5 Italian Lessons on the Creative Life

The last two weeks, I’ve lived in Tufo, Italy, a tiny town with a castle about an hour east of Naples. I lived there with four other writers in a little pink house for the Backyard Writer’s Residency.

It was my first experience with this type of residency, the only close experience being the following:

  • The Glen Workshop, a one-week intensive workshop experience hosted by Image Journal.
  • The Prague Writers Program, a four-week workshop and writing program for young writers.

Both other programs had different focuses and structures, primarily structured around the Workshop Model: a teacher presides over a communal critique of the group members writing and offers support for improvements and set aside writing times.

The most recent of these was three years ago and I had not done a focused writing retreat in that time. These two weeks were a gift to myself, a grand gesture to my creative life that said, “I want you and I miss you.” It was, as Liz Gilbert describes in Big Magic, like I had run off for a two week wild affair with my lover—my craft. Romance has a role in our relationship to the creative life! And where is there a more romantic location than the Italian countryside?

In many ways, my experience with Backyard Writers in Tufo might be more retreat than residency (though we are residents? So we are in a residency? Unclear). We did not have workshops nor did we have formal ways to review each other’s work (the lack of printer in our rural town was part of that). Instead, we left the days open to do as we wished, often gathering in the central hours of the day at the living room table to write together.

We kept wildly different schedules which kept us in different parts of the house and the day and work schedules.

First, I learned that when left to my own devises, I already know what will support creative work. I set a morning structure that launched me into effective work every day. Journal my morning pages by hand a la Artist Way, meditate using the Headspace App, talking walks, and staying quiet.

I also practiced what I call “shitty art”, which is making things with the expectation that they will be bad. It isn’t to be good but to make. I used watercolors as a key aspect of this, painting on the days that I wrote. I also wrote “shitty poems,” for the practice of paying attention to one strong image or feeling. They aren’t good. I didn’t ask them to be. But I made them and that changes my entire sense of self.

Second, going to a completely different place shook me out of my norms. It changed my relationship with writing and work. The normal routines are gone. The normal social expectations, work expectations—capute. It opens the mind and the body to the thing you want. Maybe this is what they mean by intention in meditation?

Third, it felt really good to focus. I can’t emphasize this enough, the wild meaning that came because I had the chance to do one thing at one time everyday. Even the travel days, the ones where we went far away or saw something, I was able to be meaningfully present because I had been practicing meaningful presence to my work and to myself. It felt so different to be Dana with this as my regular life.

Side note: this revelatory experience was partly thanks to spotty internet. There wasn’t much of it to go around so I could not effectively use my numbing mechanisms that play such a major role in my daily life at home.

Fourth, the making is in the making. I don’t have to scheme and plan and outline my work. In fact, when I look at my history of writing, I haven’t done good creative work with an outline as a first draft. Ever. Not even fiction where plot is (sometimes) important. I make in the making. The work is in the work. And I’ve been keeping myself from work because of this perception that I needed to know what to write about. BS. It’s a freer world than that.

Fifth, I can do a lot of this for myself at home. I can go get a cabin in the woods and do this kind of retreat for shorter stints and on a more regular basis. It took effort and commitment to leave my life—and it was worth it. I need to remember the creative richness from stepping away and do it regularly, not just one every million years when someone offers me a desk in Italy. Important note: I would not have learned those things anytime soon if I hadn’t come to Italy.

There were challenges to the experience as well, things that I’d do over if I could:

  • I’d take fewer outings and more time in the house, writing. It’s a pretty magical house. I’d plan touristy travel before and after the residency so there would be less itch to go and see things while I was there.
  • New groups of people are hard for me. Traveling with new groups of people is even harder. Top notch people—and still felt lonely and a little weird.
  • I’d share my work sooner with my residency friends so I didn’t feel quite so isolated in the work. Or I’d do a residency that emphasized isolation as part of the creative process.
  • Insomnia was a real problem for 5 of the 11 nights I spent in Tufo. New place, new mental processes, new bed, new people, new schedule: and sleep disappeared. Mental work and new spaces can dramatically alter your body chemistry. I’d have brought things that forced me into a sleep schedule that I could keep–things like sleeping meds and a white noise app on my phone. Insomnia is not a recommended creative practice.

All in all, this time in Tufo gave me exactly what I asked of it. I’m leaving with a new understanding of my creative life and work, lots of reading under my belt, a word count that shocks me, several pieces completed and several new ones began, finally watched Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album, swam in the ocean, and even got a tan. I’m motivated for the new direction my life is taking and am giddy to throw myself into life when I get home.

It’s actually hard to believe that just before I came, I declared I might not even be a writer anymore. How can I be a writer if I don’t write? I wasn’t even sure I would ever write again.

But the answer is this: I am a writer. Writing is a major part of my life “hows” and one I won’t leave at any point. I don’t think I could if I tried.


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