>Workshop winding down

>Cloudy and a little cooler this afternoon in Tepoztlan, and the week is almost over. Today my second story was workshopped. The reaction was better than to the first, and it doesn’t feel like it needs much work to be finished. (Ah, well, of course I thought it was already finished, but that’s a different issue.) Grace liked it.

Last night we had a wonderful party at the home of July Charlot. Google Juli and see what you find. She performed with the Marx Brothers and Xavier Cougat and, when she retired from show biz at the age of 23, became a dress designer. She invented the Poodle Skirt, whatever that is. Anyway, she has a fabulous house, filled with the memorabilia of a fascinating life, and also meticulously maintained gardens. The main event for the evening was a reading by Bob Nichols, Grace Paley’s husband of 35 years, who writes some very interesting fiction. A new writer for me, although he’s been around awhile obviously. We also heard poetry recited in Nahuatl, an Indian language spoken by more than 4 million people in Mexico, by Roberto Palacio. After he read in Nahuatl, he read in Spanish, which was translated into English. Then we walked home, with a stop at the barrio’s festival of their patron saint, Santo Domingo. Lots of fireworks. Nice ending to the day.

>Grace speaks

>I’ve missed a couple of days–too much partying and reading and workshopping. Yesterday we went nearly en masse to Guernavaca to visit the Cortes Palacio (where there is a fabulous Diego Rivera mural, among other things) and the Robert Brady house, which is crammed with the fabulous artwork he collected during his life. The trip included fine Mexican food and drink, of course.

We have been spending mornings with Grace, sometimes joined by her husband Bob Nichols (who will be reading from his work tonigh at dinner), pulling chairs from the dining room out into the sunny garden, with the mountains looming. We sit in a circle–Grace likes to sit in the sun, since the mornings are a little cool, and we discuss the stories at hand. I was workshopped yesterday, a story that I have written and rewritten dozens of times. I wasn’t too thrilled with the reaction of the group, but I had a conference with Grace today. She said she had reread the story last night and felt it was much closer to being done than she’d thought at first. I felt much better–she had some good suggestions for getting the rest of the way there.

She inscribed one of her books to me today (Just as I Thought): To Cliff, because the real and the imagined are what our work is always about, Grace Paley

>Magical Market Day

>Sunday is market day in Tepoztlan and the city is flooded with tourists from Mexico City. The place is hopping, festivals are noisy in most barrios, and I’m looking forward to them all hitting the road!

Last night we had the first reading of the workshop, in the very amazing Ex-convento, a 16th Century Dominican monastery that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First to read was Joyce Johnson, who is teaching the memoir workshop this week. She was unknown to me, but read some fantastic stuff from her latest book Missing Men. She may be known to some readers as the author of a memoir about her relationship with Kerouac. Next up was Magda Bogin, who read from her latest novel in progress, called Diva. Magda is the organizer of Under the Volcano, lives in Tepoztlan most of the time, and is known as Isabel Allende’s translator.

And then we heard from Grace Paley, who read an uncharacteristically long story that has not appeared in her collections, in which the father tries to explain to the daughter what it means to get old. (I know there are some stories where she’s touched on this elsewhere, but she said it wasn’t in the books, so I believe her. There was stuff in it I didn’t remember.) She followed that with some beautiful, tragic poems about war and storytelling. She tells us she’s mostly been working on poetry lately. I hope we can hear more before the week is over.

This afternoon we had our first real workshop session with her. Two interesting pieces were read, one by a woman who has lived in Mexico for 30 years, one by a New Yorker. The discussion was excellent and constructive, and Grace zeroed in on what the authors might want to think about in revision. I’m sure they found it helpful. I’m not up until Tuesday. After that part of the session was over we had a great discussion about our respective travels to Vietnam, and she wants me to talk to her and Bob more about that in the coming days.

>Meeting Grace

>We had a delightful reception in a private home last night, complete with strong cuba libres and made to order quesadillas. Meeting Grace, and her husband Bob, was a total delight. Grace isn’t quite the elfin sprite I’d heard about, but she is tiny and mischevious. And this morning we had our first workshop meeting, with participants introducing themselves. We have lots of manuscripts to review in subsequent sessions, so this one was more casual, with opportunities to ask Grace questions. She is self-efacing, but full of wisdom. Bob also is a writer, and Grace says he has wonderful work habits, writing every day. Of herself, she says, quoting Bob, she “has no habits whatsoever.”

I wanted to follow up on something I’d read in one of her essays about the novel she started once upon a time. She’d published her first collection, in like 1959, and her publisher, Doubleday, wanted her to write a novel. She felt obligated to try (Philip Roth and Tillie Olsen published collections at about that time and got the same instructions from their publishers, with mixed results), so she spent 2 years working on a novel that wasn’t working. It absorbed so much energy that it was another 10 years before her next collection came out.

