Monday 22 January 2018

Step from darkness into the Write Light

Open up your soul with a liberating and inspiring workshop on memoir writing in south Spain, advises Mick Francis

Mick Dunne

Last month in Tarifa, the southernmost point of Europe where a sea meets an ocean, I was -- as my writing tutor Nell McCafferty put it -- in a privileged position to be the one young man among a class of seven older women, as we began to explore the skill of memoir writing.

Natasha Smith, originally from Celbridge, Co Kildare, runs these liberating and inspiring five-day workshops under the title In the Write Light.

Yes, I had felt privileged to be among such a group of writers, but I was also in a precarious position, as I was there to document my experience in Tarifa. I'm not a journalist, as Nell reminded me -- I'm a writer who felt blessed to win a short story competition and a place in this memoir workshop.

Tutor and students, understandably, identified me as "the spy", there to dish the dirt from the table, at which we were encouraged to pick from bowls of emotional hand grenades. As we sat in communion, writing, reading and learning, the menu of memoir varied, but it was usually washed down with plentiful tears, corks popped by irrepressible emotions no longer bottled up in the dark cellars of souls.

What passion I may have had for women before this experience became nothing less than overwhelming compassion, and as I myself opened up, regarding the traumas and wonders of my own barmy life, the sense of suspicion toward me somewhat dissolved. My seven new mammies were becoming my seven new friends.

Weathering a sandstorm atop a hill on the beach at Bologna, I squinted to view the Rif mountains of Africa, beyond the surfers on the sea, and wondered why I hadn't written about the unexpected death of my father until now.

Had my fellow students needed to know that, after his passing in 1985, I had worn his tweed coat, just to smell the Major tobacco on the sleeve, which soon became forevermore damp with the tears of a 10-year-old boy?

Yes, Nell taught -- particular detail is vital to distil the essence of a personal story. Her intense and challenging classes had not only been valuable lessons in memoir writing; they have been lessons in life and the often elusive pursuit of true happiness. This workshop was a form of therapy for all who sat at that table and bravely let an alien light shine into the deepest, darkest pits of privacy.

As emotional true stories were read aloud, notes were usually taken, lessons always learned, until somebody would be reminded of the words to a song. Before we knew it, we were laughing and singing like sopranos to raise the roof and the light of, not sisterhood, or brotherhood, but the light of humanity.

We had become a fellowship, celebrating the plentiful and effortless joys of life once more. We weren't chained to the legs of the table, but more than often we didn't want to leave it. We wanted more.

The five-day workshop consists of 16 hours of classes, beginning after breakfast, in a high-walled house, decorated with abstract paintings and sculptures, located in the slow-beating heart of old-town Tarifa.

Adjacent to our luxurious bedrooms, most of us had private terraces, to reflect and to write in the shade, and then there was the tiled rooftop, strewn with potted plants, where we could laze about under the sun on deckchairs, in the company of a curious swallow or two.

Each afternoon, we would ramble through the maze of cobbled streets before dining in some of Tarifa's finest restaurants. All of this is included in the package.

One joyful night, after a barbecue and a singsong on the roof, I left the party and scanned the whitewashed and rusty-red rooftops, as the diluting sun sank down behind Morocco. On a distant rooftop, a string pegged with dancing clothes caught my gaze, which reminded me of a tale that I had been privileged to hear earlier that day. It regarded a woman who would always pause to take stock of what she had accomplished at the end of a day, even if it be something as everyday as a line of laundry hanging out to dry.

Thanks to Nell, so much had been accomplished that day. I whispered a "wow" to the first star of the night, before returning to the company of brave friends and damn brave writers.

My classmates' incredible memoirs may someday comfort and encourage readers to dream aloud and to pursue the life that they desire, and perhaps to drop a line to the lovely Natasha in Tarifa (, letting her know that they too have a story to tell (as we all do), but wish to learn how to tell it best, in a chilled-out town of Roman ruins, living and learning among kindred spirits, In the Write Light.

Sunday Independent

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