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Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat by Katrine Geneau

Collage by Katrine Geneau

I felt as if I had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. One moment I was enveloped in greys – drab grey skies, dirty grey snowbanks, and asphalt grey roads; the next moment I was in a wonderland of colour. I had slid longitudinally from Toronto to Santiago, Chile. It was February. The mystery of the malleability of time and space made me marvel as I found myself suddenly basking in the warmth of the Santiago sun against a backdrop of blue skies, singing birds, trees in green, and flowers in bloom.

I love to travel with a purpose, and the purpose of this trip to Chile was to learn how to write. For several years, I’d been plugging away at a memoir. Working in isolation, I was desperate for feedback. Was my story interesting? Was it of value? Was my writing style any good? I need to find a workshop where I can get some quality instruction and be inspired by other writers, I decided.

I began searching the Internet for writing workshops, and noticed that Google seemed consistently to serve up the same page: Allyson Latta – Los Parronales, Writers’ Retreat, Santiago, Chile – February 7 to 21, 2010. It fit all of my criteria: a two-week retreat in a warm climate during February or March. I also wanted it to originate in Toronto so that I could personally meet the instructor before making the commitment. As a fledgling writer, I needed someone who would be supportive and encouraging.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that this was it. Allyson was leading an Introductory Memoir Writing Workshop at the North York Central Library just as my search was underway, and when I got there I was delighted to find her warm, engaging, articulate, and fully knowledgeable about the art of memoir writing. Then I noticed her credentials. Almost every book I’d read in the past few years had her name in it as a contributing editor. I called and reserved my place.

The adventure began. With a printed manuscript in hand – an electronic copy in my computer and a second electronic copy on a stick (just in case) – I arrived in Santiago. It had been arranged that our hostess, Susan Siddeley, would meet me at the airport, and as I eagerly looked around for her, I realized that I was being signalled by a customs official. They had spotted some almonds in my handbag. Not acceptable! Why had I lied when I marked on the form that I was not bringing seeds into the country? It took me an hour to convince them that this was just a snack, that in English “seeds” and “nuts” weren’t the same thing, and that I wasn’t a criminal. I watched with amusement as they confiscated my tiny Ziploc bag with its handful of almonds and made me sign several documents in triplicate. When I firmly but politely refused to pay the $200 fine, they pardoned me and told me to go.

Susan was relieved when she finally saw me, and whisked me out of the airport to her waiting car. Ten minutes later, turning off the main highway, we drove along a dusty, pot-holed road until we reached the oasis that would be my home for the next two weeks, Los Parronales. I was greeted by the other participants who were having lunch outside on the patio. How delicious! Authentic Chilean food. Outdoor meals in the warmth of the sun. The company of like-minded people. The sudden appearance of a young boy riding horseback down the lane. The magnolia tree in bloom. And to think that up the rabbit hole, it was still all grey.

My first e-mail to my husband from an Internet café a few days later says it all:

“Have been struggling to get connected and it looks like I’m finally on, but am not sure how long the line will stay open, so I’ll be quick. Lots to tell! We’ve had a few great classes with Allyson where she’s shared a lot of information about memoir writing and writing in general. The classes start at 9:00 a.m. sharp. We usually have a break around 10:30, and when we reconvene, we all read something we’ve written and get feedback from the others. The time flies and before I know it, its noon! Last night Allyson did my first one-on-one consultation. She gave me great advice: Don’t tell me; show me. Take me with you on your journey. Point out what you’ve discovered and let me come to my own conclusions. I’m also learning how to lift the story off the page. Exactly what I was hoping to learn. Allyson is really generous with her time. The other participants have rich and colourful stories to tell. Most of them are ex-pats who have lived all over the world. They are originally from the US, Canada, Japan and other South American countries. Most of them have been part of a writing group for years in Santiago and are very good. I’m learning a lot from hearing how they write. I have to go now and do my homework: our assignment is to write 500 words about an event that ‘flopped’ – in a humorous way. I’m going outside to write by the side of the pool.”

A lot happened by the side of the pool in the afternoons following our intense three-hour morning classes. Sometimes we wrote. Sometimes we talked, getting to know each other and sharing stories about the rich and unique lives we’d all lived on different continents. Sometimes we simply rested and took in the precious rays of sun. After a few days, several of us decided that we would continue to read our work and give each other feedback during Happy Hour – while drinking pisco sours (a popular Chilean cocktail) and watching the sun set over the foothills behind the vineyard that gave Los Parronales its name.

Before Santiago, my obra, as they call it in Spanish, had been carefully crafted, nurtured like a baby, loved and protected. While I knew it needed something, I didn’t know what. Nevertheless, I liked a lot of what I had written and was surprised and disappointed during the first few sessions to notice that I wasn’t holding the attention of my listeners. “Show us; don’t tell us,” continued to be the cry. “We don’t care about your history until we know who you are. Grab us. Take us with you. Involve us. Include us.” I gulped and rewrote. Then I read again. Better, but not yet good enough. I tried once more. Each time, I got a better sense of how to engage my readers. It was clear I would have to re-tool my entire work. But now, at least I had a sense of how to go about it.

We left Los Parronales only a few times during our stay other than our daily trip to the Internet café to send and retrieve our emails. Our gracious hosts took us to see the charming port of Valparaiso; we spent an afternoon in Santiago; and we took a trip to Pablo Neruda’s museum-like home on the coast at Isla Negra. Chile is considered a developing country but everywhere we went we saw the great strides toward modernity that it has made over the past three decades.

The day came when I had to go back up the rabbit hole. I reluctantly emerged again into a physical landscape of cold and grey, but now I was buffered by rich memories, colourful photographs and a whole new understanding of how to bring my experience to life on the page.

Katrine is an Executive Coach with Katrine Geneau & Associates. Working in organizations, her focus is on coaching senior management to develop their leadership capabilities and to work collaboratively with others as a way of reaching their full potential as well as furthering organizational change and excellence.