the moment, to paraphrase of Oscar Wilde: “I’m in a state of continuous excitement and I hope that it lasts forever.” My main feeling – besides an exhilarating burnout – as the week ends is gratitude to these women for sharing so much of themselves. Back home, I will still find myself dreaming about them, waking with new ideas for their projects, and the feeling I must e-mail them immediately. One night, as the glow from the trip spreads and softens, I dream of having a delicious meal out of doors with loving women friends, after which I go out to sea in small vessel. The rippling water is dense, deep cerulean – it’s the Aegean, I realize. And when I return to land, my one desire is to convey to the other women that they, too, must step off the dock and experience immerse themselves in this beautiful blue.

What of my favorite quotes is “This is happiness: to be dissolved into something great,” as said by feminist and eclectic doyenne of British literature, Rebecca West.

When have you felt totally caught up, dissolved in a happy experience?

© Rosemary Daniell 2011

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3 Responses

  1. Bonjour, Rosemary–What a wonderful time for you and the group in La Belle France! I’m so happy to know you’re wearing your red lipstick. It’s tres French! Oh, and a big merci beaucoup for mentioning my latest book, “Bonjour, Happiness!” I wish all of you lots of joie de vivre! xo Jamie

  2. Oh, Rosemary,

    This is such a wonderful stroll through my memories of our time in Aix. I can feel the pavement under my Mary Janes and taste the delicious food we ate. I can envision every member of our group through your detailed descriptions, and I thank you for writing it all down for me to keep forever. As I have said to you before, that retreat was a watershed time for me and my self-image as a poet and a writer of prose. I have you to thank for so many good things in my live.

    Namaste……….cj

  3. Such evocative blogging – you are really raising the bar for those who see the process as a chance to be slapdash. Nobody familiar with your oeuvre would expect any less, of course, and I thank you for the continuing inspiration.

    As retreaters, we have transcended the expectations of those who do not see travel as key to the well-rounded writer’s life.

    Make voyages. Attempt them. There is nothing else.
    ~Tennessee Williams

    Ooh la la et bisous aussi!

    Your Literary Daughter

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