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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Pedro de la Nave, Part II: The Ricobayo Threat

The previously flooded town of San Pedro de la Nave.
Photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 2017. 
Imagine it's 1928 and you're a newly rediscovered pre-Romanesque treasure that happens to be on the banks of the Esla River. Yes, you are San Pedro de la Nave. In spite of a cave-in and some random additions, you still preserve the extraordinary remains of Visigothic sculpture and architecture. All of a sudden, after 1300 years of existence, you find yourself in the path of a reservoir project, about to be swallowed up by the rising waters of progress.

What do you do?

The bricks look haphazard, but they aren't. Just some of the sly smarts
of Visigothic architecture. Note the alabaster window, a recent addition. 
The Church of San Pedro de la Nave started out as the most important building in its area, the center of six small towns. Although it's not mentioned specifically in the historical record until 907, it's thought that it was the monastic center where Saint Valerio lived and did his saintly work in the seventh century because he describes it as the biggest and most luxurious of his time. When the area came under Muslim control, San Pedro slipped into obscurity. It seems there was never much money to do extensive construction work, a circumstance that saved San Pedro virtually intact for us today. In 1906, Don Manuel Gómez Moreno "discovered" the church for the modern era and it was declared a national monument in 1912.

Official tour guide Eva demonstrates how the bricks are held together.
They're basically stapled with wooden clamps.Those holes should be in the back.  
In the 1920s, engineers became interested in the area for its hydraulic power potential. They wanted to build a dam near the town of Ricobayo, which would create a reservoir in part of the Esla River, drowning all the small towns on its banks, and destroying San Pedro de la Nave. It had just come back into the spotlight and had recently gained a few defenders. Progress couldn't be stopped, however. Historical arguments could not prevent the building of the dam.

The original site of San Pedro de la Nave. Note the foundation stones. 
Luckily, there were enlightened people on both sides of the issue, and someone came up with the idea of moving the church, brick by brick, to a safer location. The builders of the dam paid for the move, which took two years and a lot of research, love, and guesswork. Gómez Moreno directed the project with architect Alejandro Ferrant Vázquez and the resulting monument is a lasting testament to their scholarship.

This Gothic bell tower was removed from the church
and is now used as part of the fencing around it. 
While they dismantled the church, the workers and scholars learned a lot about Visigothic building techniques. They made note of everything, and some Roman funerary stelae and fragments of an altar were found. Most of the treasures can be viewed in the Museum of Zamora, but the altar blocks were creatively rearranged in the new place to provide an altar for occasional services.

The new altar uses blocks discovered in the dismantling process. 

The stones look like you could knock
them over with a feather, but trust me,
they aren't budging! 
San Pedro de la Nave is now found two kilometers from where it originally stood in exactly the same north-south orientation as before. The original area was indeed flooded, but in recent years the water level has receded to the point that we can visit the church's original site without getting wet. Organic materials have washed away, but the sturdy stone structures of the entire town remain exactly where they were originally built.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Pedro de la Nave, Part I - The Legend of the Saintly Ferryman and Woman

Photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 2017 
San Pedro de la Nave is a singular building in the unassuming town of El Campillo.

If you can think of something that would make a building unique, San Pedro de la Nave has it in spades. It's permitted to hold ceremonies according to the ancient Mozarabic ritual, it preserves rare pre-Romanesque Visigothic sculpture, it was threatened with being swallowed up by a reservoir, and it was moved brick by brick to a safe location. We'll delve into all that in future posts. Now, let's start with the harrowing story people have told over the centuries to explain the presence of a simple sarcophagus that became mysterious with time.

Written in the seventeenth century, at least several centuries after the events would've taken place, the story goes: Long, long ago, a young man—let’s call him Julián—lived in a town that would later be called San Pedro de la Nave on the River Esla with his beloved mother and father. Julián was a great hunter, providing all the game his family needed and then some, and things were just dandy. One day, Julián was tracking a deer. As he closed in, the deer abruptly turned around to look at him and spoke.

“Young Julián, you lead a good life in this fertile valley. But beware: one day, you will murder both of your beloved parents.”

Julián was shocked that the deer could speak at all. Given the extraordinary messenger, he had to believe the message. He laid down his bow and arrow right there and fled to Portugal (known as Lusitania at the time), thinking to evade the awful prophecy.

