Diary of a recent writing program in Cuba (with photos)

January 23, 2023 § Leave a comment

For the second annual Havana residency of the Newport MFA in Creative Writing I had the distinct pleasure of working with my friend and distinguished fellow novelist Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology, The Puzzle Master (forthcoming from Random House), and numerous other books, and the horror-lit columnist for the The New York Times.

Danielle and yours truly hard at work at the Finca Vigía

In addition to being a writing program this trip was also a cultural trip to Cuba, full of the kind of rich, special visits and encounters that are possible to arrange with the help of an amazing Havana ground crew, which in this instance was headed up by a talented young Cuban guide and fixer, Miguel Espinosa.

Miguel with group on an observation platform at Salinas de Brito, Cienaga de Zapata N.P.

I thought it might be nice for those who participated (and really anyone else out there who is considering a non-touristy trip to Cuba) to have a day by day summary of events. ¡Buen provecho!

Day One.

Flights arrive. Meet at our main casa in Habana Vieja for orientation & intros, Group dinner at one of Havana’s many delicious and atmospheric paladares (private restaurants). It begins!

Day Two.

We explore Habana Vieja via bici-taxi, which is a fun way to see regular Cuban neighborhoods sort of incognito, or at least without standing out the way a large group of walking tourists would. We visit a neighborhood “agro” produce market, a shop selling items used in Afro-Cuban religious worship (70% of Cubans are practitioners), and stop to talk about the system of “libros de abastecimiento,” the subsidized food-rationing program that’s been in place since the just after the triumph of the Revolution in the early sixties.


There are many “articulos religiosos” stores in Havana selling supplies for the practice of santería and other Afro-Cuban religions. And they do a very brisk business!

After this, a visit to the Cuban collection at the Museo de Bellas Artes with my old friend Ortelio, a distinguished art historian who heads up the museum’s education department. Spectacular!

A relatively light lunch at Cinco Esquinas, a pleasant streetside café near the museum, followed by our first writing workshop up on the lovely shaded terrace of our casa. For non-writing participants, a visit to the home/studio of Mabel Poblet, a stunningly talented installation artist whose work is already gracing public spaces and distinguished collections around the world.

Jessica Horowitz photo

Later we meet up on the terrace of our main casa for cocktails and an illustrated lecture on Cuban history, followed by dinner up on the terrace of Ivan Chef Justo, one of Havana’s finest paladares. I feel like the trip has gotten off to a good start!

Day Three.

Morning workshop for the writers and a trip to the Colón Necropolis for everyone else: Havana’s haunting “city of the dead” whose little avenues are lined with exquisite tombs and statuary in Carrara marble, much of it cracked and in decay from years of exposure to the sun and the island’s Caribbean-maritime climate.

Group lunch at Fusterlandia, where the entire neighborhood has been made into a whimsical ceramic work of the imagination by internationally famous artist Miguel Fuster. The lunch is damn good too; today we had “guajo” (wahoo), caught the day before just off the north coast by the artist’s son, Alex.

Jessica Horowitz photo
Sam and Anabel with Miguel

Afterwards we head back into Habana Vieja for a specially organized visit to a rehearsal at the Lizt Alfonso school of dance. It’s hard to express how incredible it is to visit such accomplished young artists in their own working space. Witnessing the accomplishment and joy that is the result of so much applied hard practice as well as talent is a deeply inspiring thing—perhaps especially for those of us who aspire to creative accomplishments of our own.

We finish the day up at La Cabaña fortress for pizza, seven-year-old rum, and a faculty reading. We stick around for the famous Cañonazo ceremony, commemorating the nightly cannon shot that used to signal the closing of the gates and the pulling of a boom chain across the harbor, back in the days when Havana was a walled city besieged by English pirates.

Stasia with Havana in the background

Day Four.

This morning we visit the house of Adrián, a Babalawo, or high priest, of the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as santería. Adrián gives us a clear and fascinating insider’s look at the religion, which is based on Yoruba deities or orishas associated with aspects of the human character and various natural elements. Santería is a nature-based and highly inclusive spiritual practice; as it was strictly forbidden for long periods of Cuban history it became syncretized to Catholicism, widely practiced in secret at the household level. The Afro-Cuban religions are far too complex to give their full due here, but again, as they’re practiced at home by around 70% of the population, they’re absolutely central to understanding the island’s life and culture.  

Katrina Scott photo

After this we attend another inspiring rehearsal/performance, this one from a dynamic flamenco/Afro-Cuban fusion company known as Habana Compás. Soaringly beautiful and impossible to describe, and like the dance school yesterday, deeply inspiring. We leave with a feeling of energy and durable joy.

