The Workshop

The trip was a gift from my stepbrother and his wife, something extravagant that I would never dream to get for myself. Yet there it was: a three-month Writers Workshop across Europe. I was thinking that I knew they were doing well, but not that well, when he interrupted my thoughts with the more important matter.

“You’re a writer. You’ve been a writer since before I knew you, since before our family was thrown together 20-odd years ago. But you’ve stopped writing lately. I think — we think —” (this with an inclusive gesture to his beaming wife), “that you need some time away to renew and refresh… and focus on your writing again. Away from all the distractions. You need this, and we wanted to do it. Please, accept it.”

They would not hear my protests that it was simply too much. And so I found myself arranging a sabbatical from my dayjob and heading off into an unexpected adventure.

Three months, in twelve European cities. There were ten of us in the Workshop proper, plus our leader cum professor cum tour guide and, in each city, an assistant or two. In the first week someone half-jokingly referred to our leader as The Maestro; and by the third week it had stuck fast, to the point that we thought of him as nothing else.


In each city, we were grouped into subsets and our days assigned. Some of the time would be set aside to read at least a bit of the great authors of the area or great stories set there, and to see the city, get its flavor, let it impress itself upon us. “You’re not here to be tourists,” the Maestro would remind us, “You are here to be inspired. Note the sights, the sounds, the character of the place. Go to the places that move you, and then go to the places that challenge you. Make them a part of you, and they will become a part of your work as well.”

Other days in each city, we would spend the day with the Maestro, seeing the city and discussing our art. He would probe out aspects of our work, to question, to challenge, occasionally issuing an assignment.

And then, of course, there was the most important time — the time we wrote. It was optional whether to share it, either with the Maestro himself or with the group, but it was expected, even encouraged, that at some point we would share something of ourselves in this process. What, after all, is a writer without a reader?

The groups would change from place to place. And so I got to know, to varying degrees, something about my fellow travelers. There was Dan, a middle-aged heavyset man originally from eastern Texas. He had been living in California for the last 20 years but he still carried vestiges of a faint southern accent that, if I closed my eyes, could make my toes curl. He was here, he confided to two or three of us over a few drinks one night, because his marriage was falling apart.

“I always wanted to write,” he said, “and I blamed her for why I didn’t. That she and the kids were tying up all my time, that because of them I couldn’t go anywhere, do anything that would make a good story. So I up and took this trip, without even discussing it first. Even if I went home tonight, I wouldn’t be surprised if separation papers are what greet me back home again.” He took another swig of his drink. “Now, for the first time, I get what they mean about ‘write what you know.’ Suddenly, all the stories I want to tell are set back home. We’re here in these amazing places, and even with dedicated time to write, the only thing I want to write are letters home to Barbara, to tell her how sorry I am, how wrong I was.”

There was Pedro, who thought much and said little, with eyes haunted by too many years living in fear in Nicaragua. His stories always tended to carry shades of that fear, of betrayal and corruption and war and death. One day after we had walked through Athens’ scenic Thission district, and crossed to the busy Psiri district to have a drink and people-watch, he shared more of his story. Nicaragua, when he had grown up there, had been very unstable; as a child, nighttime raids by “police squads” that ended in permanent disappearances were all too common. There had been the corruption of the Samoza military dynasty when he was very young, then the revolution and counterrevolution. It had all made an indelible mark on him. He had not been able to express any of this in his homeland, but he had “commuted” down river one day into Costa Rica, ostensibly to help with the banana harvest, and had managed to stay. He had made friends there in time, including a few sympathetic benefactors who had been willing to fund this trip for him, in the advancement of his art. For himself, Pedro had hoped that this new setting would help him to bring a lighter tone to his writing — but the past bled through and in city after city, he felt that what he most connected to were to often violent histories of the places we visited.