In Portugal, Julián made his fortune as a warrior. (The legend doesn’t specify what side he fought for. Whoever wrote the legend down probably had no idea who was fighting whom when Julián would’ve lived. The only thing he could be sure of was that it was on the Iberian Peninsula, so of course there was some kind of war.) 

Julián was rewarded for his valor with marriage to the lovely Castilian noblewoman Basilisa. (Castile wouldn’t really have existed when Julián and Basilisa were alive, but to the seventeenth-century writer, Castile probably seemed eternal.)

Basilisa and Julián made a lovely home together, but there was another couple who wasn’t happy: Julián’s parents had been wondering where their son went and why for many years at this point. They went in search of him, and happened to find his home and bride when he was away doing important Lusitanian things. 

Basilisa was a good daughter-in-law and gave Julián’s parents an unforgettable welcome. When they admitted to being exhausted from their long and worried journey, Basilisa offered them her own nuptial bed to rest in.

While her guests took their siesta, Basilisa went to church to pray. Of course that was the moment Julián came home to find two people in a bed where at most he would expect to find one: his wife, waiting for him. Julián believed Basilisa was dallying with another man, and slew both sleepers.


Basilisa walked in the door to find the horrifying sight of her mother- and father-in-law dead and explained the guests to her husband. Julián was devastated—I could’ve told him he couldn’t escape the prophecy so easily—and decided to do penance for his (totally unintended and studiously avoided) crime back in his hometown of San Pedro.

He and Basilisa set up a free service ferrying pilgrims across the River Esla so they could safely arrive at the holy sites they were aiming for. The couple did this successfully for years and earned quite the holy reputation. Finally one day, when Julián was an old man, he glimpsed someone on the opposite side of the river who needed a ferry during a severe storm.

When he made it across the dangerous river, Julián found that the pilgrim was a leper. Nonetheless, he offered the pilgrim his own bed in which to warm up and wait out the storm. Suddenly, the leper became a beautiful angel.

“Julián, your penance is complete. Your sin is redeemed. You will enjoy the rewards of Heaven. Go in peace.”
  
Julián and Basilisa lived out their final days feeling very blessed. That’s who’s supposed to be at rest in this tomb.

Nevermind that it’s not a tomb, but a sarcophagus, where bodies were placed until such time as only bones remained. A sarcophagus is no one’s final resting place. Just try to tell that to someone writing a thousand years after this building came into being, though.

If you think this story is remarkable, just wait for the real saga of San Pedro de la Nave, in the next posts. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Zamora's Medieval Treasures: San Cipriano

All photos in this post by Jessica Knauss 
Zamora has more than twenty Romanesque churches. This is extraordinary because, although the Romanesque style was vastly popular all over Europe in its heyday, over time people tended to dismantle the buildings from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries in favor of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and even more modern ways of building.

In contrast to the Gothic style, the Romanesque might seem a little heavy, clumsy, or stiff. I'm here to say that, particularly in Zamora, the Romanesque style permitted a lot of fun artistic expression. Each of its surviving Romanesque churches has its own personality. I plan to visit them all and share the best with you here.

We'll start with San Cipriano because there's something mysteriously appealing about this church. When you come up on it from the public library or the parador nearby, it exerts a pull on you. Even the locals must feel it, because San Cipriano's plaza is a popular hangout among people of all ages. I wonder if they appreciate that this church shows up in the historical record for the first time in 1159.


Its bell tower, which used to form part of the defenses in the town wall, is pleasingly proportioned and visible from many prime spots in the city. Look for the stork nest in the corner. The stones that make up the church exterior have exquisite reddish accents, and the windows and doors display iconography worthy of any museum--and that's just the outside!

In this window, between two columns with floral capitals, two of the three Marys are portrayed next to the holy sepulcher with an angel and a sleeping solider. On the right, Abraham sacrifices Isaac. How do these themes go together? God's sparing of Isaac was interpreted during this time period as foretelling Jesus' sacrifice and resurrection. Both were placed upon a literal or metaphorical sacrificial altar, and both rose up from it again.

Three of the church's architects had the sculptors make portraits of them so everyone would know who made this: Ildefonso, Sancho, and Raimundo. An inscription inside indicates they also made the church of San Andrés in 1093.

These weathered fellows have been identified as the apostles James, Thomas, Peter, and Philip.