A great traditional Cuban lunch at Doña Eutimia, one of Havana’s oldest and finest paladares. Then the writers meet on the terrace for another workshop while the cultural group heads to Vedado for a fun and informative Art Deco Tour organized by our amazing Havana ground team.

The Bacardi building, a Havana art deco masterpiece

Back up on the terrace Danielle gives a fascinating craft talk on novel openings, followed by an illustrated lecture by yours truly on Hemingway in Cuba. The group then splits up for independent dinners.

One jolly crew heads out to one of my all-time favorite Havana watering holes, the eccentric and extremely atmospheric Café Sia Kara. The incredible house jazz trio has the night off, so we settle for a pair of excellent vocalists accompanied by a pianist performing their original and dynamic array of Cuban standards, along with a bit of Edith Piaf. Super fun!

Day Five.

This morning we visit Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s estate a twenty minute drive from Havana that was his principal residence for more than two decades.

Jessica Horowitz photo
Susan and Danielle at the Finca Vigía
Hemingway’s boat, The Pilar, dry-docked. Victoria Fortune photo

It’s even more magical than usual today in that we’ve received permission to conduct an on-site book discussion of The Old Man & the Sea, which turns out to be a pleasant and lively conversation incorporating not just the writers but the entire group. If you haven’t re-read this novella recently, I highly recommend it. It’s a towering work of literature certainly, but also just a highly enjoyable read page to page and an incredibly life-affirming one too in these days of global environmental crisis. Read it again and I think you’ll see what I mean. Especially if you’re planning a trip to Cuba!

We stop by La Terraza de Cojímar, the real-life setting for the book, which is unchanged from the 1950s when Hemingway was a regular here and truly stands as one of the great physical landmarks of world literature.

Jessica Horowitz photo
A very famous literary view

After a deliciously authentic Cuban country lunch at the paladar El Ajiaco, we load up for the two and a half hour journey south and east to Playa Larga, the small fishing village at the north end of the Bay of Pigs that is to be our home for the next three days. Upon arrival, we move into our beachside casas and celebrate our arrival with a delicious fresh seafood dinner on the porch overlooking the bay. Paradise found!

Day Six.

First thing this morning part of the group goes on a bird walk in the eastern section of the Cienega de Zapata National Park accompanied by my good friend, local biologist and park ranger Kiko.

There are a lot of great birds out here! But look at this morning’s most notable sighting, a tocorrorro, or Cuban trogon. Nice one, am I right?

We head over to a place called Caleta Buena for lunch and snorkeling. Danielle leads us in a generative writing exercise and we relax and enjoy one of the most beautiful spots on this part of the coast. The color of this water on this part of the coast always astounds me, though it makes sense given the character of the greater ecosystem. More on this tomorrow.

Back at our lovely casas on the beach I give a craft talk on sympathetic characters, then it’s cocktails and relaxing independent dinners. The pace of life is nice and slow here on the island’s Caribbean coast. Playa Larga is a beautiful spot, a good place to reflect, meditate, write, and/or simply enjoy life moment-by-moment.

The eponymous beach at Playa Larga
Judith, Maria, Danielle, and Katrina enjoying their morning coffee

Day Seven.

Today we travel deep into Cienaga de Zapata National Park with our knowledgeable friend Kiko. This is a beautiful national park and an important one, encompassing the largest protected mangrove area in the entire Caribbean basin. Mangroves are essential to tropical ecosystems—they act as a filtration system, creating the crystalline-azure waters we’ve been enjoying these last few days, and are also an essential nursery for the small fish, crustaceans, and other life that form the base of the food chain in this stunningly rich ecosystem.

Our first stop is a place called las Salinas de Brito, one of this hemisphere’s best spots for observing migratory and endemic avian life. I know that not everyone is a birder so I will resist the temptation to put ALL my bird pics here, though here are several.

Little blue heron
American flamingos
Magnificent frigatebird
Neotropic cormorant
Reddish egret
Cuban black hawk

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that even the non-birders were impressed, and dare I say even awed, by all the beautiful creatures we saw and how many of them there were populating this landscape (more than 40 species in the end, over two days).

From las Salinas we embarked on an adventure deeper into the Caribbean wilderness by poleboat.

Kiko and crew on the other poleboat

Our destination is the remote wilderness island known as Cayo Venado. Traversing the small cayo on foot we have a chance to observe at close quarters two endemic Cuban species in the wild, a reptile, the Cuban iguana, and a mammal, the Cuban jutía.

