Last Saturday, 3 December, we had the first in a series of creative-writing workshops at the Literaturhaus Zentralschweiz (‘lit.z’). Based in the historic Rosenburg in beautiful Stans, lit.z is Central Switzerland’s literature hub, offering a lively, high-calibre programme in the cantons of Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schwyz, Uri and Zug.
Dating back to the 14th century, the Rosenburg was restructured first during the Renaissance and again during the Baroque period. Its fortunes waned in the 19th and 20th centuries, until in 1969 the Canton of Nidwalden, the municipality of Stans and the Nidwalden Historical Society established the Höfli Foundation to acquire and restore this gem of Switzerland’s historical heritage.
Lit.z regularly hosts authors’ readings in various languages and runs workshops for adults as well as kids. The Rosenburg Writers workshops are the first to be taught in English. The initiative reflects a wish to address Switzerland’s sizeable international community and to draw together like-minded people.
It’s an honour for me to teach this series. The creative-writing workshops at the Rosenburg are taking place on three Saturdays: 3 December 2022 (Characterisation), 14 January (Plot Structure and Story Development) and 18 March 2023 (Sense of Place). The sessions are for anyone with an intermediate-to-advanced level of English, not just for native-English speakers.
I’ve structured the workshops in such a way as to address a wide variety of needs, by offering material and exercises which meet participants where they’re at. The group on 3 December was wonderful. Attendees ranged from beginners to professional authors. We had a stimulating and fun day. Swiss, American, German and Belgian participants of different ages got along really well and contributed great questions and insights throughout. They had come from all over Switzerland: Basel, St Gallen, Bern, Freiburg… and Central Switzerland! Lunch in the Wirtschaft zur Rosenburg on the ground floor of the building was delicious and an opportunity to get to know each other better and enjoy lively conversation.
Want to learn more and book your place on one of the workshops? Head over to the lit.z website here.
Mariann Bühler of lit.z (photos reproduced with her kind permission) and Valeria Vescina.
What a wonderful six days on the writing retreat in Switzerland this October! Let me share the experience with you through this short write-up.
The participants were an absolute joy to teach: lovely and interesting people, enthusiastic about writing and about everything Switzerland has to offer! It seems right to give them the first word – so here are a couple of testimonials.
We stayed at the Gasthaus Paxmontana in the historic village of Flüeli-Ranft, which sits in enchanting landscape. Built in 1617, the intimate Gasthaus (only 16 rooms) belongs to the nearby Jugendstil-Hotel Paxmontana, an icon of Art Nouveau. The staff were unfailingly kind, attentive and ready to offer assistance with a genuine smile.
Breakfast at the Jugendstil-Hotel was a daily treat. How better to start our day than with the awe-inspiring views on our 1-minute stroll there, with the stunning Veranda Restaurant and a buffet rich in authentic local specialties?
Every morning we had a two-hour workshop on an element of the writing craft: characterisation, story structure and plot development, sense of place… Each session involved a mixture of lecture time, writing exercises, discussion and feedback. Though sharing one’s work was optional, participants were more than happy to do so in a safe and encouraging environment. This openness supercharged everyone’s leap forward, as people learnt from, and contributed to, each other’s work. Over the course of the week, participants acquired tools that helped them define important aspects of their projects.
For lunch we were provided with generous sandwiches to be consumed wherever we preferred on the day: either in the indoor restaurants of Gasthaus and Jugendstil-Hotel, or in their external dining spaces in the autumnal sunshine.
Originally, I planned to leave the afternoons free for independent writing time. However, in pre-retreat correspondence, this group expressed the wish to cover a range of topics which required workshops also on some afternoons. Below, you can see the accordingly customised schedule.
We loved our daily walks in the peaceful landscape around Flüeli-Ranft. Walking and talking in such glorious surroundings was relaxing and an all-round pleasure. As you’d expect, our conversations touched on all kinds of topics. The hikes stimulated effective problem-solving: they facilitated access to fresh perspectives and inspiration for our projects.
We spent an afternoon in the Bernese Oberland, with a stop-over on Lake Lungern and an easy hike on a breath-taking trail in the Hasliberg.