The southern entry has a lovely triple Romanesque archway that would be treasured anywhere else, but here is easily overlooked. Around the arch are many unique carvings from the original structure which were placed here during the 1975 retoration: an ironworker named Bermudo with memorial inscription on the left, St. Peter with his keys, a monogram of Christ, and on the right, the apocalyptic beast with seven heads.

A more customary theme in this region shows up on the other side of the door: Daniel in the lions' den. Daniel's story was interpreted as a parallel to the Resurrection in Visigothic times, and this is surely a carryover.

The eaves have many lovely corbels, some geometric, some abstractly floral, some monstrous, and here in the center, I think we can see a primitive Adam and Eve. Any of these could be restorations from 1975. As weathered as it is, I admire the checkerboard effect above them. It was a favorite pattern in the Zamoran Romanesque aesthetic.

In the interior, San Cipriano gives an impression of vastness, which was unusual for the Romanesque in general, but fairly common in the outsized style of Zamora. You can easily appreciate how it started out with three parallel apses and was cleared out to form one unified space in the thirteenth century.

Every time I see a baptismal font this old, I think of Mudarra in Seven Noble Knights. Can you imagine having to sit in one of these as an adult? And in winter? Brrr!!!

In this window, we stumble upon gorgeous remains of Gothic paint showing Christ in majesty. The theme was popular in Romanesque churches, but we can tell this painting is Gothic by the curves of its lines and the warmth of its facial expressions. It's rare to find even trace remnants of painting on stone sculpture, but when it's there, it reminds us that medieval tastes tended toward vibrant colors.

Even more amazingly, the column capitals in the chapels to the sides of the main altar also have evidence of paint. Starting on the left, we see the torments of Hell with bright red flames, a brown head, and the black limbs of scary hellhounds.

Opposite Hell, these abstract plant designs may well represent Paradise.

To the right of the main altar, one column is crowned with the death of Samson at the temple with warm paint colors in the background, complemented with a circular design on the column itself.

Facing Samson are a warrior, a bishop, and a man with a book. Some say this represents Solomon's judgment.

Behind the main altar, this Gothic painting looks as if it once represented the Annunciation, and the regal name "Alfonso" is clearly legible in the corner. The image venerated here is San Cipriano, created by Juan Ruiz de Zumeta in 1596 and painted in 1600 by the elder Alonso de Remesal, though records show the sculpture was freshened by sculptor José Cifuentes and painter José González in 1779.

Apparently, St. Cipriano was a magician in Classical times who converted to Christianity when he couldn't win the affections of a devout Christian lady for his client.

Four column capitals grace the main chapel. They've lost their paint, but still show vivid scenes. Here's Epiphany, when the Magi visited the newborn Jesus. Notice them carrying their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.


As in the side chapels, the main altar is framed by columns with opposite stories, as if to create a thematic balance between them. What's the opposite of the Epiphany? According to the medieval sculptors, it was Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise.

Behind the main archway, this mermaid represents sin, which is to be avoided because it's just as unnatural as a mermaid.

Across from the mermaid is a human figure. It's hard to tell whether it represents anyone in particular, but given its evil twin, this human probably represents purity or redemption from sin.

Call me crazy, but this is giving me interior design ideas. I'm never happier than when my surroundings are highly symbolic and full of medieval artistic effort.

Having inspected the details, the next thing you should do in San Cipriano is sit down on one of the pews and imagine the last 858 years never happened. What could these stones tell us about the people who lived, loved, and died here over the course of those centuries? Many a historical novel could start this way.

Leaving San Cipriano, you face the newest parts: nothing in this photo (other than the pews) was originally built later than the fourteenth century. At the left, you can see the opening to Cristóbal González de Fermosel's funerary chapel from the sixteenth century. I didn't go in there because the caretaker had just yelled at some other visitors for using flash photography and retreated in there to fume. Even with that modern disturbance, I was wistful about walking back outside into the real world. San Cipriano is a break from reality, and it's an exciting break full of stories.


Monday, October 16, 2017

The Dead Angels by Rafael Alberti

As I mentioned in the previous post, I joined a writers group shortly after my arrival in Spain. The first meeting made me feel incredibly welcome. During the second meeting, we analyzed some of the poetic works of surrealist Rafael Alberti.

