Unexpected Learning Opportunities

Literary opportunities can pop up when you least expect them. This past weekend provided one for me. Town HouseIt was Marblehead’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza—fireworks and a special five-day event called Festival of Arts. From July 1st through the 5th, our town celebrated all forms of art including drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting, photography, crafts, films, and writing.

4th Photos





I availed myself of the opportunity to view the hundreds of exhibits housed in various buildings around town.  What a pleasure. I also participated in Writer’s World, the writing aspect of the festival. Although my short story submission didn’t garner any awards, it did appear in the binder containing submissions for all to read. And then they had workshops. I’m going to share here the highlights of the two that I attended.

Rejecting Rejection: Getting Your Work Out There.

Phyllis Karas, author of memoirs like the Onassis Women, Street Soldier and Brutal (books with recollections of two men in Whitey Bulger’s mob), Where’s Whitey, its sequel, Hunted Down, to be released this summer, and An Actor and a Gentleman about Louis Gossett Jr. Over the past 35 years, Phyllis has seen her work regaled and rejected. Her message to us that morning was to reject rejections and keep putting our work out there. Her one-word description of her writing success—Luck.

Some of the stories depicting Phyllis’ research raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and her treks to the jails were the least upsetting. She even had a death threat. I don’t know if I could be that dedicated. Her current work in progress, which I can’t wait to read, will be out sometime in 2016. In it, she recounts stories of the women from Southie who lived with the Irish mobsters, survived the ongoing violence and death, and what that world did to them.  After reading Street Soldier many years ago, I can’t imagine how those women stayed sane. Perhaps some didn’t.

After listening to the stories about the world of murder and mayhem, I was relieved to Onassis Womenhear Phyllis talk about a book she’d written in 1980 which I haven’t read but just purchased. The idea for The Onassis Women bore fruit on a vacation to Greece when Kiki Feroudi Moutsatsos, the owner of the B & B where Phyllis and her husband stayed, revealed that she had been the personal secretary to Aristotle Onassis during the last six years of his life. Kiki needed someone to help her write the story. When Phyllis found that not only was Kiki’s claim true, but the lovely B & B had been purchased with money left to Kiki by Onassis, she realized that she had lucked out once morel.

That book changed Phyllis’s life. A large publisher gave her $1,000,000 for the book. She was interviewed by major magazines, and Dateline NBC did a story on the book. Since then, she’s had success and rejection. And, that was her message, reject rejection. Learn to accept that your book might be dismissed by some, but never give up on your work. Put it out there again and again. If you feel you’ve exhausted every option and know your story is good, self-publish. Don’t give up.

Ekphrastic Storytelling

What? Ekphrastic? Come on. That’s not a word. And if it is, do I want to write something that sounds like it should be in the Kama Sutra?

Turns out it is a word, and authors like Keats, Wilde, Melville, and even Sylvia Plath have used this technique. I’m sure a few of you out there already know what I’m talking about. Once I learned what it was, I realized that I’d also done it often. Ekphrastic storytelling is simply writing that is inspired by art. The writer uses painting, photography, sculpture, etc. to fuel his imagination. I did this recently at a Scribbler’s Ink workshop, although no one used that big word.

Our guide, KL Periera, author of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, also manages The Grub Daily, a blog for the whole writer and is a long-time instructor of amazing adult and teen writers. We began the class with a great short story based on a strange photograph. KL asked us to differentiate between historical truth, the reality of the photo, and narrative truth, the emotional truth we felt. I found it difficult to ignore what I thought about the scene and settle on the reality. As a paranormal author, I’m always looking to find the story behind what I see, and then give it a little twist. Some Ekphrastic prompts.

KL handed out cards she’d brought from the Louvre. She’d selected some of the stranger paintings and asked us to look at them and then think up a few questions about what we saw. The painter’s rationale was printed on the back. My Tintoretto painting (I’m ashamed to say I forget the name of it) showed a naked Susanah after her bath outside by the woods being attended by two women. Off in the corner two rat-faced men watched. The card said that the women left Susanah, and then those two men raped her. Horrible.

As I looked at it, one huge question came to mind. Why was she outside having her bath? Maybe that was how they did it in those days. I don’t know, but I thought it odd. So, I made up a tale to go with it. In my story, Susanah was the mistress of a wealthy man who put her up in her own pied-a-terre. Not quite a penthouse though, more like a hunter’s lodge where she bathed by a stream. I surmised that her attendants left Susanah there to await her lover.

The exercise helped me to understand how much more there is to truth than I realized. The next item KL gave us was an old photograph. The one I chose had a group of people posing for the camera. My question—why were they there? Here’s a paragraph I wrote about it:Exercise photo


We came together in the warmth of a September afternoon to celebrate. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children. Our smiles would suggest it was a happy occasion. And, of course, it was. We were still alive—the last thirteen in our Clan—seven women, six men. Last week we were twenty-five. Last week we hadn’t discovered the house.

Before this brief class, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than a family reunion in the photo. Thanks to KL, however, a story insinuated itself in my head. Now I perceive the world a little differently which, although a good thing, could be trouble. When am I going to find time to write all those new stories popping up in my head?

I never expected to discover excellent free literary support during the Fourth of July weekend. Stay cognizant of the happenings in your vicinity. Check out nearby weekly/monthly events online or in local newspapers. Surprises await. And remember—Keep Writing!


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4 thoughts on “Unexpected Learning Opportunities

  1. Excellent post, Margo, and what a fantastic resource the Festival of the Arts/ Writers World is. You certainly got your money’s worth! :) I’m going to order Phyllis’ Onassis book today, by the way.

    Please keep your eye out for other events like this that we can list in the calendar. If you check it now, you’ll see that we have perhaps not a comprehensive list of writers’ events and other activities but a solid list. It would be great to get more local events like this included.

    Thanks again for such an interesting post.


    • Thanks, Britt. I’m usually hearing about these opportunities at the last minute. However, I’ll make an effort to hunt them down earlier and add them to the calendar.
      It would if one of our readers missed out on an exciting literary event.

  2. You’re right that opportunities can be everywhere, and it’s important for us to be on the lookout for them. Thanks for your discussion of ekphrastic writing and your reassurance that we haven’t delved into the Kama Sutra (necessarily), haha.

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