Thirty of us fixed our eyes on James Sturz, the published, accomplished travel writer among us. Newly assembled, we had just finished group introductions and were eager to hear from our instructor. "Know your strengths. Know what sets you apart from other writers, and bring your outside experiences in, because the editor will want to know, why you," he said, glancing around the room through black wire-rimmed glasses.
Over the next seven days, individual differences in subject matter, angles, and writing styles became more apparent in class, as we read our descriptions aloud. Assignments were voluntary, but encouraged since we learn best from doing.
I spotted the subject for my first assignment (a 50- to 100-word description of an animated object) while waiting for my dinner companions outside the hotel entrance. A rumpled, wilted daisy laid near the edge of a clay pot, noticeably withdrawn from the others. It looked sad. Visions of a lonely Van Gogh and his yellow sunflowers immediately sprang to mind - maybe because, just yesterday, I'd visited the monastery in St. Remy where Van Gogh spent his final year. I jotted a few notes about the flower and tried to shape it into something the next morning before class.
Thankfully, I wasn't selected to read first, which allowed me time to benefit from James' feedback, publicly given to others.
He cautioned someone to avoid personification. And then another. I glanced at my piece and discreetly scratched out "sad" and the allusion to Van Gogh "yearning for the touch of sun's warm embrace." He approved of adjectives. I kept the simile "like the mustard yellow of Van Gogh's sunflower" and the description of its fragrance "long forgotten, like a lost love." Adverbs, my weakness, were heavily frowned upon. I nonchalantly scribbled out all words ending in -ly (like nonchalantly, ahem), when he advised to cut adverbs, or at least use them sparingly.
It was my turn to read. I rushed through the description of my flower, my throat tightening, and voice quavering. Silence. He dipped his head to the side. "It's short," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "But succinct. I like it."
Whew. If he only knew...
James provided packets of handouts (a semester's worth) to supplement his lectures about prose, types of travel writing, the markets, and query process, but the most beneficial part of the class, for me at least, was his verbal feedback to our writing assignments. He was honest, tactful, and never brutal, but he quickly nailed problem words or ideas. Yes, it was nerve-wracking reading them aloud, and waiting for his response, but we learned from listening what he had to say about each piece–good, bad, or indifferent–then practiced again, improving our skills, the next time around.
Our major assignment, due the final day, was a 150-200 word news story or "front-of-the-book" piece. We were instructed to go out and find something newsworthy in the community. At first many balked. There was the language barrier, as few of us spoke French, and there was the dilemma of knowing how to go about finding magazine-worthy news.
I have to say, it was easier than I had imagined. In a single day, I came across several possible news stories. By accident? Or by being made more aware? One night eating dinner at a highly recommended restaurant, we learned that the young outgoing chef, once the private chef for the Peruvian president, was starting a French cooking school in September. I interviewed him and wrote about that. But could've written about another chef who proudly showed us five B&B rooms he was adding to his top-notch restaurant due to open next weekend. Or the century celebration of poet Petrarch in nearby Fontaine scheduled for July 2004. Or the spontaneous interview with scuba divers prior to their annual pilgrimage into Fontaine's bottomless spring. Stories were (suddenly) everywhere!
My classmates equally discovered this. I think we were all astounded at the variety and creativity of news articles that we generated. Even James. And our writing, collectively, had improved, thanks to his expert instruction. And our efforts, of course – despite attempts at wee hours after exhaustive days and delicious French wine...