I love surrealism, but I'm not sure I could ever write it well. So I'll do the next best thing and translate one of the poems. When you think about the images, they become less surreal. They point to whatever reality you're living at the time you read them.

The Dead Angels

Look, look for them:
in the sleeplessness of forgotten pipework,
in the courses of rivers interrupted by the silence of garbage.
Not far from the puddles unable to hold a cloud,
some lost eyes,
a broken piece of jewelry,
or a star that's been stepped on.
Because I've seen them:
in the momentary debris that appears in the mist.
Because I've touched them
in the exile of a deceased brick,
come to nothing from a tower or a cart.
Never farther than the chimneys that fall to pieces
nor those tenacious leaves that get stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

In all this.
Even more in those vagabond wood chips that get consumed without fire,
in those sunken silences suffered by dilapidated furniture,
not far from the names and signs that grow cold on the walls.

Look, look for them:
under the drop of wax that buries the sense of a book
or the signature in the corners of a letter,
which it comes stirring up dust.
Near a lost bottle cap,
a shoe sole gone missing in the snow,
a shaving razor abandoned at the edge of a precipice.

Alberti wrote this poem during a crisis of faith. Everything they'd taught him about God, angels, heaven, hell... he just didn't buy it anymore. This is an unpleasant thing to have happen to you, but if you make it through, it can lead to more and better art in the future.

Here Alberti sees dead angels (lost innocence, our better natures, or faith) in things rotten, dead, or forgotten. He sees a world full of useless, cynical items, and not a single chance at redemption.

It's a pretty good description of someone going through deep, comsuming grief. None of it is pleasant. Without unpleasantness, would we appreciate the good around us?

It's been therapeutic to translate these images and I hope it's been therapeutic to read and think about them. Thanks for reading! With this out of the way, there's plenty of room for fun stuff in the weeks to come.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Buying Fruit in Spain

A selfie with the Romanesque Bridge in Zamora 
Everyone in the auxiliares de conversación program has had their first week of teaching now. In some online groups, there have been rumblings of homesickness and culture shock. It's a perfectly normal reaction to coming to a place where the language, culture, values, and even the time schedule are different.

With the cathedral 
To me, things are different in a good way. What's the opposite of culture shock? Culture cushion, perhaps? Definition: the feeling upon entering a country that everything at last makes sense, causing an intense sense of relief, like lying down on a cushion of the perfect softness; occurs only in people who suffer from nationality dysphoria.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was in the country of my birth, I always had a sense that something wasn't quite rightthat I should be somewhere else. I'm in Spain now, and that tragic feeling lifted some time after I landed, perhaps while I was on the train, looking out the window at a castle I'd visited twelve years earlier.

At the Duero with the cathedral atop the rocky outcrop 
For me, it's natural that I should skip over culture shock. Spain has been the site of my longing for 30 years, I've studied Spanish almost that long, and I've been to Spain ten times beforeten of the best times of my life. I met my personal hero in Spain and he was more present and kind than I imagined he could be. I've won a few people over to loving Spain, including my sweet Stanley, who I'm told was stubbornly against trying new things when I wasn't around.

At my new favorite place,
San Pedro de la Nave 
When I arrived this, the eleventh time I've been to Spain, I immediately got a great apartment, had fun, got complimented on my Spanish, and met some fascinating people. I was walking down the street one day, and a lady started talking to me, as you do. After a few minutes of chatting, she asked if I was a writer, because of course that's what you ask people on the street. It turns out, she's the presidenta of a writers group here and she invited me to join them! They've published tons of books, won prizes, and give readings throughout Castilla y León. I went to a meeting last week, and I've never felt more at home in my life. I told them I was going to try writing stories in Spanish. Quite the goal.

Thrilled at the Center for the Interpretation of Medieval Cities 
So now you know why I look a little crazy in these selfies. Sometimes, happiness looks like a psychotic break with reality. But the photos are evidence: I'm really here!

At the castle. Who doesn't
love a good castle? 
What does the title of this post have to do with anything? The one time I felt like a foreigner in the past three weeks was when I attempted to buy fruit at a large supermarket the way I'm used to in America. No! In Spain, you do not let the cashier weigh and price your fresh fruit! What were you thinking? You have to weigh it and get a price printed out at the scale. You must be a foreign idiot, rejected by your country for being so dumb. (No one said this, just my active imagination.) I abandoned those tangerines in a hurry, ready to never eat fresh fruit again.

