Driving through the Amalfi coast and arriving in the quaint seaside village of Praiano, I shook my head in disbelief at never having traveled south of Rome in previous trips to my family’s home country. This part of Italy’s coastline can simply be described as one of the most beautifully surreal places I have ever seen in all my travels; a sentence I would soon learn never to use again in my writing.
Checking in to the family-owned Hotel Margherita I cautiously searched for the other participants attending the inaugural Praiano Writers Forum. Still questioning my ability to contribute to the intimate retreat, I was happy to confirm my fallback option. If this week turned out to be a bust, I was stuck in a picturesque Italian village with plenty of cultural excursions to choose from.
Toying with the idea of writing a memoir since losing my husband Rand to pancreatic cancer in 2008, this retreat would either serve as the kick in the ass I needed, or as the ultimate confirmation for my over-crowded calendar. I kept waiting for the alert to pop up: “Writing this book creates 75,000 conflicts. Would you like to delete?” The notes section of the warning would then undoubtedly remind me of my lack of guts and the talent needed to successfully tackle this overwritten plot.
My Aunt Robin’s words, however, rang loudest in my ears when I made the leap to cancel a week’s worth of meetings, lunches, calls and galas to attend my first writing workshop. “Of course you are going Terrence – It’s Wally Lamb! Look at what he did with the women of York Prison. Just imagine what he can do for you.” Truth be told, my Aunt is such a huge Wally fan that if I told her I had taken a piss at the urinal next to him she’d ask me if he had an update on Dolores Price. But either way, she was right. Whether or not Rand ever became a household name like Dolores, opportunity awaited in Praiano.
“Bongiorno Terrence – I’m looking forward to our collective Praiano adventure. Hope you are too. See you soon. Prego! Wally.” Even his penmanship spoke like an Oprah favorite as I perused through our welcome package. Sending off a picture of his note to my family back home, Aunty Rob included of course, I headed out to find the others.
Every man in the old-world village of Praiano seemed to be named Gennaro and each was nicer than the next. The small community of just 2000 residents was filled with excitement as they vigorously prepared for the commencement of their much needed tourist season. Colder weather than we all had hoped for, the resident’s hospitable warmth lifted our exhausted spirits.
Guided through the meandering streets by two of our hosts, the talented editor and writer Larry Bloom and the acclaimed poet Suzanne Levine, the six unlikely-grouped travelers were finally able to put a face to each other’s words. Blindly turning yet another scenic corner, we were greeted by Wally in his best Connecticut-born Italian accent. “Bongiorno” he shouted from the top of another breathtaking vista.
Casa L Orto, the magnificent villa owned by Carol LeWitt, beckoned as we descended the precipitous stairwell. Generous in its serenity, all pre-conceived notions were left outside before entering the Forum’s classroom for the week. No matter what happened over the coming days, I had made the right choice. The distractions of my life drifted farther away than Manhattan itself as I inhaled the possibilities of what lay ahead.
Our mornings at Casa L Orto were filled with workshops as we gently navigated the process of group learning amongst strangers. Effortlessly we strained to absorb the immense amount of insight and knowledge as our teacher’s brilliance caused pens to fill the pages of Italian notebooks. Both the praise and critique we listened to and offered one another opened our eyes to the dexterity of progressing from a civilian to a writer. The insightful discussions were infectious.
Expanding my horizons each day, I learned to let go of the eulogy I had been writing in my head and allowed the realistic pain of my life with Rand to pour into my afternoon writing sessions. My heart nearly pounded through my sweater Wednesday night as I unveiled part of my complicated love story to the group. Like proud parents watching a first ballet recital, Wally, Lary and Suzanne listened along with fellow Praiano writers as I continued reading aloud from a piece I had written just hours before.
“Rising gently from the tornado of clothes, shoes and everything else Rand had collected in his closet over the years, I carefully replaced each clear plastic bag into their rightful homes. They were never meant to end up in my shaking hands. Every jacket was re-hung, each shoe put back on its shelf. Tee shirts, socks, underwear, white cotton hankies all re-folded. Rand’s crimson colored embroidered handkerchiefs remained untouched once again in the back of his top drawer as I pushed it closed and turned off the lights.”
The revelation of Rand’s betrayal in his Manhattan closet 8 years ago was a small window of our life together but a scene I thought I would never expose. The encouragement from my first-ever reading of my work combined with the constructive criticism of our writing samples throughout the week fueled my desire and motivation to write.
Gennaro’s Wine Bar, one of the few local restaurants opened during the offseason, was the perfect setting to celebrate our culmination to a productive week. Familiar now with each other’s heartfelt stories and the complexities of our individual lives, we drank wine, laughed, and overate while encouraging each other to pursue our newfound discoveries.
With the intricacies of my path towards writing a memoir slightly clearer, I left the week energized, inspired and enthusiastic to continue my journey. I have no doubt that on a future trip to Praiano, when I read from the pages of my newly published book, I will be thanking the readers in the audience for fostering my creative process in this coastal village along the Amalfi coast – unquestionably one of the most beautifully-preserved destinations in the world.