By Annette Hinkle
“Open my heart and you will see engraved inside of it Italy.”
For writer and Guggenheim Fellow Frederic Tuten, this quote by poet Robert Browning sums up the experience of life abroad.
Tuten is a big proponent of travel, especially for young writers, and he has strong feelings about the many ways in which it can broaden a person’s horizon.
It certainly changed him.
“My feeling is my life totally grew, expanded and blossomed because of travel,” says Tuten. “I lived in Paris for some years — many of my stories are set there — as well as Mexico, Brazil and even in Italy. I was married to a Roman, we would stay at her parent’s place in Rome then we would go Giglio Island — to a local little place with 200 inhabitants.”
“I just can’t tell you how much I love it. I feel happy in Italy and Paris,” he says. “You live with history.”
From January 12 to 23, 2013 Tuten will return to his beloved Italy — this time Florence — accompanied by a group of students from the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton. There, Tuten will lead the students in a short fiction workshop at the Florence University of the Arts.
But during their stay participants are also encouraged to experience all the city has to offer through field trips and electives that delve into the history and culture of the place. From the art of the Uffizi gallery and Galleria dell’Accademia (home of Michelangelo’s “David”), to the architecture of the Duomo, opera performances, café life and cooking classes, the trip will provide a full, if brief, immersion in Italian life.
“For those who haven’t had the experience of a European setting and all the lectures and art, this is a great experience,” says Tuten.
When asked why travel abroad can be so life-changing Tuten notes that its difficult to put into words. But much of it, he notes, simply has to do with the priorities of the culture which embraces art along with the simple pleasures of living.
“It’s hard not to get into clichés because it’s apparent that so much of it has to do with the generosity of life — the feeling of freedom,” explains Tuten. “What I loved about Paris when I was there and what was so important was their snobbism about culture. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense, but it’s the value they place on intellectual life. The idea of the artist being given such consideration. You feel the value of it there.”
This is the third year Stony Brook Southampton is offering the Florence Writers Workshop and director Christian McLean, a Sag Harbor resident, explains how the program came about.
“Initially the idea was because we have this January intercession, it seemed the ideal time to do something new and different,” says McLean. “Trying to get students to come take a class in Southampton in January is harder than getting them to go to Florence.”
And while the faculty led workshops themselves are a great way to get students writing, McLean feels Florence itself is the real inspiration.
“Students are getting this feel of living in a foreign city that feels safe and fascinating at every turn,” he says. “It’s overwhelming.”
It’s logical to assume that, since the destination is Florence, the subject matter of the pieces the students write will be as well. While short workshop pieces will focus on the sights and sounds the students experience in Florence during the course of their day, the long term goal of the program is to expand their minds to consider the possibilities of the English language by experiencing a completely foreign culture.
Though it seems counter-intuitive, Tuten maintains that by traveling to a new and different place, people actually arrive at a certain amount of self-discovery.
“When you’re abroad, you think more about where you’ve been,” says Tuten. “Sitting in a café in Paris, you remember something that happened to you in Sag Harbor. In a strange way, you become more American. If you’re in a culture where people don’t speak your language, you feel isolated. So you become invested in yourself and your own language. You harbor it, nurture it and listen to it more closely.”
Which is why Tuten feels it’s no accident that many of the 20th century’s most revered American writers lived abroad for part of their lives. Writers like Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald all found their most American of voices in European cafés.
“I believe a tragedy of the American education system is that all students are not made to have a second language,” says Tuten. “It’s not just about fanciness, it’s how it breaks open and exposes the culture and literature of a place and provides more tools for life.”
“One of the things I think is a terrific exercise for writers — and poets especially — is translating a piece of writing from another language to English. You feel what is key for language.”
Which is why, for Tuten, travel ultimately has the power to effect individuals on multiple levels — not just in the short term but for the rest of their lives.
“The cultural awakening for those who have not been aboard — the language aspects or seeing paintings at the Uffizi — it’s something that will forever be in their lives,” he says. “For writers, it’s very interesting. The impact may not be recognizable immediately, but it does eventually wake you up.”
With the October 1 deadline for the Florence Writers Workshop fast approaching, potential participants have a chance to dip their toe into Italian culture (and language) thanks to an Italian Cinema Night at Stony Brook Southampton. As a way to increase awareness of the trip, “The Tiger and the Snow,” a film written, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, will be screened Wednesday, September 12, at 7 p.m. in Chancellors Hall at Stony Brook Southampton.
“I’ve been working on figuring out what film it would be,” explains McLean when asked how he came up with this one. “We had tossed around some ideas. One was ‘The Leopard.’ It’s a period piece, but it’s long. The other was Fellini’s ‘8 ½,’ but I wanted a contemporary view of what Italian cinema is like now.”
While McLean felt Benigni’s 1997 Academy Award winning film “Life Is Beautiful” is something everyone has seen, “The Tiger and the Snow,” which came out in 2006, is not.
“The main character is a poet, which made sense to us, and it’s a modern day interpretation of Orpheus. He follows the love of his life to hell and tries to bring her back.”
“I’m not into sentimental films much,” confesses McLean, “but something felt kind of different in this one. There’s something charming about the film.”
Kind of like life in Italy itself.
Applications for the 2013 Florence Writers Workshop are open to all. A reduced-price subscriber option is available for non-writers interested in sampling the writer’s life, with access to everything offered except the actual workshop. The application deadline is October 1, 2012. For more information, visit stonybrook.edu/mfa/Florence.
Top: Students from the 2012 Florence Writers Workshop in front the Duomo.