With the tapestries at the cathedral. I remembered to take off my
glasses for this one. 
The next time I was at the store, I was less overwhelmed by all the exciting Spanish food for sale, and focused enough to see where I had to weigh my apples and grapes. It makes perfect sense.


Monday, August 7, 2017

You Look at Me, I Fall In Love: A Few Reasons Zamora is Going to Be Awesome

Urraca of Zamora as portrayed in El Cid (1961) 
As you know, I'm going to be teaching English in Zamora, Spain, come September. It's a dream come true not only because I've always wanted to live in Spain, but also because Zamora has a lot going for it (in my humble opinion).

You probably haven't heard of Zamora before. If you look it up online, you'll find phrases like "overlooked" and "the quiet interior of Spain." That suits me fine. My dear Stanley taught me that many of the finest things in life are quiet and hardly anyone knows about them.

This anonymity is recent. From the time of its founding at the beginning of Roman power in Iberia, Zamora played an important role in commerce and military strategy. Its history is full of explosive characters, a goldmine for historical novelists—and I'm planning to do a lot of mining!

I pretend to be Urraca de Zamora in 2005. 
A most notable character is Urraca de Zamora. Her father, King Fernando I, decided to divide up his vast kingdom among his children. (This might seem like a good idea, but it has never played out well in history or fiction.) Urraca's three brothers fought it out until Sancho II had become King of Castilla, León, and Galicia. However, Urraca's father had granted her sovereignty over the walled city of Zamora, and she wasn't giving it up easily. Sancho besieged the city and then sent El Cid himself to ask Urraca to hand over Zamora in exchange for many different prosperous villages with their noble vassals. She refused with the vehemence required and with the support of the loyal Zamorans. In the end, she had to call in her other brother, Alfonso, to help, and once the siege of Zamora was over, Alfonso had become Alfonso VI of all the kingdoms of his father.

The rare and gorgeous Romanesque cathedral of Zamora
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
That's only one example of how desired Zamora has been by important players. The Spanish saying "Zamora no se ganó en una hora" refers to the many long sieges it suffered as leaders through history took great pains to win it or recover it.

Zamora has crossed my path before, kind of a teaser trailer for this new life plan. My proudest accomplishment, Seven Noble Knights, begins with a siege of Zamora (read it here when you scroll down)!

At Zamora castle. Photo by Jessica Knauss 
I also visited for one day before I started my doctoral dissertation research in Salamanca. It was not enough time to even begin to delve into the amazing architecture all that history has left behind. Zamora is a major center of Romanesque architecture, and I adore that style. I will adore imagining historical and fictional characters interacting, feeling their emotions, and living their everyday lives in and among this architecture. Much more about that later.

Finally, I had a feeling all along that it would be Zamora. The program I'm teaching with only allows you to choose the top three regions you'd like to be placed in, what type of school, and what size of city. None of the preferences are guaranteed as they place hundreds of teachers all over the country. I had indicated Castilla y León as my first choice because Stanley had said his favorite city was Burgos (the site of many scenes in Seven Noble Knights). I was thrilled when I received my first regional choice, but intuited that it wasn't going to be Burgos.

There were two Spanish pop songs in the 1980s that had provincial capitals of Castilla y León in their titles, and I strongly felt that it was going to be one of them. In my darker moments, I knew Soria was the place for me. I'm sure it's wonderful, but it's the only capital of Castilla y León that I haven't visited at all. Its '80s song is a six-minute epic of mystical angst and disappointment in love, complete with an organ that evokes church or the phantom of the opera.

These are the lyrics of "Camino Soria" (my translation):
Everyone knows it’s hard to find a place in life where time passes rhythmically without thinking, and pain doesn’t stay long. On the banks of the Duero there’s a city. If you don’t know the way, listen to this: The dead leaves fall slowly as you walk by and the deer begins to speak. On a cool morning the sun’s already out but can’t warm anything. When you can make out the mountain of the spirits, don’t look. Recover and keep walking. Bécquer was no idiot and Machado no lout, and from the two of them you find out that the cure for love is solitude. On the banks of the Duero, there’s a city. On the banks of the Duero, my love, I’m waiting for you. I’m headed to Soria, where are you going? There, I’m in my glory as never before. I’m headed to Soria. I want to rest. Erasing from my memory betrayals and the rest. Erasing from my memory, I’m headed to Soria. 

