I was watching Mallorca disappear in the dark, dawn barely a glimmer on the horizon, as the plane carried us toward Madrid.
And as I pressed my forehead against the window, eyes dimly picking out shapes and following contours on the island that had been an inspirational sanctum for the last week, I felt suddenly bereft. I had come to Mallorca for a writing workshop with American poet Ellen Bass, and after six intense days of delving into the craft, I had emerged more a writer than I’ve ever felt.
It may seem a strange awareness to note, considering my career as a journalist and the fact that writing was among the first skills in which I flourished as a child. But on our last day at La Serrania, the pastoral mountain retreat that served as our refuge, we gathered to reflect on our experience. There were 13 of us who had come from the US to study with Bass, gifted writers all, several incredibly accomplished and even published, who never tired of learning more about the art of prose and poetry that kindled a necessary but too often untended spark in their lives.
“Hi, my name is Naila, and I’m a writer.”
I didn’t say those exact words, but they did teeter on my tongue, a simple distillation of something more profound. For temporarily freed of the framework of writing for a living — and the tangle of ambition, dedication, responsibility and even tedium, on occasion, that accompanies that occupation — I discovered a greater imperative for why I write: It is essential to who I am, something both alive and enlivening, which has the ability to renew and transform my world.
In claiming myself as a writer, I was also affirming an innate creative impulse that I’d once believed to be the endowment of the visual and performing artist and the crafters who speak with their hands.
Did I need to go to Mallorca to have this creative energy drawn out? Perhaps not.
But the trip was the kind of leap that propels discovery and revelation. I had never been to Europe, never sat in a writing group, never even studied poetry, which was the craft that I went to explore. And though I expected to feel apprehensive and intimidated sitting in a group of strangers who would provide feedback on my writing, I was swamped by nerves only on that first day before sharing my first piece.
As the week progressed, that uneasiness softened to a slight flutter that disappeared the moment I began to read, as Bass, whose poetry has been much lauded and widely published, proved a kind and wise teacher, adept at creating a safe and nurturing space that allowed us to examine with our pens the profound and personal, the humorous and painful.
Of course, it wasn’t all work, though each morning began with a workshop, followed by time for writing, after which we’d share our new creations before sitting down to dinner. But we also spent time in the historic town of Pollensa on market day, where vendors plied everything from jamon, the dry-cured ham that Spain is known for, and other fresh cuts of meat to fruits and vegetables, jewelry, clothing and souvenirs. There, we roamed the narrow streets that wound through 17th- and 18th-century architecture, and I made the climb up 365 stairs to the tiny chapel of El Calvari overlooking the town, where a somber Good Friday tradition concludes with a mock crucifixion of a Christ figure whose body is then ceremonially removed from the cross and paraded through the streets.
Midweek, another excursion took us to a beach in S’illot on the eastern coast of the island, where the Mediterranean beckoned in a striking and buoyant blue from a quiet, sandy cove. These side trips were optional, as some in the group always chose to stay behind to write. But even at La Serrania, situated in the foothills of the Sierra de Tramontana mountains, there was plenty of opportunity to be fed by the tranquil beauty of this remote part of Mallorca. Surrounded by acres of olive, almond and oak trees, the house itself was a marvel of contemporary design, with high ceilings and large glass doors allowing the outside in, while several terraces — including a dining setting so idyllic, we half expected Spanish actor Javier Bardem to appear at any moment — gardens and an outdoor pool afforded spectacular views of the mountains and the Sant Miquel valley.
When not sightseeing, writing or gorging myself on the delicious Mediterranean meals prepared for us daily, I passed the time with my roommate Kate and other new friends in walks that led us past wide enclosures of sheep and goats, peacocks and chickens, on barely traveled roads draped in an unspoiled verdancy. On one particularly boisterous night, a group of us stood under a brimming canopy of stars, testing a rusty astronomy and ardently warbling our way through a limited catalog of Spanish songs, from “Besame Mucho” to “Guantanamera.”
Each of those moments fueled that precious unfurling, the expansiveness and creative vigor that I would seize, aroused as much by the simple pleasures of the place where we sojourned as they were by our daily instruction and practice in tapping a deeper expressive vein. But flying back to Philadelphia from Madrid, sorrow still pressed against me. What if the magic I’d experienced was somehow contained to Mallorca? What if that part of me that had stretched and grown and hummed with a greater vibrancy evaporated once I was home?
I navigated the first few days back feeling surprisingly tender. But where I had feared the slow riving of my experience from the more familiar fabric of the everyday, I now realized my tears as a bittersweet psalm for a still-emerging self, birthed anew to my craft. On the surface, my life may look no different than before I left and it would be difficult to transpose it with such a gift of idyll and time.
Still, as often happens when we begin to fully inhabit those things that bring deep purpose and joy to our lives, I know this trip will cast wide ripples into the future.
I was sitting at the eye doctor’s office last week waiting to be called in for my exam when one of the receptionists, noting my furious scribbles in the notebook I carried, asked if I were a student.
“I’m a writer,” I said, the words midwifed in Mallorca but animating life on these shores.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times