Kyria brought a bright boldness to our group, as to her writing. Her black hair was often swept up and streaked with one color or another — I began to wonder if she’d packed three months’ worth with her from home, or where she was finding it along our way — her clothes were always similarly striking. She made no attempts and had no desire to blend into her surroundings in any way. Though we were as different in personality as night and day, I immediately liked her. Aside from the occasional assistant in some cities, Kyria was the only other woman on the trip, and one of more than half our number who were gay.

Of course there were others, but the person I connected with most, right from the beginning, was Mischa. He had an easy laugh and a quick wit that I enjoyed immensely. Mischa was an accomplished poet, published in both his native Russian and in English. He found his inspiration, he said, primarily in his partner, Pascha, also a writer. I wondered why the two were not together on this journey, but Mischa would only say that his own tastes were broad and he found exploration more appealing than Pascha did.


The Maestro worked with each of us, individually and as a group, tailoring experiences to our needs. In Germany, he redirected Pedro to tour wine country, southeast along the Rhine. “Forget the histories. See the now. Take a slow ferry down a stretch of the river. Walk in the vineyards. Feel the life — in spite of anything that came before it — growing all around you. Breathe it, smell it, taste it. These are the things I want you to focus on, at least for these few days. Nothing else.” He sent an assistant along with Pedro, to ensure he didn’t venture off into places made infamous by war, death. It did not change Pedro’s bent, of course, but such exercises did him good nonetheless. In time he began to bring more balance to his work, to find the light within the dark.


I walked the streets of Rome with Mischa and a shy young man named Sebastian, who was desperately missing his lover back home. The three of us got hopelessly lost; for a stretch it seemed that no matter which street we took, we ended up back at the Altar of the Nation. Then, when freed at last from that vortex, we managed to approach the Trivoli Fountain from three different directions. But we stopped often, the red wine was relatively cheap and the gelato refreshing — and we seemed to laugh harder each time we returned to the wrong place. Eventually we made it back to our hotel, near the Piazza Novena. Sebastian went up to his room — ostensibly to write but we suspected to continue pining in solitude — while Mischa and I sat and talked about everything and nothing for hours. I enjoyed very much the different perspective he brought to any given topic, constantly opening up new avenues of ideas for me.


One of Kyria’s assignments, in London, was that she conform to more “traditional” styles for the length of her stay. Though in parts of the city, the Kyria we had come to expect would have fit in just fine, a more staid look was required of her. No brash colors, no wild patterns, no colored and outrageously styled hair, no outbursts in the street. It felt awkward and out of place for her… she confided to me that at first she felt like she’d become invisible, without all eyes on her. And yet as the days passed, it became apparent that people still noticed her — her confidence, her strength — her power came from within, not from the external trappings. She rechanneled that power into her writing, and found a renewed passion in it. “Now hold on to that,” said the Maestro, “You don’t need to shock people to impact them. Wear what you want, be who you are, say what you want to say — but do it because it is what you want to do… Now you know you don’t need anything but you to make you special.”


I was walking the side streets of Prague with the Maestro, Dan and Mischa, when suddenly the Maestro stopped, took off his ever-present hat, raised his hands, and shouted to the crowd. “Listen! Listen carefully my friends! Listen closely and you may hear the voices of the fallen, of soldiers long ago, far from home.” He tipped his hat back onto his head, crooked over one eye, and stood. Simply stood and waited. For slow moments the crowd stopped and waited as well, listening for they knew-not-what.

But I knew. This assignment was for me — to share something of myself aloud, before everyone. “Your writing cannot be strong enough to stand unless you let it,” he had said to me some days before. “Share it and let it come back stronger for it.”

Still I stood, mute and shocked, wondering why he would have implied a topic for me — something I had no piece to speak to or recite — and wondering if that really made a difference. I stood frozen, mute. At last the crowd resumed; the spell broken, the moment gone. Though I expected him to chastise me, he didn’t even bring it up. At last, I did. “Who am I to fault you if you are not ready?” he said. “But you must work to become ready. No one else can do this for you. You cannot be silent forever. You must find your voice.”


