Crossing borders

I learned of Richard Hugo House last year while scouting out writing classes. The catalog of workshops and seminars made me weak in the knees with desire, but I was far too intimidated to pursue even the most fundamental. These are programs for real writers; those who come with manuscripts bursting from their hard drives, with poems filling tattered notebooks, with screenplays spilling from their bike bags. These are serious classes, with enigmatic titles like “Fleshing It Out: Breathing Life Into Our Fragments” and “Ain’t Look Right, That There: Stories in Odd Shapes”; Master Classes in poetry and prose; classes to help fine tune plots, characters, and dialogue; classes on finding an agent and a publisher once your manuscript is burning in your hands.

I was just hoping for some guidance and inspiration to move beyond “It was a dark and stormy night.”

At the end of the summer, I scrolled through the online Fall quarter catalog  and espied an afternoon workshop on travel writing. I thought, “Okay, my passport’s been around the world, maybe I wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly.” I made a mental note to think about registering.

Some brain worm awoke earlier this week and nudged my selective memory. I was certain the class I had chosen to forget about had already taken place or was full. But no, the class was three days away, Richard Hugo House was happy to take my late registration, and there was time enough for the instructor to send me an e-mail of what to bring and how to prepare. Oh God. I have to prepare? Oh well, it’s only an afternoon –  I can suffer anything for a few hours. I enrolled.

The instructor’s instructions were simple: bring a few mementos, such as photos, postcards, art objects, money,  and maps to use as memory triggers and writing prompts. I chose a Pāua shell from New Zealand, a rice paper parasol from Kyoto, a necklace with a Celtic pendant from Ireland, a portfolio that held a series of woodblock prints of Chambèry, and a CFA franc note from Chad.

Then it occurred to me. I haven’t traveled all that much. I’ve lived abroad, in extraordinary places, but I’ve never Eurailed through thirty-seven countries in three weeks, I’ve never bicycled in Southeast Asia or gone on safari in the Serengeti. I’ve never been to Disneyworld or the Yucatán, I haven’t touched the Great Wall of China or seen Old Faithful spew. I haven’t labored up the steps of Machu Picchu or cruised Norwegian fjords. And this was a class on writing for travel publications. What was I thinking?

There were ten of us in the class. One woman spent seven years with her husband sailing around the world. The pierced and tattooed Millenial next to me had just returned from two years in Lima where he worked at a kick-boxing studio. A recent retiree dressed entirely in purple intended to write about painting workshops in Greece.  A thin, elegant social anthropologist was writing a memoir of her experiences in East Africa in the 70’s. A handful had taken writing classes; others, like me, were complete novices. We held pens to blank paper, hands trembling in anticipation.

Sandwiched in-between brief explanations by the instructor and a bit of group discussion was the meat of the workshop:  a series of directed, timed writing prompts. Then we read our words aloud. I guess I had realized that sharing was a part of writing workshops, but after our first writing exercise when the instructor asked us each to read what we had written, my stomach dropped and my face flamed hot. Suddenly the afternoon loomed long and dark. I braced myself, breathed deeply and  thought – “It’s okay, I never have to see these people again.”

Round-the-World Sailor was first to go. She was the only one who brought technology greater than a ballpoint and sheets of 8.5×11. She tapped away at her HP Notebook through the instructor’s entire introductory remarks, then admitted that she had spent the first writing exercise working on a scene for some unrelated project. Right. Well. I guess it’s your money, you can spend your time any way you choose. She never did read any of her work aloud.

And so we went on. Six writing prompts in all; four of these became the beginning, middle, middle-end and end of a complete piece. Some people read aloud once or twice, then remained silent in the remaining hours. Others plowed on with emotion or humor, and all with an amazing ability to create vivid settings, characters, tension, emotion and resolution in five to fifteen minute writing slams. I read each of my segments aloud, my heart slamming, my face pounding with heat, my voice stumbling through the words I had scribbled on the page with a hand squeezed around my pen, cramped in an unfamiliar pose. No one laughed at me.  I saw a few heads nod in encouragement and agreement as I read. The instructor congratulated me on first describing a character by their hiking boots and the sound of their voice, not with the usual hair color and body build; she pointed out some stylistic choices I made that took the narrative in an unexpected direction (I did? Uh, do I let on that I was totally unaware of making any choices? I was just writing as fast as my Pilot Pen would go).

At one point, when the instructor told us to finish the sentence we were on and set down our pens, I realized I had lost myself on the page. It was like losing myself in a run – the point when you stop thinking about running, about the miles ahead of you, about the pain in your hip – everything slips away and you become running machine. And I was writing like a runner – I was gone into my words, into my heart, I didn’t want to stop.

I’m suddenly crying as I recall this moment of pure writing abandon. How often are we ever completely of and in a moment, doing exactly what it is that we are meant to do? How much of our lives do we waste pushing away our dreams because we fear the failure of our own possibility, because we can’t afford the luxury – the time, the money, the neglect of responsibilities to family, job, community – of answering our questioning hearts? For a moment, just a moment, I was there. I touched the possibility.

It struck me that no one was at this workshop to write an article for Condé Nast Traveler about the best hotels on the Adriatic coast or the newest yoga and wine spas in Napa or skiing holidays in the Atlas Mountains. We all had personal journeys to share, emotional borders that we crossed during our travels, an aching need to illuminate our scrapbooks with the light of our words. One woman related the story of traveling to Korea to meet her adopted daughter. Her description of the foster mother’s last moments with the baby had several of us wiping away tears. The retiree in purple used humor to describe her deep disappointment in accepting that she would never be the painter she dreamed.

I wrote about a trip to Germany Brendan and I took in the early years of our marriage, when we were struggling to find our way as individuals and learning how to be partners. We traveled to Bavaria to visit René and Marie-Thérèse, the brother-in-law and sister of the family Brendan had lived with in France before we met.

René and Marie-Thérèse met at the end of World War II. He was an 18-year old German prisoner of war assigned to work at her father’s estate in western France. She fell in love with his hands – his long, tapered fingers and trim, clean nails. They waited ten years to marry, when the scandal of a French girl marrying a German soldier would be softened by the forgiveness of time and the growing Western European solidarity against Communism. She moved to Germany, not speaking a word of the language, and lived with his parents in a small village deep in the Bavarian Alps while he set up his design business in Munich. Grasping the enormity of their story, told over the course of dinners that stretched for hours into the summer twilight, was like a balm on the growing pains of our young marriage. The trip became the honeymoon we hadn’t yet taken.

The story of René and Marie-Thérèse’s extraordinary marriage has been a small seed in my heart for many years. After yesterday’s workshop, I feel it starting to grow.

2 thoughts on “Crossing borders

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