We looked forward to the amazing three-course dinners served at the cosy Gasthaus restaurant, and, on two evenings, in the elegant Veranda restaurant. Both places boast superb cuisine. A vegetarian option was always available.
After dinner, we briefly read something together on an agreed topic, before breaking up for private time and a good night’s sleep!
We left the retreat not just with warm memories, but with new friendships. We can’t wait to see how everyone’s projects develop!
Why not join me on future retreats? The next ones will be:
28 May to 3 June 2023 – again at the Gasthaus Paxmontana in Flüeli-Ranft
24 to 30 September 2023 – at a chalet in the Alps of the Bernese Oberland.
You can check out this page to learn more. And you’re always welcome to drop me a line.
Starting something ‘from scratches’? Not ‘from scratch’? For a split second, the sentence jarred. But its author, Iwona Fluda of Creative Switzerland (see her post, where she kindly mentions my writing retreats – thank you, Iwona!), had not made a mistake: perfectly aware of the correct idiomatic expression, she was being joyously playful with language.
That freedom to take apart idioms and clichés, to view them with new eyes, may come easier to non-native speakers of a language. Foreign students of English soon discover that ‘a pretty kettle of fish’ isn’t, actually, a good thing (no, not even if you love fish); that people can ‘fly off the handle’ (really? how?); and that you can ‘go Dutch’, whatever your nationality. You see what I’m getting at: taken literally, expressions we use every day can be a source of amusement, bemusement, discoveries, reflection… The same is true of single words: in my first novel, the protagonist deconstructs ‘nostalgia’, so that for him it means not the yearning to return home, but pain at that prospect.
The world around us offers countless sparks for our creativity. They’re everywhere: in landscapes, objects, fellow passengers on a train, overheard conversations in a café, a piece of music… And they’re ‘inside’ language(s), too, as Iwona highlighted. The trick is in spotting all these creative prompts hiding in plain sight, and transforming them into fruitful writing material. We can train our capacity to do that.
But how? An effective way is to attend creative-writing workshops. In the ones I teach, I combine prompts with the transmission of specific skills, so that participants may continue practising and perfecting them autonomously afterwards. For example, I’ll show you how to extract ideas for a story from a small object, in the context of how to create a three-dimensional character; or how to develop an engaging plot structure from a photo. You can free up your creativity and cover key elements of writing (characterisation, sense of place, etc.) on the retreat I’m running from 9 to 15 October 2022. Click here if you’d like to find out more about the venue, schedule, etc.
If you’re curious about what writing retreats are, what to look for, and how they might benefit you, here’s an article I wrote for Writing.ie Resources.
Any questions? Just get in touch via this short contact form or email me on mvaleriavw [at] outlook [dot] com.
‘Journaling over Coffee’ by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash.
Ever wondered what a writing retreat is all about and whether it would benefit you? There are at least 10 reasons why writing retreats are invaluable. You’ll find them in my article (FREE to read on this link) for Writing.ie, the magazine for writers and readers.
Click HERE for the full article (a 5-minute read) to find out:
what writing retreats consist of
at what stage they’re helpful
whether they’re expensive
the top 10 reasons why they enable significant leaps forward.
Below is a super-brief summary of the ten reasons:
Allow yourself time and space for you and your writing, away from daily responsibilities
Stimulate inspiration and creativity
Hone your craft with workshops and discussions
Productivity: let full immersion boost the quantity and quality of your stories
Feel supported and make friends
Let quality feedback highlight your strengths and enable you to overcome weaknesses, in a supportive atmosphere
Learn from each other’s work and experiences
Gain motivation and confidence
Re-energise: through workshops, social occasions and time on your own, all in idyllic surroundings
Meet writing buddies and mentors.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful (and the full article even more). My next writing retreat takes place in Switzerland from 9 to 15 October 2022: clicking here will take you to details of it and future writing events.
I’ve been teaching creative writingsince 2013 to a variety of audiences: from secondary-school pupils to university BA and MA students and from Adult Education classes to individuals. I’m a novelist and the Literary Programme Director of the Hampstead Arts Festival in London.