Over time, the only thing Dan really worked on morphed from a letter to his wife, to an epic poem, to a confessional (and clearly, to us) autobiographical story. It conveyed such heartfelt truth, such regret, such loss, such love, that it was impossible not to be moved by it. We urged him to send a copy to his wife. He balked at the idea, but eventually went to speak privately to the Maestro about it, after which he relented and sent it. The exercise had certainly expanded him as a writer. We hoped along with him that it would make a start at healing his marriage as well.


Mischa wrote poems, everywhere, about everything. The ones he penned in English, he shared with me. His talent was remarkable. Even our hours lost in Rome were transformed sublimely and succinctly into a thing of beauty.

One afternoon he was skritching away feverishly at something, lines of Russian which I had no hope of understanding … written, scratched out, and rewritten. Lost in his art, when I approached he was startled, almost embarrassed. I apologized for interrupting him at work. He blushed, and I had not thought him capable of blushing. “It’s nothing,” he said evasively, and then changed as if deciding to answer a question I had not asked. “I was just writing something new. I –” he paused for a moment, then smiled and continued, his Russian accent even more pronounced as he focused on expressing the idea more than perfecting the translation.

“I was just writing something about you. I had been thinking about how Kyria does everything to be not invisible, and she needed to see past this. But you, you think you are invisible, you seem to want to be invisible. And maybe for some, this works, they do not see. But I see. And I wonder how to blend these two opposite things — to be beautiful and unforgettable, and to be overlooked and invisible. I am working on this puzzle. I think it will be a good piece, when I am finished.”

Then he threw one arm quickly around me, and kissed me lightly, then let me go and went back to his work. I stood there for a moment, stunned and confused, and yet a little pleased as well… against my own better judgement.


We were walking down cobblestone side streets in Paris, when we decided to stop at a large outdoor cafe. We scattered into the crowd to examine the range of choices laid out before us. The chatter of patrons created a cacophony ringing in my ears, as if the people were deliberately trying to squeeze every ounce of silence out of the place. As if silence were a thing that could be pushed out, pressed to the corners of the space, even obliterated. I examined the various dishes — stews, platters of cheese, breads and pastries — while I turned this thought over in my head. People fill the silence… They hate it, they fear it. If silence is a thing, can it be a medium of art? Is a silent voice still a voice? I hadn’t quite reached it yet, but I could feel myself approaching the precipice of discovery. There was a seed there, somewhere, not yet fully formed.

The crowd pressed and I remembered that I needed to choose something to eat and rejoin my group. I will talk to the Maestro about it, I thought, deciding at last on a steaming local stew served over a thick slice of toasted homemade bread. I chose my bread and got in the line for the stew, then startled when for a moment it seemed to tremble almost imperceptibly in my hand. “I think my bread moved,” I said aloud to no one in particular, more in disbelief than anything else. The couple behind me laughed. “Her bread moved,” they exclaimed with a snort, “She must be crazy. Maybe she thinks she has magical powers.” But as I stepped to the front of the line for stew it moved again, more definitely this time. I set it down to the side, away from me. It moved again, visibly this time, writhed a bit, and then in one swift motion the center of the bread shaped itself to the tiny mouse inside it before breaking apart to reveal it outright. Around me, a screaming panic ensued, but I simply walked away with a shudder — no longer hungry by any means — to find the rest of the group. They were clustered off to one side, unfazed by the commotion. “They seem to have a pest problem,” I said into the din, the Maestro gestured in agreement at a cluster of roaches in the corner, and I was doubly glad that I hadn’t eaten anything.

We walked back to the hotel. Once a stately home, it had long since been converted but the decor still held the style of earlier days. The Maestro and some of the others stood outside talking for a bit. I wanted to speak with him, so I waited in the lobby. I sat sideways on a wide backless chaise, looking up at the elaborately decorated ceilings, listening to the echoes of footsteps from every surface as most of our traveling party went up the marble staircase to their rooms. At a bar in the corner, Sebastian was attempting to flirt with a wholly uninterested Pedro, while Kyria rolled her eyes and laughed, then went upstairs as well.

