Sharon Van Epps

An Imperfectly Magical Writing Residency at The Lemon Tree House in Tuscany

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Last year I spent a week writing in Walla Walla, Washington, courtesy of the Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Ms. Leticia Lopez, who generously donated the use of her vacation home for the residency. I wrote about that experience on the blog as The Week of Magical Thinking, revealing my absurd fantasy that I’d  be able to draft most of my memoir in seven days. Of course that didn’t happen, though I did get some pages written.

I’ve since learned that, for me, writing this memoir is a marathon, and that’s okay. As long as I dip into the manuscript regularly, the pages accrue. But here’s a confession: this summer I got busy with kids and freelancing and my literary agent search, and I let the manuscript grow a little cold.

Never fear, I told myself, I’ve got another residency coming  — and this one is TWO WEEKS LONG. AT A VILLA. IN ITALY.

A view of Camporsevoli, “The Lemon Tree House,” from their website.


I now knew better than to pretend that I’d finish my book in those two weeks, but in the words of the goddess Cheryl Strayed, I intended to “write like a motherfucker” and make up for the lost time of the summer.

Hope springs eternal, ya’ll.

Unfortunately, life proved hectic on the family and work fronts in the weeks leading up to my residency at The Lemon Tree House in Comporsevoli, Italy. In addition to back-to-school craziness and general preparing-to-go-out-of-town stress, two of my kids suffered sports injuries that required repeated medical appointments, plus we have some other family worries at the moment. Then, just as I was boarding my flight, wondering what important item I’d forgotten to pack, an essay I’d turned in to espnW weeks before landed back in my in box for edits.

Bottom line: Despite months of anticipation, I just wasn’t in the centered place I’d hoped to be for this residency.

After landing in Florence and meeting my fellow “Lemon Trees” at a delicious welcome dinner (hello lemon caper pasta!) I spent the first day recovering from jet lag, the second day day revising that essay on deadline, the third day lying in bed with a stomach ache, and the fourth day pacing around panicked about the fact that I only had 10 days left to work, fretting because my new agent was waiting to seeing what I produced. Also, even though we were up in the Tuscan Hills, the wifi somehow worked great, allowing me to use the internet to obsess over the US Presidential election instead of writing. Given that the whole Trump “grab ’em by the pussy” horror erupted during that time, I found it really hard not to check the news daily.

Finally one night I texted my husband at 2 am Italy time to confess that I felt weird, and sad, and guilty. After all, I was moping around  a villa, enjoying hot breakfast every morning prepared with love by Lemon Tree founders Julie Jolicoeur  and Erinn Beth Langille,  and savoring a delicious three-course meal every night prepared by Chef Jason Yates while my husband was at home driving our three kids to soccer. My stepmom also had taken off work and flown across the country to help out at my house. Folks were sacrificing to give me this time and I was self-indulgently freaking out. Oh, and Italy had turned cold, and I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes. Can you say “big whiny baby?”

I mean, just look at that pasta. WTF was my problem? I was in ITALY!!!

Once I confessed my uneasy feelings, however, I started to make peace with them. I spent time walking through the woods and read Heidi Julavits brilliant memoir, The Folded Clock. I started going through manuscript edits from my agent, and saw they were small tweaks, not major overhauls, which tamped down some anxiety. I realized that some of the weird feelings and tense body sensations I was having mimicked feelings I’d had while living the experiences I’m writing about in my memoir. I was working some things out at a subconscious level, even if I wasn’t sure what they were and didn’t much like the process.

But Italy is magical, even when you feel like jumping out of your skin. Time away from your typical routine is a gift that may lead to magical productivity, or may give you an opportunity to wrestle with all the muck you ignore as you’re hustling through everyday life that gets in the way of creative work. I felt mucked up, but the structure at The Lemon Tree House helped.

Every evening at 5:30 pm, the dozen of us writers and artists gathered with faculty and staff at “The Courthouse” for craft talks and readings, punctuated by festive cocktails mixed by novelist Rosa Rankin-Gee, and followed by another amazing meal from Jason. Rosa and the other faculty-in-residence Craig Francis Power, Nadja Spiegelman, Ryley O’Byrne, and Sarah Cale were generous with their insights and encouragement, the staff led by Julie and Erinn was kind and attentive, and   my fellow Lemon Trees were just a lovely bunch. I got my very first shiatsu massage from Coralie Aussi, a masseuse who’d come from Paris to help us all with our aches and pains. Slowly, as the residency unspooled, my funk lifted.

“The Courthouse,” where we gathered for evening salons, and prosecco, and lambrusco, and rum punch, and sangria, and…the drinks never stopped, though there were delicious mocktails available for those who preferred that option.

My time in Italy inspired and rejuvenated me, and by the end of the two weeks, I was writing again/at last. I was reminded yet again that I’m not a writing machine with an on/off switch, as much as I might like to be at times. I’m learning that sometimes a residency is about priming the pump, and then the creativity flows when you return home. My everyday life remains very stressful at the moment, but I’m getting the work done in part because I was able to take a break to honor it. To be able to do that is a huge privilege, and I’m thankful. I still feel some pressure to make that time pay off, but in a good way.

If you’re interested in attending The Lemon Tree House in 2017, applications are open now through December 1 for spring and fall residencies. There are fees associated with the program, but I can tell you it’s high quality and a TREMENDOUS value for the price if it suits your budget. I may even go back myself…

The wonderful writers and artists at The Lemon Tree House, Fall 2016. Miss you all!