I did my best writing of 2015 sitting outdoors in the Spanish sun, writing in a lined spiral notebook. “Go write!” Peter Murphy, of Murphy Writing Seminars, told us. “Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.”
I sat at a wooden table outside our cottage at L’Avenç, a beautiful lodge high in the Pyrenees, and I went to a new place inside myself and wrote. I found fictional characters and brought them to life by exploring their five senses. Some were characters I had written about before, from novels I have written. In my novel Lydia’s Story, I wrote about the title character’s journey into the Pyrenees from France with a group of Jewish children to escape the Nazis. The trip to L’Avenç meant a visit to the scenes I created in my novel. I visited the reality of my imagination. Other characters were new, but they slipped right into place with the old friends.
And I wrote about myself, the me I was long before I knew I could travel to far off mountains, long before I knew I could write. Somehow the girl that I was growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, seven miles from nowhere, came alive to me in Spain. I felt the wistfulness and longing for a bigger world that I felt so often as a child and teenager, the longing that pushed me to move on to the world that I knew existed, if only then in my imagination.
When I am at home, I do most of my writing at my laptop, looking out over the parking lot of our condominiums. But I found that there was something liberating about writing in a lined spiral notebook. I took pleasure in the scratched out phrases, words added in the margin, and arrows drawn to indicate sentences and paragraphs that needed to pick up and move to another spot. My experience at the writing retreat brought out the creative side of my writing again. And isn’t that why we became writers? To create. To express ourselves. But what I learned this summer was that I cannot express myself unless I explore who I am.
One morning my husband, who is not a writer but came along to Spain with me because he enjoys being a “writer groupie,” found a hawk feather on one of his mountain walks, and left it on my notebook. I found the feather when I sorted through my writing materials when I returned home, and it seemed to symbolize the feeling of soaring that I felt writing in the Pyrenees.
A change of scene, a new geography, opens my eyes and changes my life, as well as my writing. This happened when I moved to Costa Rica, and ended up staying for seven years, but that’s another story. Traveling two hours up into the mountains from Barcelona was more than a writing vacation. All the changes in daily life that accompany such a trip affected my writing. There were my writing friends — some new and some old friends from previous writing adventures with Murphy Writing Seminars. We made small attempts to speak Catalan, at least to say “Bom dia!” to the staff. We were all affected by the sense of history that goes along with staying at a site where the main building dates to the eleventh century. And we luxuriated in the modern swimming pool where we could wash off the writing dust at the end of the day.
The writing retreat in Spain focused on the creative side of writing, and I came home refreshed. Refreshed from writing from a new place inside myself, from contact with fellow writers, and the instruction and encouragement of a master craftsman.