Images of Writing.ie website reproduced with kind permission.
This is the tenth special issue of The Riveter, previous ones having focused on the literary output of Romania, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, the Baltics, queer authors, Russia, Poland and the Nordic countries. Click here to view them – they are free to download. Printed copies are available to order from newsstand.co.uk.
The Italian Riveter was launched at London Book Fair on 5 April and at the Italian Cultural Institute, London on 7 April 2022. The Italian Cultural Institutes of London, Dublin and Edinburgh sponsored its publication. ‘Why Italy? Why an Italian Riveter?’ Rosie Goldsmith, founder of the European Literature Network, answers those question in her introduction. Rosie, editor West Camel and design & production editor Anna Blasiak are indefatigable champions of literature in translation.
Contributors include many well-known novelists, poets, translators and critics from Italy, the UK and far beyond. So, The Italian Riveter offers the pleasure both of a superb read in its own right and of discovering new books to delve into. You’ll find exclusive interviews with the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Gianrico and Francesco Carofiglio and Tim Parks. Anna Blasiak delves into Italian poetry and Barry Forshaw into crime fiction. Paolo Grossi of New Italian Books talks about promotion abroad, and Diego Marani about the Italian ‘cultural mind’. Maria Teresa Carbone focuses on women’s writing, and Enrica Maria Ferrara specifically on Ferrante Studies.
Distinguished translators from Italian provide overviews of different genres, as well as reviews and extracts of books. For example, Howard Curtis covers lost Italian classics ripe for re-discovery, while Clarissa Botsford writes about the ‘new Italians’, including Cristina Ali Farah, Igiaba Scego and Nadeesha Uyangoda; Shaun Whiteside tells us about translating from Italian, and Ann Goldstein about translating Elena Ferrante; Denise Muir and Antonella Ranieri discuss children’s literature and children’s picture books, respectively; Katherine Gregor explains what differentiates the Italian historical novel and curates the section on untranslated Italian fiction.
Every section includes different contributors’ reviews of works in the relevant genre. I was delighted to write about Lia Levi’s Tonight is Already Tomorrow, a work of historical fiction based on true events. The Italian Riveter is interspersed with pieces in the ‘Postcard from…’ series, to cover the literature of different regions, reflecting the diversity which characterises the peninsula. I was asked to write the ‘postcard’ from my native Puglia, and hugely enjoyed reading the ones from other parts of Italy.
Are you looking for great book recommendations? Or maybe researching contemporary Italian literature? Whatever your reason for landing on this post, you’ll enjoy and treasure The Italian Riveter.
The July 2019 edition of the European Literature Network‘s #Riveting Reviews is out today. My review is of Veronica Raimo’s “The Girl at the Door” (4th Estate). Bold stylistic choices give a sharp edge to this novel. This is unsettling, thought-provoking work.
The Girl at the Door is in tune with the concerns of the #MeToo movement, but Raimo began writing the novel years before its rise. The book is relevant also to other burning issues. It highlights the question of the failure to see clearly and to seek dialogue not only at a personal level but at a societal one, especially in the age of social media, when views of history and the present seem to polarise around extremes.
This is a book which challenges you to work hard and which amply rewards you for it: a gripping read in its own right, and fiction that enhances our engagement with the world. Highly recommended.
Jane Davis today continues her inspiring series on Art in Fiction with contributions from three guests: Kate Rigby, Jenny Harper and me. I’m grateful to Jane for her invitation. I’ve long been fascinated by the uses and effects of art in creative writing – my research into them goes back years and continues, and my own fiction incorporates arts and artefacts – so it’s always a joy to be able to share that interest with others. Click here to read the article.
My contribution to Jane’s article focuses on the topic of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art: how helpful do I personally find that distinction? What purposes do art and artefacts serve in my fiction, especially in That Summer in Puglia? Kate Rigby considers the related question of ‘art snobbery’, widening its scope from the visual arts to novels, and explaining why she doesn’t like strict genre classifications. Jenny Harper illustrates art’s redemptive power with an extract from People We Love.
For other articles in Jane Davis’s series, click here.
