I don’t know why, but even after teaching thousands of classes for 25 years, and dozens of retreats around the world, I’m still always nervous before a first class, with a brand-new group of writers. But as soon as we settled in and began, the magic was there. That first sense of trust and connection, moments of holding back and letting go, the first person brave enough to read, the sense of connection when people finally put pen to page after so much anticipation, the first round of deep listening, the first hints of stories to come, lives to be unfolded.
On my Write, Travel, Transform, retreats, I always give my writers the gift of a small perfectly sized travel notebook the first day. We talk about observation and harvesting sensory detail. How to walk through the world as a writer, rather than just a tourist. How to set their phones and cameras aside and lead with a small notebook and a pen instead, open to sensory impressions, things that make them curious, things they’re naturally drawn to and notice. I read some examples of quirky, unusual details, describe a morning walk I recently took, and give them a small piece of homework: go out for half an hour today, alone, on the property of the Villa with your little notebook and just wander and notice what you notice with all your senses and jot them down in your little book.
After an incredible lunch, and an hour nap, I lay in bed for a while debating whether to go back to sleep (we had a four hour gap between the end of lunch and our next activity and I was still really tired) or to get dressed and go out and do my homework. There was rumbling thunder outside my window, but I didn’t let that influence my decision—not too much. I had brought my old turquoise Patagonia raincoat, an umbrella and had bought a pair of Gortex sneakers just for this trip, and besides, after the two years I spent living in Ketchikan, Alaska in my twenties, where it rained 13 feet of rain a year and we did EVERYTHING in the rain, I’m pretty impervious to rain as a deciding factor in whether or not I go out. If you’re dressed for it—rain doesn’t stop me, it’s fun!
So, I put on the Gortex sneakers, the raincoat, tucked my little notebook and a pen in a small striped shoulder bag, picked up my umbrella and headed out wandering toward the swimming pool and the olive groves and run up along one side of the Villa. For quite a while, I just looked and listened and felt and observed and took notes, making the same kind of list I’d just asked my students to make.
And then I went back and took some pictures to illustrate this post.
Here’s what I harvested in my notebook: sensory details to be later worked into a story or a travel piece or just my own enjoyment:
Tiny mushrooms popping up through the soil near the pool
The squawk of the albino peacock slowly preening in the garden, looking for his mate
A distant thunderstorm sounding like a plane streaking overhead
Olive trees oversaturated with rain, hoping for flowers
Exposed raw bricks covered with lichen: orange, brown, cream, ochre, dull green
Wind on my cheeks, moisture in the air
No rain, the threat of rain
Virgin umbrella from Rite-Aid pharmacy in Capitola, California, still clutched under my arm, waiting for duty
Solo red poppy sways in the wind out of a rock crevice, so different than the orange ones designated as our state flower back home in California
First bolt of lightning as I approach the vegetable garden
Garden shed: ancient brick and stone, new wooden door, brand new lock
Gardener with no raincoat checking a hose connection, looks up and we smile at each other—no language between us
Clouds turning a solid grey, more lightning flashes, no rain yet
Grateful for my Gortex sneakers as I make my way across soggy ground and muddy soil
Giant tire tracks muddy and huge
Private property sign in Italian tempts me to cross it, but I don’t, not this time
Tiny stucco pumphouse with tile roof
Dozens of plants growing green and vibrant from ancient stone walls
These, dear reader, are the details from which atmosphere is crafted and created.