Learning to Write in Hemingway's Spain

In an attempt to heal my broken heart, I cast about for ways to fill the empty days that had once been spent with a beloved companion. I searched for activities that were meaningful, or at least distracting. An unintended benefit of my situation was new found time for writing projects that had been badly neglected during the course of a two-year relationship. I discovered Peter Murphy Writing Workshops offered through Stockton University in New Jersey. On their website, I found a one-week writing workshop in Spain and without my usual procrastination, I quickly signed up.

I have been writing for over 25 years but my output has largely been in the form of advertising copy, articles and speeches. With a book in the works, I wanted to supercharge my creative skills, and listening to Peter Murphy for seven days certainly achieved that.

Landing in Barcelona, a group of would-be and published writers of all ages gathered at the airport to board a bus for L'Venc, a hotel built on the site of a centuries old hacienda near the town of Tavertet. Our bus coasted along highways until we began to climb a winding mountain road meant more for cattle than for vehicles, inches away from a chasm to the right of the bus.

The first night was for introductions and settling in. The next morning, work began on the veranda with a spectacular view of purple and gray mountains nestled against a sky as clear as the water in my bottle of agua con gas. Peter's first lesson demonstrated the basic tenet of "show, don't tell" as he walked us through a selection of poems and prose. Then he put us to work with "prompts," a combination of abstract topics and concrete suggestions for our writing. With 21 heads bent over paper or laptops, stories built with words never previously aggregated in quite the same way emerged.

Mornings were for workshops and afternoons were largely free for writing, napping or exploring. No one could have anticipated that this week of all weeks would be the hottest on record in Spain. Lovely L'Avenc, with no air conditioning or fans, is usually cool and comfortable, but on this occasion, it was stifling and we all withered. The owner taught us coping mechanisms such as closing the windows and drawing the shades in our rooms during the day, and opening the doors to our balconies at night. While this made the heat more manageable, it also created anxiety for those of us unaccustomed to sharing our boudoir with nature.

One morning, I woke up to discover a large snail, the kind seen in illustrations in children's books, attempting to crawl up my bed covers. Conscious that screaming wasn't going to help, I jumped out of bed and quickly tossed the cover onto the terrace and slid the door shut. This incident generated a level of paranoia when I opened my balcony door every night to catch the evening breeze. It also did not help that I was reading Ann Rice's Vampire Chronicles before falling asleep. But nothing else entered my room other than cool mountain air.

Once we had some work to share, Peter broke us into smaller groups to read what we had written and for the others to tell what they had heard. Then Peter would gently critique each piece. This was when I learned the second best lesson of the week. "Tell a secret, tell a lie and never tell anyone which is which," Peter told us. I had to ponder this for a while but came to understand that it's OK to make things up as long as they ring true and are true to your story and characters.

That's when a memory of my long gone Aunt Ethel emerged. Never having written a poem, I discovered that poetry has the advantage over prose of enabling the writer to take a sliver of an idea and create a story about a very small topic. Aunt Ethel's meanness I could describe, but why was she that way? I now recognize that insecurity and jealousy were factors, but I will never know the origins of her behavior. So I attributed this, possibly falsely, to the fact that her husband, my uncle, was matched with her because he was handsome but had no money or prospects, and she was unappealing but came from a rich family. Although my first attempt at poetry left a lot to be desired, it helped me understand Peter's lesson.

The third thing I learned was that in writing, less can be more. "Revise, revise, revise," Peter told us. This was a way to rid our writing of redundancy, cliché and clumsiness.

The last two nights of the week were for readings. Each of us selected something we had written to read to the group. I decided to read an essay I published here on Huffington Post. But as I re-read it, I realized I could have used Peter's lessons before I started blogging. I took my very first post on diversity, refined some of the language by whisking away a few clichés, choosing a better word in some cases, and excising some words completely.

As I read to the group, writers from California to New York, I could barely see their faces as the light on the terrace faded with the setting sun. I think they learned something about me they would not have known through casual conversation; how I live my life, how I view race relations, and what I hope for a better America. While some expressed their appreciation for the piece, I'll never really know how it was received. But in those moments as I was reading, I felt spiritually connected to these 21 people whom I had never known before.

The night before we left, a few of us gathered for paella and sangria at La Mar de Bo, a restaurant in Barcelona overlooking the harbor, where yachts barely moved on the still water. With the hard work behind us, we toasted Peter and lamented leaving one another. With several rounds of hugs and promises to stay in touch, I began planning for next year's excursion to Scotland. If you are a writer or want to become one, I invite you to join us.