Riveting Reads: on Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Nicola Gardini
The European Literature Network champions international literature – if you aren’t already aware of its activity, do check out its website.
Every month, its Riveting Reviews section features reviews of (mainly) European literature – mostly of works recently translated into English. It also offers a Riveting Reads section, consisting of brief (only a few lines long) recommendations of a wider range of books, including fiction and non-fiction not yet available in English translation, as well as texts published years ago.
Following the publication of my debut novel, That Summer in Puglia, I’m regularly asked how I made the transition from a career in management to one in writing. The question may come from a reader at a book signing or in a message via social media; those asking it typically work in a business role and tell me they’ve always loved to write.
This post is not an attempt at an exhaustive answer, which would defeat me. Instead, I hope it will provide some helpful points to consider. My reflections have been sparked by a recent event, the Sloan Summit at London Business School to celebrate 50 years of the Sloan MSc Programme there. At the Summit, leadership and change expert Alison Haig-Davies interviewed Gillian Keegan MP and me about our paths to career transformation. All three of us are graduates of the Sloan MSc in Management at London Business School (the course is also available at MIT and Stanford), though from different years. While my fellow speaker’s activity is not in the arts, the points below about self-knowledge, humility, serendipity, resilience and gratitude were vital to both of us, so I hope they’ll be valuable to others.
Career or vocation?
With writing, are we talking of a career at all? Most published writers do not earn enough from their books for that to be their only activity. Many hold other jobs: as teachers and critics, for example, but also in very different areas. I write literary fiction and for me that has the compelling nature of the vocation. I’m also a literary and opera reviewer, a creative-writing teacher and a board member of an arts festival.
Consider what the true constants in your life are: the ones which feel ‘deeply you’. For me these include a combination of artistic creativity and structured thinking, and a lifelong love of the arts. My roles in management involved mostly strategy and organisational behaviour work (both disciplines require more creative thinking than many realise, and lots of writing); and I grew up in a family steeped in the arts (my mother an art historian, my father an art dealer), so they always remained an active passion.
I’m one of countless people who have always read voraciously and ‘written well’. But I was conscious that there was much to learn, to be able to write novels: every profession takes years of study and practice. So I started out by attending a no-pressure creative writing course once a week for some months. The feedback was encouraging and I continued drafting short stories and taking part in a writing group. Eventually, I had a portfolio of fiction, on the strength of which I was admitted to the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing. I felt that an MA was the most effective way for me to move up the learning curve. At that point I had no expectations about where it would lead – I embarked on it because I really loved writing stories and wanted to be able to communicate what I deeply care about to the best of my ability. I also trusted in the power of serendipity: you do your utmost to be good at what you’ve chosen and when opportunities present themselves you’ll be ready to embrace them.
I accepted from the outset that it’s difficult to get traditionally published and that rejections of my manuscript were to be expected in the process of finding ‘a home’ for it – and that it was quite possible it wouldn’t. But even before then – in the course of writing the novel – I had to be open to others’ constructive criticism: being defensive about your work (whatever your field) doesn’t do much to improve it. I also assumed that writing the kind of literary novels I had in mind, and getting published, would take years – and it did.
The process I’ve described requires being sustained by others at different junctures and in a variety of ways. I’m sure that writers convinced of their own genius must exist somewhere – lucky them…! Most of us might instead give up along the way, were it not for the belief in us by those whose judgement we trust: in my case, a couple of friends well versed in literature and philosophy, tutors on the MA, fellow MA students… My writing group, composed of other Goldsmiths graduates, has been and is invaluable: we workshop our pieces in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and have become close friends. And what to say of the generosity of the writers and film director who endorsed the novel? And how about the friends and family whose support takes many forms? And the publisher who made the book ‘happen’? And the authors and journalists who compèred the debut events? This might give you a sense of how many people an author is grateful to and for…! At the same time, when you think about it, that holds true for most lives.
I hope the sharing of these thoughts will be helpful to you and to others you may know who are considering a new career – whether in writing or in other realms. To you all, my warmest wishes.
Images courtesy of Sloan Summit 2018 and Mike Pearce of Mike Pearce Photography. Reproduced with kind permission.