Mischa joined me on the chaise, lying beside me to stare up at the ceiling as well.

“I have been thinking about you,” he said softly. “I am thinking that it would be good for us to work together more, after the workshop. There is something here. I could come back with you to Boston. I think we could be very good together.” He turned, leaned over me, one finger tracing my face. Though we’d been very close since the beginning, and more with time, it was the first time he’d touched me since the kiss that day. “What do you think? Would you like that?”

What could I say? His light eyes danced for mine. It was crazy, it was foolish, but something inexplicably like happiness welled up in me.

“Yes, I would like that, Mischa,” I said, then tempered my answer for fear it betrayed more emotion that I was ready to feel or admit. With a light-hearted tone, I added, “But just a normal amount. Not too much, you know?”

Mischa shook his head, tapped my nose lightly with his finger, and asked, “Why do you always do that?”

Always? Do I always do that? I thought. But I just said, “I don’t know. I’ll ask the Maestro,” and this satisfied him. He gave me a quick peck and then bounded up the stairs, smiling down at me from above. He was almost no sooner gone than the Maestro came in. I flagged him down and he joined me.

“I wanted to talk to you,” I began, “First, I promised Mischa I would tell you …” I spilled out my hedging of happiness to him in a jumble of words, with no room for comment — dutifully fulfilling my promise to Mischa — then raced on, “But what I most wanted to talk to you about was an idea…”

While I was talking, heavy footsteps, startlingly like something out of a horror movie, approached behind us, interrupting me. I turned, half expecting a murderer with a chain saw, but instead saw a woman with dark hair cut down to near-stubble, a pale face with too much blush and great colorful jewel-colored leaves hanging from her ears. An army surplus coat ended over black leggings, which disappeared into combat boots. The Maestro jumped up, smiling, and hugged this strange masculine woman, and then I realized it was his wife.

Sebastian turned from his drink and his abandoned attempts on Pedro, shouted, “Andrew!” and in a moment was embracing a slight blond man who had just walked in the door. The rest of my companions had straggled to the top of the railing to see the cause of so much commotion, and then began to run down the stairs.

Significant others, as applicable, had come en masse to us.

I smiled to see that Barbara had come, and she and Dan held each other close, damp-eyed and clinging to the hope of restored happiness.

Through the corner of my eye, I saw a tall, slender, dark-haired man looking about, then smiling and opening his arms to… Mischa.

So this was Pascha. The reality I’d conveniently begun to forget restored itself sharply in that instant, and yet seemed totally unreal. Somehow I had walked into the plot of a movie on Logo — and there was no room for a single straight girl in that storyline.

Much later, Mischa came to me. “I have talked to Pascha, about going with you. He… he does not think this is possible. I am so sorry.” I shook my head, not in denial but to shake out any remaining cobwebs. In the moment I had seen them together, I already knew the inevitable ending. In fact, I had known it all along.

Mischa held out a small box, containing his books of poetry to date, for me to choose one: A goodbye gift. I carefully picked up one in English, flipping through it absently while Mischa began the obligatory machinations of applying heartbreak. A needless exercise, and one that would only hurt us both to endure. After all, I had barely held this particular hope of happiness in my hand for a few moments; there had never really been any chance of it being any more than an illusion. Unable to bear it, I interrupted him, pointing to one of the poems in the book. “You have a gift, Mischa. This, it’s beautiful. And you should be with someone who inspires you to write such wonderful things.” I gently closed and handed him back the book. “Be well and write well, Mischa.”

He looked surprised and then relieved, hugged me tightly, let me go. He said nothing else, but went back to Pascha and his real life.

As he left, I realized that I had not talked to the Maestro about my ideas about the silence. I realized I never would.

Copyright © 2010

It occurred to me that my speech or my silence, indeed any action
of mine, would be a mere futility. – Joseph Conrad

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~ by lorakceel on August 10, 2010.

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