Writing Groups in Madrid

Spain Series: III

Come join me while I fill you in on the three different writing groups in Madrid I participated in during my week-long stay there after the fortnight’s writers’ retreat in southern Spain.

I spent the week doing clients’ work, and attending three different writers’ groups.

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 1: Write What you See

Seven of us met on a Monday evening in a café in the trendy suburb of Tribunal. The convenor is a multi-published author, and the others included an ex-journo from the States, a Spanish writer, an English writer, a Cuban scriptwriter, and my friend and I.

Tribunal Metro station for writing groups in Madrid

The convenor’s brief was to write a descriptive piece with no embellishment. ‘Just write what you see without commentary.’

You never know what you’re going to write in these impromptu sessions, which is part of the appeal. You’re put on the spot and it forces you to come up with something. I quite enjoy writing in longhand for a change from doing it on the laptop, which I tend to associate with ‘work’.

I began writing about what I observed around me: the décor of the café, a couple sitting at a table opposite ours, the wait staff. I was amused that the ex-journo wrote nothing the whole time, but sat with his chin in his hand, not-so-subtly observing us, his fellow writers. So I ended up returning the favour as his behaviour intrigued me. We wrote for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, we sat around talking for hours, but did not read out what we’d written.

This is what I wrote, warts and all. It won’t win any literary prizes, but neither was this the point of the exercise. I can imagine incorporating parts of this into other writing. Remember: we had to write only what we observed, with no commentary. I almost nailed it.

Reflections from wall-mounted lights on glossy ochre walls. Globes suspended from metal rods reflect distortedly on glossy ceiling.

Long-stemmed red carnations in bottles on marble-topped tables with shapely iron frames. Dark timber shutters and window frames.

Solitary tealight candle flickering in a glass. Red lights on expresso machine. White-shirted waitress pulling beers. Silver tray on metal tabletop.

Occasional laughter from front of café. Muted lighting. Parquet floor. Red upholstered lounges. Timber chairs. Twang of background jazz.

She sips on a white wine. He bends his head towards her, dark on dark, profile to profile, the red sofa between them the shape of a heart.

Man walks in carrying pamphlets. Blue cap. Blue and white striped shirt. Tan pants. Navy sports shoes. Walks to end of café. Looks disconcerted. Why are four men and two women sitting together at the back without speaking or looking at one another?

The journo, wearing a smart navy jacket and black-banded white trilby, observes, right leg crossed over left, right hand resting on right leg. Checks watch. Looks bored.

Writer in blue t-shirt taps sandalled foot in time to jazz. Removes glasses, checks mobile phone, taps out the beat with his foot.

Incongruous: a stick of celery in a vase of pink carnations.

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 2: Random Words

Just three of us turned up for this group held during the daytime. Not so surprising given that people work! And given Madrid’s unbearable summertime heat. We sat at an outdoor table in the shade as it was too busy and noisy indoors. Happily, a slight breeze made it pleasant enough.

The random words exercise is one I’ve carried out several times in writers’ groups I’ve run in the past. Some people love the exercise. Others hate it. Over the years, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised at what I’ve come up with, finding the writing has stood the test of time. I’ve published a couple of these stories on my website. Check here: https://editors4you.com.au/gail-tagarro-author/  

We wrote for only about 20 minutes and afterwards, read out what we’d written to the others. The random words we each picked were: Watch, Baffle, Broad, Dance, Challenge, Screeching, Cheese, Smother. I didn’t manage to fit in ‘cheese’ and didn’t want to force it into the writing.

This is what I wrote:

Sulphur-crested cockatoos screeching from the tops of the eucalypts in the paddock beside the house dragged her from her reverie. She watched them dancing from branch to branch, then they settled down. In the dusk, against the ashen clouds, they looked like splotches of snow.

In the still air and smothering heat, even breathing was a challenge.

Evan entered the room opposite, his broad shoulders seeming to take up the whole of the doorframe. He was still not speaking to her and she did not know how to break the silence between them. He had not even looked at her as he’d passed the room.

She sighed.

This was his house, his domain, his … everything. It was very clear that it was on her to put things right, to tidy up this mess they had found themselves in.

But how to do it?

She had tried to say she was sorry, tried to put things right, but her requests for forgiveness had only made him retreat further into himself.

The rain that had been building up all afternoon finally came in torrents, pounding on the tin roof and lashing the windows and the verandah. Hailstones the size of golf balls followed, crushing the tomatoes, shredding the lettuces and basil and lemongrass, silencing the cockatoos.

She should have protected the garden somehow. She’d known the storm was coming.

Gazing through the window at the destruction, she wasn’t aware of Evan entering the room until he came up to her and stood beside her. She jumped at his sudden nearness and a new apology sprang to her lips.

‘Evan …’ she began.

He shushed her, put his arm around her, pulled her close.

The rain eased and the cockatoos squawked and flew off, white blotches against the steely sky.

© Gail Tagarro 2010
cockatoos story writing groups in Madrid
Sulphur-crested cockatoos

Writing Groups in Madrid. Group 3: An Existing Short Story

My final writers’ group in Madrid was the best one from my perspective. Five of us met in yet another café, also located in the suburb of Tribunal.

The convenor writes for pleasure, and I found his critiquing abilities excellent. There was also a young scriptwriter from South America who despite his youth, was also excellent at critiquing.

Before the meeting, we were invited to submit to the convenor via Google Docs the piece of writing we intended to read to the group so the other members had the opportunity to read it beforehand. I chose an existing short story.

Here’s my story:

Stormy

Auckland. Summer of 2001. A night punctuated by thunderstorms, downpours.

