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A writer's retreat

Summer course in Colombia proves to be a magical, eye-opening experience for MFA students

September 6, 2018

For three weeks, a day in class involved listening to a lecture held in a room with large windows overlooking the Caribbean Sea, followed by hours of uninterrupted writing stirred by the beauty of the city that inspired the haunting works of Gabriel García Márquez. For the MFA in Creative Writing students who spent most of June in the Cartagena de Indias of Colombia, the experience was as magical as a García Márquez novel and as eye-opening as a powerful crónica.

The special Study Abroad program this summer took MFA students to one of the most historically significant cities in the Americas to study the genre of magical realism through the words of García Márquez in a course taught by Colombian novelist Margarita Borrero. A second course focused on the history of crónicas, the Latin American tradition of nonfiction, taught by nonfiction writer Lisa Fetchko.

“This course and study abroad experiential opportunity showed me what it is to live completely as a writer for three weeks,” says Sharon Cleveland Blount ’18 MFA. “My mind was clear, my imagination was allowed to wander and drift into areas that allowed for expansion and creativity in my writing. I was focused. I was there for a reason and I wrote.”

Question: What was a typical day like while you were in Cartagena?

Blount: There were two courses offered in Cartagena. One was the Marquez course the other was Cronica. I only needed to enroll in one class to complete my degree. I selected the Marquez course. Although I was not very familiar with Marquez, the more I learned about him and his legacy, the more I became excited to study him and visit Cartagena where he lived and wrote.

While in Cartagena, I would wake around 6 a.m., my typical wake-up time. I would do a little reading and/or writing. At about 7 a.m. I would go across the street to the beach, less than 100 feet, to practice my yoga routine. After yoga, I would take a dip in the Caribbean Sea. This was such a refreshing and igniting way to start my day and would take a little over an hour. I admit that I missed the mark more days than I would have liked, but starting my day this way was always the goal and fueled me. After yoga and the beach, I would go back to the room, shower and change for breakfast. The daily breakfast buffet was offered from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Several dishes became my favorites and I just ordered them over and over, like the arroz con coco (rice made with coconut) and limonade de coco (lemonade with coconut – splendidly refreshing!). After breakfast, I walked up one flight of stairs to be in class by 9:30 a.m. Class ended at 11:30am. I had the rest of the day free to read and write (there were plenty of homework assignments to complete) explore Cartagena, go shopping or spend time relaxing on the beach. We did take a few days to tour Cartagena as a group and also took an island excursion, all of which was included in the package.

I really appreciated the convenience of the courses being offered in the hotel conference rooms, which had large windows overlooking the Caribbean Sea. I often found myself just peering out the window in amazement.

Q: What kinds of writing did you work on? 

Blount: Since I enrolled in the course that studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his writings, I was about to understand the methods that he used to formulate his works. Marquez was a journalist and many of his short story ideas spawned from los periodicos. His style of writing is labeled “magical realism.”  I learned how “magical realism” works and how to use that as a style of writing, which really lines up with how I think and write anyway. The concept allows the writer to create from reality or personal experience and then add elements of fantasy, delivering a magically crafted fiction experience. So, in addition to reading Marquez and understanding his style, we wrote assignments incorporating his techniques. At the end of the course, our final project was to create a short story (of 2,000 to 5,000 words) using the writing devices and techniques discussed in class. We started the final assignment in Cartagena and given time to complete it when we returned home during the second half of the course.

In addition to the course assignments, I wrote poetry. I had just finished taking a poetry class with Professor JoAnna Novak the previous semester, so I put my newly developed poetry-writing skills to the test. I was inspired by the surroundings and people of Cartagena. I wrote about 10 poems during my stay in Cartagena. I also did daily journaling about the whole experience. 

Q: What was the most memorable part of the experience?

Blount: I love travel and any time I can do that I will. This was the first time in decades that I was able to spend three weeks away on one trip. They say it takes 21 days to develop a habit. Well, I knew I wanted to develop stronger writing habits and this uninterrupted time would give me the opportunity to do that. I wanted to set up daily writing periods to utilize and work my writing muscles and understand my own writing style, habits, both good and bad, and how to push myself when I feel stifled or stuck. I did just that.

We did a Gabo tour with a charming local named Marelvy. She was absolutely delightful and extremely well versed in Marquez, the history of Cartagena and Columbia. She took us all around Cartagena and even into places that were off limits, but because of her connections, we were allowed to visit them. We saw breathtaking views from the top of La Popa Monastery to the market where slaves were bought and sold. She showed us the inspirational landmarks that Marquez included in his writings, like the convent written about in “Of Love and Other Demons.” It was a most memorable day and the highlight of my Cartagena experience.

Q: What made this experience unique?

Blount: For me, the ability to live as a writer for three weeks, undisturbed by family, work, phone calls or other daily distractions, made this the optimal writing experience for me. My mind was clear, my imagination was allowed to wander and drift into areas that allowed for expansion and creativity in my writing. I was focused. I was there for a reason and I wrote.

I understand why Hemingway travelled to Havana and why Marquez loved Cartagena. They found their writing muses in these places. Their inspiration. I found my muse in Cartagena. I have fond memories of sitting on the beach by the Caribbean Sea, consumed with writing, all day. That was a life-altering experience for me. No distractions. Also, being able to trace the steps of Marquez and experience Cartagena through his writing lens. A writer’s dream.

Also, I was able to greet the day on the beach and end the day with the sun setting in my hotel room  window overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Priceless views and scenes in my memory.

Q: Why did you decide to take this course? And now that you’re back, did it meet your expectations?

Blount: The course totally exceeded my expectations. As a writer, the experience stretched me. The course instructor, Margarita Borrero, gave me personal attention, incredible guidance and constructive feedback on my work and creative ideas. She literally took me by the hand and tenderly guided me through the process of short story writing. I had never written a short story before and she encouraged me in a way that was helpful, encouraging and supportive. I will never forget her.

This course and study abroad experiential opportunity showed me what it is to live completely as a writer for three weeks. That was my initial reason for taking the course. I wanted to isolate myself from my daily distractions in a tropical environment. I love that Columbia was selected. It is just beginning to enjoy the massive benefits of tourism so everyone was very eager to please. Cartagena is scenic and alive. I had no expectations or preconceived ideas about it. I was not aware of it or Marquez before learning of the trip offering. This course and experience was the quintessential highlight of the creative writing program for me.

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