After the year I've had, I don't need any more brooding. I've got that covered. 

So I turned to the other song, "Zamora." The lead vocals are by none other than Manolo García, one of the loves of my life! Added to that, the lyrics and music are loud, fun, nonsensical, ROAD TRIP mayhem. (This is the 2015 version. The '80s version appears to use Zamora as an insane asylum. We'll leave that aside, too, thankyouverymuch.) 

These are some of the lyrics (my translation): 
There’s no rush to get there, everything’s yet to be discovered. If you want to come along, there’s room on board. I’m a gray Argonaut, but I have a plan: just friendship, that’s the deal. Chimeras, excitement, that’s what’s coming. Benzedrine-free shine, that’s the goal. A life of musicians who never want to stop, a life of acrobats and tricks. We’ll be freaks with excellent etiquette, guests no one is expecting. She looks at me, I fall in love with her, she takes me to Zamora. Our journey ends if I propose a wedding. And if you go off with someone else, I fall in love with your mother. You call me and say, “Calm down, don’t get worked up.” 

The Duero at Zamora
Photo by Jessica Knauss 
In both cases, the cities were chosen because of the multiple rhymes that could be made with their names, but I listened to "Zamora" on repeat for several days while I awaited my school assignment. When the email came in, it was so very official, with a dateline and everything, in the administrative capital of Castilla y León, Valladolid. Valladolid is a large and amazing city, but I was disconcerted because I thought I'd been assigned to a school there. No, silly, keep scrolling! Ah, there's the school address: It's in Zamora! Yippee! 

A fun song named after it, I started my first novel in it, Romanesque architecture, thrilling history, a good school, I should be able to walk just about everywhere, and it's close to Portugal. In ten trips I've taken to Spain, I've never set foot in Portugal. Time to dust off the bucket list. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Here Be Unicorns: The Tin House Summer Workshop

I read my heart out in the splendor of the Oregon outdoors.
Photo by Laura Citino 
Last July was the worst in my personal history, and this July is giving me no reason to love it at home. I'd heard of the Tin House Summer Workshop for writers and decided to apply for it, not imagining I would be accepted, but hoping it could be a way to spruce up a rotten month if I somehow were able to attend.

I was accepted! I agonized over whether to attend for about an hour. In the end, I decided good things are few and far between and I must take these opportunities when they come. 

Am I glad I did. There are few things I would trade that week for. I learned so much about writing, I think I could teach it. I met some rock stars of the publishing world, and they were all good human beings—no egos darkened the week. Most secret and alchemical of all, putting so many writers together to work with each other creates a sense of belonging like I've never experienced. If you are a writer, do Tin House. Even if you never do another writerly community activity, apply and apply until you get in to this one. You won't regret it. 

The bookstore displayed a few of the faculty's magisterial titles. 
This summer, we enjoyed meeting and talking shop with stellar faculty: Margot Livesey, Saeed Jones, Danielle Evans, Karen Shepard, Renee Gladman, Joshua Ferris, Manuel Gonzales, Morgan Parker, James Hannaham, Naomi Jackson, Emily Witt, Jim Shepard, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roger Reeves, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Natalie Diaz, Anthony Doerr, Mat Johnson, Paul Lisicky, and Mary Ruefle. Additionally, there were agents and most of the editors of Tin House. Everyone took students' work seriously with naturalness and humility that make the world a wonderful place. They divulged their deepest writing secrets without prodding. We were all there for the same reason: to celebrate and create good writing. 

We were accompanied at all times by ravens. They scavenged during our outdoor meals and made portentous paths across the sky at the evening readings. For many, ravens are frightening, but for someone who's seen them up close at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, they're marvels of nature. Many and many a year ago, my old pal Eddie granted them a literary air that felt appropriate for the week. 


Visitors to campus that week got the impression
Oregon is a sunny, warm place. 
Word was that the janitorial staff hates Tin House week because the attendees are always drinking and getting locked out of their rooms. I did neither, but still had a rich, socio-psychologically complex time. I can only report on a fraction of what we packed into that week.