More wisdom from Grace to come.

>Mystical Tepoztlan

>When I checked out of my hotel in Mexico City this morning, the clerk asked me where I was going. In my fractured, but understandable, Spanish, I told her, “Tepoztlan.”

“Ahh, Tepoztlan,” she replied. “Mystical,” she added in English. I guess she saw through my disguise.

Before I get to Tepoztlan, I have to say how much I love Mexico City. I will try to add some links here to some of the great museums this city has to offer. On this trip, I went to the Frida Kahlo house and the Carillo Gil and the Rufino Tomayo, and a couple of others. I tried to visit Diego Rivera’s studio, but, sadly, it is closed until the 20th, the day I leave for home.

The bus down to Tepoztlan from the City takes only an hour, costs 54 pesons (about $5) and passes through some beautiful mountains. I got settled into my room in the delightful Posada Ali (I have a view of the mountain that is the source of the mystical aura that everyone seems to feel here) and then set out to reclaim the village–checking out the familiar stalls in the market, the grocery, the laundry, and now the internet cafe. One of 12 in town. It is close to 80 right now, and sunny, but will be down around 40 tonight. In a couple of hours, just before sunset, my workshop will gather for drinks and dinner and getting acquainted. Meeting Grace Paley will be such a treat!

>Travel is good for the soul . . .

>. . . even when there are hassles. Maybe especially when there are hassles. In this case, the first leg was delayed, jeopardizing the connection to Mexico City, so the airline put a couple of us in a cab instead and we raced, kind of literally, to Washington, beating the plan by an hour. That was great, but then the flight to Mexico was also delayed, so it wouldn’t have mattered. Oh well. I got here and spent the day exploring museums I missed the last time around, and reading the Grace Paley essays. I can’t wait to meet her.

>Working Vacation Reading List

>As I mentioned yesterday, I am leaving today for Mexico, a trip that will include my writers’ workshop with Grace Paley (Under the Volcano). From experience, I know that little extra-curricular reading will happen during the workshop, but there are airplanes to and from, and bus rides, and the time before and after the actual weeklong workshop. So, here is what I am taking with me, in addition to Paley’s book of essays, Just as I Thought, the link for which I provided yesterday: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glorry, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, Memoria de mis putas tristes (if only to see if I learned anything in my Spanish class during the past year).

>Workshop till you drop

>I wonder if I am sufficiently energetic to participate in yet another week-long fiction writing workshop. No matter—the fees are paid, the plane ticket in hand, and I am off to Mexico tomorrow for Under the Volcano 2005. This year’s edition promises to be substantially different from last year’s, mainly because the stars are so different: last year the amazing Russell Banks; this year the astonishing Grace Paley. Last year also featured fiction writer Jessica Hagedorn, who was a wonderful surprise, in addition to the workshop director, Magda Bogin. One of these days I’ll write more about Banks—I need to finish his latest novel—but in the meantime there is the workshop to prepare for.

There will be seven us working with Grace. Each has sent our first submission to the group by email and we will share a second submission when we meet in Mexico. I’ve been surprised that four of the group are workshopping novel excerpts. Given that Grace is one of our pre-eminent short story writers, I would have thought short fiction was the way to go. (I’m using two of the stories from my planned collection, pieces I’ve been working on for quite a while.) But the work is good—some of it extremely good—and I’m looking for ward to meeting the gang.

A word about the location. The workshop takes place in a village called Tepoztlan, which is in Morelos state, about an hour and a half southeast of Mexico City. A mile high, with mountains (including the volcano) all around, the climate is delightful. I’ll spend a few days in Mexico City before the workshop, and then will pick another city for a few more days of sightseeing (and, I hope, writing) before heading home. Tepoztlan has a dozen or more internet cafes, so I expect to file reports on our progress, right here.

Grace Paley’s work, especially her short fiction, is well known to most fiction writers, I assume. But she has also published poetry and a collection of essays, both worthy of attention.

>Walking on Water

>At the recommendation of a young writer friend, I am reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. I think my friend doesn’t know me very well, because there is little about the emphasis L’Engle places on the relationship between Christianity and Creativity that rings true for me. At the same time that she pleads with Christians to be open in their acceptance of who is a Christian (she makes a welcome case for cross-denominational tolerance, for example), she doesn’t think much of those of us who can’t operate solely on the basis of faith (particularly in the faith that Jesus was God on Earth), nor does she express much willingness to see creativity in other religions, or in non-religions. Instead, she ascribes Christian creativity to all works of beauty, whether created by the atheist or the Jew or the Muslim. This strikes me as a bit too much like the L.D.S. practice of posthumous baptism to take very seriously. Still, I am glad to have been exposed to this book. Not only because I like to think about where creativity comes from, but also because I am struggling to understand faith, particularly the narrow, intolerant brand of Christianity that is so vocal these days.