Cuban ground iguana
Jutía

The crossing by poleboat was also amazing: it’s a unique and striking landscape, a vast stretch of clear shallow water peppered with little islands that is, to me, like nowhere else in the world.

Lunch at Paladar Don Alexis! Alexis is an old friend, an amazing cook and host, and a blazing supernova of good energy. Needless to say, on a trip where we’ve enjoyed a ridiculous number of delicious group meals, this is one of the best: crab, snapper, lobster, as fresh as it gets and cooked to perfection by Alexis himself on his wood-fired grill.

Another great craft talk by Danielle on the life and habits of a novelist, followed by cocktails and a wonderful reading by our writers, followed by a final buffet out on the porch overlooking the beach. Tomorrow, it’s back to Havana for one more day before we scatter with the wind.

Victoria reading from her latest, a tense and atmospheric noir story, dramatized with convincing southern accents!

Day Eight.

A generative writing workshop starts off the morning. It’s very fun to see writers at work on the beach, and I look forward to hearing the amazing words that everyone will share with us later in the day back in Havana.

For now, though, we head up to Palpite and the amazing Korimakao community arts project, where a group of resident artists conduct a year-round training program for talented at-risk youth from across the island, many from the poorer eastern provinces of Guantánamo, Granma, etc. They have studios in music, dance, theater, and visual arts, and what they do with it is very cool.

Every year, from scratch, they compose and create a theatrical/musical/dance “spectacle” that they bring to the poorer communities around the Peninsula de Zapata and beyond. It’s really an amazing project; we got to visit both the music and dance studios to witness the early stages of elements of the spectacle coming together. It’s impossible to capture how inspiring this is, from both a creative and a cultural standpoint. I love this place; the mission, the reality, the brightly blazing inspiration emanating from the young artists in residence.

From here, we walk up the block to a highly secret undisclosed location, where we had the life-altering treat of multiple close encounters with the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird. Lots of other species as well. I would tell you more, but I’d have to kill you.

The bee hummingbird (zun-zun)

From there it’s back to Havana for an afternoon of final explorations and a bit of strategic shopping (rum and cigars mostly, but also some antique art-deco jewelry, a new suitcase, and a few other incredible finds). And then our final night out, which included a raucous convoy in bright red (and one pink) old “yank tank” convertibles from the forties and fifties, followed by a life-changing private concert in the art studio of a distinguished artist with a jazz trio featuring one of Cuba’s most famous jazz musicians (whose name must remain unsaid for reasons I won’t go into here). 

Stasia and Scott got the pink one!
Our convoy passing the Capitolio

This was followed by a spirited and somewhat decadent last supper at San Cristóbal, one of the city’s greatest paladares. Barack and Michelle dined here on their trip, and I once shared a side room with Sigourney Weaver, not to name-drop. And we had more fun!

Suffice to say it was of the best nights ever with a group in Havana. And that’s saying quite a lot.

Day Nine.

We scatter with the wind, fortified with inspiration and joyful memories of adventure, companionship, inspiration, and a trip well spent.

If you’re interested in participating in a future version of this program, or if you’re interested in exploring other similar opportunities for creative and/or custom-arranged independent travel in Cuba, send me a message.

Yours truly, with Maria
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New three-part class offered at The Skills: Sentence-Level Music

September 1, 2022 § 2 Comments

Next up, new writing craft series at The Skills. I’m pretty excited about this: The Skills is an on-line coaching/learning platform somewhat similar to MasterClass; they started out mostly in sports and have some pretty well-known instructors involved, including Michael Phelps, Maria Sharapova, and Shaun White. The classes or “group lessons” are on-line and open to the public, wherever you happen to be on the planet; you can either attend live or watch a recording on your own time. My first offering is a three-part series called “Sentence Level Music,” on September 17, 24, and Oct 1. The classes can be taken consecutively or stand-alone—or, if you’d rather, you can contact Tim to purchase the recordings.

This is a great investment for working writers looking to take your prose up to the next level, anyone wanting to jumpstart or return to a practice of creative writing, and really anyone interested in refining your skills in high-impact writing.

For anyone interested, here are more detailed descriptions for each group lesson:

Sentence-Level Music I: The Core Qualities of Great Sentences (September 17, 10am PST)

Most writers produce good sentences, but few produce consistently great ones. Members of this club tend to be authors of some notoriety; the purpose of this three-part virtual lesson is to nudge ourselves a bit closer to that level. In Part I we’ll break down a selection of great sentences in an attempt to discover what makes them effective. We’ll look at such topics as the importance of economy, specificity, and musicality, the uses of parallelism, and repetition for rhythmic emphasis. Brief writing exercises will help integrate our observations in the interest of endowing our own sentences with greater clarity, vividness, substance, and impact.