I'd already been deeply impressed with the quality of the other participants' stories as I read them in preparation for the week. I got the feeling I would be working with writers who were not only better than me (which is ideal in a workshop situation), but also were just as weird or weirder than me. Normally, I'm the only writer in a room who's heavily influenced by magical realism and worships the unexpected. I had trouble identifying the emotion that rose up within me when we all met for the first time—could it be a sense of belonging? I feel it so infrequently now that my true love is gone, it seems overly sentimental and out of place, but oh, if I find it again, I'll grab on and never let go! The workshop leader and I weren't the only published authors in the room, and yet everyone was there to listen and learn. Never stop learning. Never close yourself off to new ideas that could make you a better writer/person.

Manuel Gonzales gave a lively lecture
in which he mentioned both his unicorn story
and his friend Marie-Helene Bertino's unicorn story,
which won an O. Henry Prize. 
"Leave your preconceived notions about how a story should work at home," said our workshop leader during the orientation session. I chose to be in Manuel Gonzales's workshop because I'd read his short story collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories. I dared not dream the author of those crazy-beautiful creations would grant his proteges access to his mystical mastery of imagination, but I figured at least I would get to say we were in the same room for a while. 

During the orientation workshop, Tin House had everyone bring a paperback book they enjoyed in  a white elephant paperback exchange. Everyone's selection seemed unusual and exciting, demonstrating their eclectic tastes. Manuel Gonzales presented his book last and explained it was no used copy but something he bought specially. It was worth the wait—the lucky student to his left received The Princess Bride, which he admired for its humor and daring narrative techniques! A dopamine rush for at least this student! I knew then that I'd made the right choice.


Gonzales's dynamic reading convinced me to buy his novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack! In his masculine voice, I heard the fast-paced self-deprecation of his sassy young female protagonist. I can't wait to read it, especially after I heard a bit about the book's journey from idea to published novel. The lecture he gave, "In Particular, The Universal," discussed the way fine details help readers relate to the characters and story and take it as their own. He's often asked what his unicorn story is about. It's about a unicorn. It must be a real, physical unicorn before it can take on any further meaning. To take an example from Marie-Helene Bertino's O. Henry Prize–winning story, in order for her unicorn to symbolize inherited family burdens, we must first imagine what would happen if someone tried to transport a real unicorn in an SUV. (It would eat things it shouldn't and do its business everywhere. It's the writer's job to depict exactly what it ate and ruined and how—but only if it adds to the story.)  


Eleven other writers and I were lucky because we got to spend hours with Gonzales, while everyone else got only the short reading and hour-long lecture. He made it clear from the beginning that stories are serious business, and his critiques were jaw-droppingly perceptive, but he approached our work with a biting sense of humor and bone-dry delivery that had us laughing the entire two-and-a-half hours the workshop lasted every day. In the middle of the week, someone from a neighboring workshop came to the door to tell us to keep the noise down. "You can't keep us from loving each other," he retorted, though I'm not sure anyone else heard, because they'd already found the request so humorous. While I perceived straightforward love and tenderness in the other workshops, our atmosphere felt unique. Respect and equality were established among us with vigorous ribbing and creative antagonism no one else seemed to understand.

Our group dynamic followed a character arc I'm not at liberty to discuss here, but it involved a lot of cleverness, trivia night, and the O. Henry Prize. The well-earned finale was when, after the last workshop, one of the students returned from her individual consultation to tell us, "He said he really enjoyed working with us!" Hallelujah, amen. 

In other events of note, a mindfulness seminar run by none other than Aimee Bender's husband brought sanity to the beginning of each day. Writers being as crazy as any other artists, the seminar was an excellent idea I hope they bring back.

Last but not least, my true love was with me for all the ups and downs. He was perhaps most present when I attended Aimee Bender's reading and brought my hardcover of The Color Master for her to sign. I'd bought it when the book first came out, when Stanley and I were living in a hotel in North Carolina. The first edition has an embossed title that's a tactile delight, and Aimee greeted it like an old friend. I told her how Stanley and I had read all her books to each other, and I silently remembered the feel of the hard couch in the hotel and the bizarre futon we had during our lean Arizona years, and the way Stanley would tell me, with his heart-melting voice, his unique impression of each story as soon as I finished. Aimee wrote the lovely inscription pictured, and I retreated to my room so no one would see me weeping widow's tears.

Get more tangible details about this week at Drew Ciccolo's blog post. Takeaway: Always walk back from Safeway!

Thank you, Tin House and everyone who attended.