She’d left the office late, was crossing the road during a heavy downpour to reach the bus stop. The gutters were flooded waterways, and in her skirt and high heels she was desperately but vainly trying to avoid getting drenched. ‘Damn weather-forecasters, never get it right,’ she grumbled. Car headlights illuminated the slick puddles as she waited at a pedestrian crossing. The windswept rain battered her umbrella and lashed against her legs. Finally, the green man beeped and flashed, and she ran across the street to the shelter of the shop verandahs and down the chewing-gum-splattered footpath to the bus stop. Newton was so seedy, so dirty, so goddamn ugly.

Only one other person was waiting at the bus stop, engrossed in his evening newspaper, immaculately dressed – and bone dry. The effrontery, blast him. Furiously self-conscious, she glanced at her reflection in a murky shop window and took a quick inventory: hair – windblown; clothes – half drenched; shoes – patchy with watermarks. She cast another furtive look at the newspaper reader. Where’s he come from, anyway, she wondered, scowling. Couldn’t have just appeared out of nowhere. She looked up and down the street. Wherever it was, he would have had to cross the street somewhere and been exposed to the weather. No one with those looks could work in one of these seedy buildings. A mystery.

She amused herself by inventing news headlines. Man defies the elements. Mystery man at bus stop. She smiled to herself, the bad mood lifting in synch with the steam rising from the road. Another look his way. What’s so interesting about that blasted newspaper anyway? He doesn’t even acknowledge that I exist. Even his newspaper’s dry. She scowled again.

‘Do you always scowl at strangers?’

‘What?’ Her startled eyes raced to his face. ‘Pardon? Are you talking to me?’

He looked around. ‘No one else here,’ he drawled.

She opened her mouth, about to retort in kind, but something about the way he was looking at her froze the impulse.

‘I do believe you’re speechless.’ She could only gape. ‘I get the impression you’re seldom at a loss for words.’

‘Bad day at the office,’ she mumbled, struggling to recover. ‘So where’s your office – up there? Doesn’t it rain in heaven?’

He laughed coolly. ‘Never lost for words, huh?’

‘Don’t know about me, but you sure look the type who likes to be right,’ she countered, recovered from her momentary loss of speech. ‘Um, have a nice life. Here comes our bus.’

‘A woman who must have the last word’. He threw the comment at her as the bus drew up.

Silence is often the best answer, she chanted silently, recalling some pseudo-philosophical words of wisdom she’d read recently in an email. But she couldn’t resist throwing him a withering look.

Casting about the bus for a suitable seat as she pushed her ticket in the electronic feeder, she was relieved to see a spare seat beside another woman. Edging through the dripping raincoats and umbrellas, she repressed the urge to grimace at the odour of dampness and humanity. Mr Smartmouth took the seat behind her. She felt his eyes drilling into her neck, tried to practise meditation to take her mind off him. But when she began thinking about the first chakra, associated with the colour red, her ears and neck and face became suffused with red. This made her so agitated and angry and frustrated and heated that she had to take off her hot, damp jacket. A contrived throat clearing behind her indicated it had not gone unnoticed. She sat fuming silently.

A crack of lightning followed immediately by a tremendous boom of thunder directly overhead made everyone jump and heightened her discomfort and irritation.

Finally, the bus reached her stop. Thank heavens I don’t have far to walk, she thought. Without a backward glance at Smartmouth, she alighted and dashed to the shelter of a nearby tree to put up her umbrella. The bus accelerated off with a roar and a haze of fumes. It was still raining torrentially, and she was anxious to reach home before the next bout of thunder and lightning.

‘I say, mind if I share your umbrella?’

She spun around. ‘My God, you’ve got a cheek! How dare you follow me home!’

‘Follow you home?’ he echoed incredulously. ‘I live here.’

‘Well, w… well, you can … you can just get wet, like the rest of us mere mortals.’ She began walking away. I owe him nothing, she thought.

‘I am wet actually, thanks to your not sharing your umbrella with me.’

‘What’s your problem? I don’t even know you. Give me one good reason why I should share my umbrella with you.’

‘Because it’s be-kind-to-stray-animals day, it’s Friday, there’s no work tomorrow, and when you walk me home, I’ll invite you in for a nice hot chocolate or brandy or whisky, whatever happens to take your fancy.’

‘My God, I’ve met Mr Confident. You’re so damned sure of yourself, aren’t you?’ Despite her protests, he was succeeding at drawing her in. ‘Where do you live, anyway?’

He took her arm and drew in close to her under the relative shelter of her umbrella.

‘Just up the road. What’s your name?’ he asked.

‘Gail.’

‘Is that spelt G-a-l-e?’

© Gail Tagarro 2010
couple with umbrella for writing groups in madrid

Critiquing is an art, that’s for sure. While I do it every day professionally as an editor and writing coach, I found myself somewhat reticent about providing the same level of critique in these groups. I guess it’s natural. I was the newbie and was attending the groups as a one-off.

photo of Unamuno for writing groups in Madrid
Miguel de Unamuno: an intellectual and literary giant, member of the Generation of ’98

I loved the ‘tertulia’ atmosphere of the writing groups. ‘Tertulia’ is a Spanish word meaning a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones. Meeting with other writers in the Madrid cafés was evocative of the tertulias I used to read about when I lived in Spain and studied Spanish language and literature. These included the famous tertulias of the ‘Generation of ’98’ and the ‘Generation of ’27’.

A full list of the writers comprising the Generation of ’98 and the Generation of ’27 is in the links below.

Acknowledgements

Wikipedia, 2019. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generaci%C3%B3n_del_27 and https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generaci%C3%B3n_del_98. Accessed 25 July 2019.


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