Local developmental editor and writing mentor Laurel Cohn profiles the Italy-based Australian writer and educator Lisa Clifford, and examines the importance of writers forging and maintaining connections.
The cafe we had arranged to meet at was closed, so we ended up in a creperie down the road with wallpaper featuring the Eiffel Tower. We found a table amidst school children being treated to afternoon tea by attentive parents. The young voices recounting playground dramas and the slurping of milkshakes faded as Lisa and I settled into conversation. It was one of those instant connections.
Lisa Clifford is an Australian writer and writing teacher who has spent the last twenty-five years in Florence. She is currently working on her fifth book, her first foray into fiction, and has, for the last ten years, been running writing retreats in Florence for English-speaking writers from all over the world. Earlier this year she was in Australia for a few months catching up with family and friends. She reached out to me when a workshop of mine she had signed up for was postponed due to Covid restrictions. Unfortunately, she was going to be back in Florence on the rescheduled date, but would I be interested in running a session via Zoom for one of her writing retreats in Florence? And could we meet up?
So we found ourselves in Sydney, in the Parisian themed-cafe, talking about Florence, and life, and writing, and the publishing industry. We both revelled in the opportunity to ‘talk shop’ and discovered many points of connection. I was struck by Lisa’s poise, clarity and authenticity. And I was curious about the path that had led Lisa to where she was now, and the work she does in supporting writers to grow, which has a lot of similarities to my own work as a developmental editor.
‘At seventeen I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my life and the Australian answer to that dilemma is usually travel.’ Lisa ended up meeting ‘this really nice Italian guy’, Paolo, and staying for two years before returning home to train as a journalist. She worked in radio news for various stations before moving to Channel 10 as an on-screen reporter and later an associate producer of the late news. The radio and TV work led to newspaper and magazine articles.
Throughout these years, Lisa kept returning to Italy and Paolo visited Australia. After eighteen years of backwards and forwards it was time to make a decision and Lisa chose Italy. She and Paolo married and Lisa began the task of forging a full-time life in Florence. She shifted her focus to writing and her first book came out just before the birth of her first child. Walking Sydney: A Guide to Sydney’s 25 Best Walks (1997) was a bestseller for Pan Macmillan, one of the first guide books of its type.
By the time her second child was born, Lisa had found a rhythm of sorts juggling parenting and writing. A humorous article about raising children in Italy caught the attention of her publisher and they asked her to write a book about it. Lisa said no: the children were still little – she hadn’t raised them yet! She suggested instead a book about the eighteen years she and Paolo spent going back and forth. Pan Macmillan published The Promise: An Italian Romance in 2005.
As the children grew, Lisa put four hours aside a day, either at night or in the morning, to work on her writing projects. Sometimes she paid a friend to look after the kids, usually other English-speaking expats. Her third book for Pan Macmillan was Death in the Mountains: The True Story of a Tuscan Murder (2008) which was about the death in 1907 of Paolo’s great-grandfather, a peasant farmer in the poor farming community of Casentino, north-eastern Tuscany. Casentino was not a well-known area and most people outside Italy don’t associate Tuscany with the horrendous poverty of share-cropping. ‘I wanted to show others that there was more to Tuscany than the glamorous images featuring red and white checked tablecloths and chianti bottles with candles.’ The book won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Writing about Italians, an award which no longer exists.
Lisa’s fourth book was also an award-winner, claiming Australian Illustrated Book of the Year. Naples: A Way of Love (Penguin/Lantern 2013) is an intimate journey through the Naples most tourists never see, with photographs by Carla Coulson.
In the middle of all this writing, Lisa felt lonely and isolated. She had no connection to a writers group or writers’ talks. Her life was in Italian; the ease in which writers can now connect through the internet didn’t exist fifteen years ago. She travelled to the UK for writers retreats to fill herself up with English and to be with other writers. But after three or four of these she found herself needing more. As a mid-list writer living in Florence, she didn’t need time and space to write, she wanted to connect with other writers in a more meaningful way. ‘I’ve met writers who are content to be alone all day. I’m not like that. People feed me.’
By the time she’d finished the Naples book, Lisa had enough contacts in the publishing industry and enough writer friends to set up the kind of retreat she was looking for, one that teaches how to do it, that offers sessions on plot, character, backstory, sense of place, structure and so on, as well as time to go off and apply what has been talked about. And so The Art of Writing retreats in Florence was launched, backed by a strong ethos that writers are made, not born, and by a commitment to teach others what it really takes to get a book published. Aside from writers (including herself) and editors covering the craft of writing, Lisa’s programs also feature agents, publishers and acquisition editors from Europe, US and Australia talking about the market and how to navigate the publishing industry.
Lisa lights up when she talks about the retreats: ‘The connection with other writers and sharing what I’ve learnt feeds my soul. As we talk about narrative arc and pulse points and change and conflict and all these things we dig down into, you can see their eyes going off. They’re on fire. I feel it’s my job to light the fire and fan the flames while they’re with us. Then they go away and make the bonfire.’
Writers come from the UK, US, Australia, South Africa, Scandinavia and all over Europe. Some are working on their first book, others on their fourth. There are writers of memoir, historical fiction, women’s fiction, crime, thrillers, and more. This year’s participants have included a Danish cookbook writer, an underwater photographer documenting minke whales, and a British chaplain writing about her time working in prisons.
What connects all these disparate writers? ‘Story is universal,’ Lisa says. ‘Engaging the reader is the same the world over and the principles we teach apply to all types of stories. How you write your story is not the same as someone else, but one of the delights of the retreats is seeing the messages of the teachings going off in all those different brains and the completely individual way writers apply those messages to their story.’ I have had my own glimpse of that, zooming in from Byron Bay to teach several sessions in Florence through this year’s European summer. What has struck me is that the writers seem so connected and receptive, so engaged and keen to learn. It is a testament to Lisa being able to realise her goal to create an environment where writers find their confidence, do the work, develop a skill set and gain a sense of direction.
Next year marks the tenth anniversary of The Art of Writing retreats and to celebrate Lisa is back home to hold her first retreat in Australia. Going forwards, she plans to divide her time between here and Italy. ‘After twenty-five years in Florence, it’s time to come home. There’s a sanity injection and mental health check in coming back – touching my roots, listening to the birdsong, hearing the Aussie accent. I love how I can go to an English bookshop down the road. I love turning on the news and it’s all in my language. I need a break from Italy. I feel connected to Australia.’
There’s that word again. Connection seems to be a thread running through the conversations Lisa and I have shared this year. A desire to connect one-on-one sparked that first meeting in the creperie; a desire to connect to other writers inspired Lisa’s The Art of Writing Retreats; and the desire to reconnect with Australia has provided the impetus to spend more time here and run the inaugural Australian Art of Writing retreat in Brisbane in February 2023.
As writers, it is easy to feel isolated and disconnected. Yes, writing is a solitary endeavour, but we can all benefit by connecting with others.
Information about Lisa’s retreats can be found at www.the-art-of-writing.com. See also lisacliffordwriter.com
Developmental editor Laurel Cohn will be joining Lisa on the Brisbane Art of Writing retreat, alongside writer Tabitha Bird, publisher Bernadette Foley and literary agent Alex Adsett. She will also be teaching a four-day program for The Art of Writing in Florence in June 2023. You can find out more about Laurel at laurelcohn.com.au