Two years ago, I spent a week at a writer’s conference in Italy, just outside of Siena. My first real venture into writer’s conference territory. We made it a family affair with parents, mother-in-law, husband and three kids in tow. Pulling our crew into the idyllic rustic farm and villa, Tenuta di Spannocchia, we had all the character makings of a liberal-arts version of National Lampoon’s European Vacation. The scene looked film-worthy stunning of eliciting writer mojo.
Our kids frolicked in the organic Tuscan farm fields. They took tours of ancient breeds of Italian pigs and painted watercolors under a vine-trellised pergola. Our parents learned to make pasta. We befriended a cat named Tomato.
I, on the other hand, sat with my notebook, in the writing circle of my dreams, feeling unworthy and petrified. I met writers and professors of literature who had clearly logged many, many more hours and had given much more skin to the writing game than me.
I drank in their wisdom and insights. I drank my body weight in red wine. I remained a grateful observer of my classmates’ bravery and brilliance but the red wine hadn’t brought me enough courage to put my own work out there.
My purpose for going to a writer’s conference in Italy: to learn, to commit and to up my writing by surrounding myself with people deeply invested in something they loved. Still, something in me kept me guarded from sharing what I had to say. Maybe it was the distraction of tending to my three kids between sessions feeling mama guilt set in for wanting to be tucked behind my computer, working. Maybe it was inhaling the second-hand stress of my husband, stuck in a tense business situation while in Italy. Maybe it was my parents’ glances over my shoulder, asking “what are you writing about anyway?” and knowing I’d have to answer that question at some point, for them and for myself.
The hours ticked down to the last reading and the last opportunity to submit writing of the conference. It was to be an anonymous, narrated reading of all submitted pieces to be rejected or forwarded by the panel of writer judges in front of the live villa audience of my fellow attendees. One page. 3 judges. If they didn’t jive with your piece for a variety of criteria, you could be buzzed out at any point on the page. It was like preparing for Writer’s American Idol and Survivor.
I sat in my room, feeling like a hamster churning a wheel in my stomach. In that moment, I knew I couldn’t leave this place with the bullshit story that I went to a writer’s conference in Italy, and I didn’t write.
An hour before deadline, I grew a pair of balls just big enough to submit one page of work.
We assembled on couches and chairs and antique stools crowded before a fireplace of the main living hall for the final readings. Pages were read, critiqued, encouraged and mostly buzzed out. I sat in awe of the talent and grace and generosity in the room.
Then, words I recognized as mine came to life. I tried not to visibly sweat during my reading as our guide Henry, with a voice far better than mine, read my page out loud.
He made it to the end. I wasn’t voted off the island. I reigned in the urge to explode into little girl cartwheels in my Italian leather sandals.
In that room, something opened in me. The moment of what drew me to Italy in the first place without realizing why I needed to go there happened. I gave myself permission to be all-in and afraid in something I loved. The outside world heard that voice and for a one-page moment I felt connected in a way that deeply meant something. It was not perfect, it was not best, but it mattered to me and it touched people outside of me.
Anne LeClaire, one of the instructors, shared a simple, poignant piece of advice. “Just tell it straight and true,” she said. In that room, the simple, unexplainable vibration of sharing my truth happened – like a tuning fork being rung in my soul.
Thank you Ann Hood, writer mentor from the Gods, for creating the Spannochia Writer’s Workshop. This is the workshop where the success measures of business card titles, bank account balances, number of bestselling book notches on the bedpost all slipped away. This is the trip that made me want to simply write and share of myself , because it’s the thing that rings clear for me.
In Italy, the Renaissance Mom lightbulb went off: let go, do my work and trust that the meaning of it all will connect in a way I can’t plan.
Two years later, I’m going back to Spannocchia, with some more pages in hand, and we’ll see what happens. The return ride has been a lot like this picture of my kids. Rocky but determined, not too proper and satisfying. Just like I like it.