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Lisbon Conversation: Part II

denise duhamel and ellen mitchell

Jelly Bucket speaks with BGWS MFA Graduate Assistant Ellen Mitchell about her 2017 Summer Residency in Lisbon, Portugal

Q. Why did you decide to satisfy the MFA residency requirement abroad?

A. I viewed the Lisbon writing residency as a major luxury (which it is, in objective terms). This may seem surprising coming from someone who spent 14 years living in France, but maybe for that reason, I saw Lisbon as a stretch. That said, I recall Robert-Dean Johnson’s remarks about how there is nothing like writing far away from your daily distractions and routines, and this is far more true than I understood before going to Lisbon. My three weeks there were especially productive and replete with insights. I made major breakthroughs on the plotline for my novel, and big strides in developing each of the characters in the story’s psychological triangle.

The grind of daily life can really hamper the creative process. Being far away from familiar patterns was extremely freeing, and Lisbon is a uniquely writer-friendly city. The Portuguese value writers and writing in a special way, and the many public readings and cultural visits we were treated to were creatively supportive in ways that surprised and delighted me.

Q. With intensive classes and a dense schedule of cultural outings and author readings, how did you find time to write and advance your own work?

A. Ha! Good point. I was determined to make space for writing and quiet reflection. I chose to skip the nightly party scene for the most part, and did not sign up for extra workshops Tuesday and Thursday mornings during the first two weeks. I also did not dedicate my weekends to tourism, save for a wonderful day trip to the seaside, and to visit the Paula Rego museum, so I was able to be productive, and to get plenty of rest. I spent long lunches with my BGWS classmates, attended readings and cultural visits, and enjoyed a couple group dinners, but kept to myself a lot, too. It was the right balance for me, but was the exception. Most folks socialized every evening in the wonderful restaurants and nightlife of Lisbon, which is magical.

Lisbon was my first residency, period, so I made it about my work and my process; perhaps next year I will use the evenings to network and socialize more with other writers.

Q. Tell us about your writing workshop experience with Disquiet.

A. I lucked into Robert Olmstead’s fiction workshop, and had a stellar experience. He’s a talented, experienced workshop leader and I respect his writing talent and style very much. He has an impressive, nurturing presence, and managed to take our group of 13 writers into a deep space of reflection on the fictive dream that borders on the meditative. He put forth several over-arching aspects of his writer’s ethos: “As fiction writers, we’re all liars. My fiction explains me to the world; it’s what I put between me and the world.” He also preaches what he calls “the gospel of concision”.

I was pleased to discover his fiction and teaching skill as a member of Disquiet. I devoured The Coldest Night (Algonquin 2003) during residency in the space of 2 days. It was featured on the Tell A Story bookmobile as one of the novels written all or partially in Lisbon. Olmstead developed a chapter of it while teaching at Disquiet. I couldn’t resist asking him to sign it, which he graciously did.

Q. What about the other workshop students? Was it intimidating to be in a large group that included several published writers?

A. The quality of the writing was very high, and the tone and ambiance of the workshop was equally supportive and professional. I was pleasantly surprised to see how Olmstead fostered an atmosphere that was both relaxed and rigorous in a group that included undergraduates, MFA students, experienced professional writers, and teachers. It was exhilarating, and sent me home each day inspired to write and develop ideas.

Q. Tell us about week 3, after the Disquiet program, when you worked with BGWS faculty in Lisbon.

A. There were five of us there, lead by Carter Sickels, who was hugely supportive throughout the residency, and took time to meet with us individually, and for group dinners. By week 3, we were well in the groove and deep into the writerly experience of Lisbon, which made our last week both productive and pleasant. Week 3 with Carter gave us a forum to apply what we’d been learning in the Disquiet workshops right away and build on that. The synergy was really there for me, and I found the whole experience exceeded my high expectations. I would add that being in a new country and a new city made me very receptive, in a creative sense. The new colors, flavors, sights, and sounds cracked me wide open and made it possible to connect with other writers, share ideas, receive creative inspiration, and grow my novel in ways I did not expect. Lisbon is a very special place, and I plan to return there to write. We are so lucky to have Disquiet open to us via BGWS; it’s a treasure.

Q. Dipping back into logistics for a moment, how did it feel arriving in a new country for the first time?

A. It was familiar and strange at the same time. I spent a week visiting friends in Paris before heading to Portugal. The Lisbon airport is, among things, a luxury shopping hub for travelers, and you have to walk through dozens of high-end retail spaces to exit the building, so it was contiguous with Paris in that sense. I recognized the familiar emblem of the painted rooster right away, from a souvenir my grandmother brought me from her visit there in the late 1970s (at which time the 40-year dictatorship had just ended). The airport staff was friendly and directed me to the metro, which is easily accessible, and provided a nice map of the city. Purchasing a metro ticket was easy and secure. I was at my AirBnB in less than an hour after landing in Lisbon, and the weather was lovely. It was a comfortable, peaceful arrival and I was able to settle in right away.

Q. What did you notice right away about being in Lisbon?

A. One thing I noticed as soon as I got on the metro was how laid-back the culture is compared to Paris or New York, for example. You can feel right away Lisbon is Mediterranean, a port city; there are palm trees and flowering plants you don’t see in northern Europe. In the three weeks I was there, I didn’t notice anyone rushing or being aggressive in the metro—which I took almost every day, so could observe people late at night and during rush hour.

I enjoyed the understated and peaceful ambiance. The one exception was a late evening after a dinner out with friends. It was time for the last metro before the stations closed for the night. The station was full of students racing to make the last train. We all sprinted to the quay, and the station officers started playing the theme song to Chariots of Fire as we ran, piping it through the whole complex; it was hilarious! I did make the train, but it was jam-packed, like in a cartoon, with people pressed up against the glass. Try to avoid this if you can.

Another detail I noticed is that women dress more discretely than in many European cities I’ve been in. Lisbon ladies tend to fuss less with hair coloring and make up, and to wear muted colors and comfortable shoes. Dying one’s hair was forbidden during the dictatorship, so I wonder if this understated way of dressing is a holdover from this period… I was actually looking for some nail polish, and had no luck in the large grocery store near my apartment, nor at the pharmacies I tried. I had to go to an international beauty shop in a touristic area to find some (priced at 12EUR!). It was a small detail, but a telling one. Food for thought…

Q. What can you tell us about the cultural offerings open to you as a Disquiet participant?

A. Disquiet offers a full schedule of high-quality readings and panel discussions featuring a diverse selection of authors and experienced publishing professionals, so you are very much there to meet professional authors, acquisitions editors, and to promote your work. It’s very hands-on, and the opportunities are real. We had a full day of classes and readings open to us every day, with a group outing and literary/arts lecture to the seaside the first Saturday of the residency. Nothing on the schedule was “filler”, and Disquiet even scheduled a second open mic for participants to read original work in a casual setting. The whole experience was stimulating, rigorous, and nurturing.
I was impressed by the red carpet treatment we received in Lisbon. The opening reception was in a gorgeous private garden housed right next to the Cultural Center, and the closing reception was hosted by the American Embassy. We were treated to a simultaneously-translated interview with veteran writer-activist Marie Teresa Horta at the Fundacao Luco-Americana para o Desenvolvemento (FLAD; the Foundation for Luso-American Development). This was so amazing! Ms. Horta discussed her experience as a writer and woman under the fascist regime; she evoked the backlash of “chauvinistic hysteria” you can still catch whiffs of today. Her talk was a big inspiration on the value of creative freedom and voice. Her challenge to us that night was to tell us “Your story is yours. Find it and tell it."

Published on September 19, 2017

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