Sentence-Level Music II: Sentence-Level Suspense & Cumulative Syntax (September 24, 10am PST):

In Part II of this three-part virtual lesson intended to increase your skill in sentence-level prose, we’ll begin with the surprisingly useful concept of the proposition as the basic building block of sentences. From there we’ll turn to building our skills in establishing sentence-level suspense, serial constructions, and the broadly underestimated power of cumulative syntax to capture the distilled meaning that is an essential characteristic of gripping prose. Brief writing exercises will help integrate our observations in the interest of harnessing the capabilities of the sentence to enrich and expand the range and musicality of our own writing.

Sentence-Level Music III: Making Sentences that Sing (October 1, 10AM PST)

Language is the paint; sentences are the brush strokes. The best painters are the ones who’ve become so good with the brush that they paint without thinking and in a style that can be none but their own. In the third installment of this three-part virtual lesson we’ll go beyond core principles to explore the sublime potentialities of the sentence. We’ll look at the ways in which great sentences can “sing the meaning of themselves,” and explore methods for varying sentence length to create mesmerizing rhythms and evoke specific emotions. A final writing exercise will help to integrate what we’ve learned across all three lessons, demonstrating a new facility with the art and music of sentence-writing.

Contact Tim directly to purchase the whole package any time and watch all three recorded sessions.

Let the educational travel resume . . .

April 13, 2022 § Leave a comment

Plotting and planning . . .

Elated to be heading to Oaxaca, Mexico, from May 3 – 10. It’s research for a new novel, and for a museum trip focused on art, cuisine, and sacred medicine scheduled for April 2023 (open to anyone!). Other upcoming programs include a Newport MFA writing residency in Havana in January, 2023 (open to writers outside the Newport MFA community!), and several potential small-group cultural trips to Havana in 2023. If you’re interested in any of this, or in setting up a custom trip somewhere, please don’t hesitate to send me a note. And/or bookmark this page for dates and descriptions as they come in!

The best historical novels of Early Colonial New England

December 20, 2021 § Leave a comment

Shepherd Books is an interesting new independent book site that is trying to compete with corporate giant Goodreads. They found out about Will Poole’s Island and asked me to come up with a list of the five best historical novels of Early Colonial New England. It was a fun exercise, and while I’m sure not everyone will agree with my selections, here they are for your reading pleasure: https://shepherd.com/best-books/early-colonial-new-england

By the way, did you know that Will Poole’s Island is now available on Audible and other platforms, narrated by yours truly? Click the cover image below and add it to your audio library!

New longlists/shortlists

September 9, 2021 § Leave a comment

A cynic might say something like “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” but I’ve never been a cynic and I’m pleased to report these recent honors:

Semi-Finalist, 2021 Leapfrog Press Global Fiction Prize, for a novel, THE HAVANA STANDARD

Finalist, 2021 Southern Humanities Review Editors Chapbook Prize, for a novelette, AMONG THE MONOLITHS

Honorable Mention, 2021 Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition (Mainstream/Literary), for a short story, VIRGIN OF THE APOCALYPSE

Honorable Mention, 2021 Cisco Writing Club, Annual Summer Writing Contest (Short Stories), for a short story, SKIN MONKEYS

None of these works has been published yet. Stay tuned!

New fiction shortlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize

March 17, 2021 § Leave a comment

While winning is always preferred, I’m pleased and honored to have received this recognition from Ireland-based Fish Publishing, which holds an international competition for their prestigious yearly short fiction anthology. You can see the list and read about this year’s excellent winners here.

I’ve been finding short stories to be a refreshing form to work in during the breaks between novel drafts. This one is based on some research I did on Charles Darwin’s experiences in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. It was titled “The Origin” when I submitted it; it’s now, tentatively, “The Tawny-Green Steppe.”

Here’s a photo of yours truly in Torres del Paine, one of the landscapes that served as inspiration for the story:

Audiobook of Will Poole’s Island, small-group Cuba trips, and other news

September 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

I’m thrilled to announce the impending release of a new audiobook of Will Poole’s Islandnarrated by yours truly! It turns out that recording an audiobook is an exacting, time consuming process—but also a surprisingly enjoyable one. This slightly whimsical fish-eye photo taken by producer and sound engineer Reggie Martell in the spare room of my Vermont house that he converted into a sound studio doesn’t really do justice to how rewarding it was to re-immerse myself in that first published novel, a book that will always hold a special place in my heart.
Years had passed since I’d last revisited Will Poole’s Island; there were  moments when I felt like I was reading it for the first time. And I’m pleased to report, in my humble opinion, that the story holds up well, offering a rewarding temporary escape from the tense stretch of history we’re currently living. This is especially so thanks to Reggie’s professional expertise and the hauntingly beautiful original musical interludes composed by the talented ETC Kid.
The audiobook and Kindle e-book are set to be released on September 15, with a new edition of the paperback to follow in Spring ’21. If your interest is piqued, I encourage you to ORDER THE AUDIOBOOK NOW from Audible or the vendor of your choice.  You’ll have my sincere gratitude. And I know you’ll enjoy listening to the novel!
“It’s been so long since I felt like a little girl in love with books again. Treasure IslandIsland of the Blue DolphinsThe Yearling, lazing around on a spot of sunshine totally engrossed in this other, historical world, that’s how I feel about Will Poole’s Island.” — Suzanne Kingsbury, author of The Summer Fletcher Greel Loved Me

“Immersive  . . . This riveting portrayal of early Colonial New England shines a speculative but compelling light on the time and place.” — Kirkus Reviews
The last time I was in Havana was January, 2020, but it feels like fifty years ago! Very much looking forward to getting back next year. Care to join me?
As a place to visit Cuba is as interesting as ever, perhaps even more so given the effectiveness of the response to COVID-19. Unlike certain other countries in the world, the country has been used its excellent medical system and organizing capacity to good effect, keeping new cases of the pandemic limited. In fact my Cuban friends are constantly checking in to express their worries about how we’re all doing up north in the U.S.—which says quite a bit about the situations in our respective countries.
Depending on how things go, the next year or so looks to be an opportune time to revisit this fascinating country that I know and love so well. 
I’m considering putting together two or three small-group trips to Cuba, dates TBD, in winter/spring 2021, late fall 2021, and/or winter/spring 2022.  
I’m also available to set up custom independent trips if you have a small group of family or friends that want to go. If either of these options is of more than casual interest to you, please send me a note with any thoughts on what your interests are in terms of trip content, and if there is a best time frame for you. 
I’ll keep a careful list and update you specifically as I hear from people and actual trip dates begin to take shape. You can also bookmark this page, on which I keep an updated list of upcoming writing workshops, travel programs, talks, readings, and other events.
Meanwhile, I hope you are holding up well, staying safe and healthy, and managing to enjoy life in all its varied moments! Please don’t hesitate to send me a note if you’d like to touch base in a more personal way. 

Warm wishes!

New essay out: Escapist Fiction in the Internet Age

August 18, 2020 § 4 Comments

Had a lot of fun writing this essay now up at CRAFT Literary: “Practicing the Ecstatic: On the Value of Escapist Fiction in the Internet Age.”

“Novel-writing is another kind of work that demands a sustained and often grueling daily practice. While scribbling or typing is less explicitly physical than dance or carpentry, ecstatic transportation is a defining characteristic of fiction as an art form.” Read the full essay here

This isn’t my first time around with CRAFT, a nicely produced, very well edited publication dedicated to, well, the craft of writing, both fiction and CNF. You can check out all their stuff here.

Literary Cocktail Hour with the Fabulous Danielle Trussoni

June 11, 2020 § Leave a comment

Very much enjoyed this conversation with my talented Newport MFA faculty colleague, novelist and memoirist Danielle Trussoni, which you can sample or enjoy in its entirety here. We discuss Danielle’s wildly entertaining new novel, The Ancestor, writing, genealogical research, escapist fiction in a time of pandemic, fiction vs memoir, and much more. Part of the Literary Cocktail Hour series sponsored by the Brattleboro Literary Festival. A conversation I won’t soon forget!

Will Poole’s Island featured in video wiki: “7 Captivating Historical Novels Full Of Intricate Detail”

May 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

The video wiki has been published by the California technology company Ezvid Inc. It’s kind of a cool concept: “Ezvid Wiki evolved from the message board surrounding Ezvid For Windows, first released in 2010. In those years it has grown from a small user-generated forum into the largest and most comprehensive video wiki on the planet, providing useful, unbiased information and actionable guidance to hundreds of millions of users around the world, in thousands of knowledge categories.”

I’m honored that Will Poole’s Island has been selected to appear in the six minute video, which you can watch here. Check it out!

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