Every Thursday night a group of fiction writers gathers around a conference table at George Washington University to discuss one another's short stories. Some wear suits, others dungarees. But all are there for feedback from their instructor, Julia Alvarez.
"Try to describe characters through their gestures," she says, pausing to make eye contact with everyone in the room. "You can tell a lot about the characters by the way they walk and speak."
One frustrated writer whose characters are drowning in a sea of superfluous detail looks imploringly to Alvarez for help. "Forget about the plot and details," she advises. "Get back to your characters. Who are they? What do they want?"
Alvarez was invited by George Washington University to be the Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer for 1984-1985 and to conduct a community workshop offered free to writers whose work is selected from a competitive pool of applicants. She was raised in the Dominican Republic, and moved to New York City with her family in 1960, when she was 10 years old. Her recently published collection of poems, "Homecoming," explores memories of learning household arts as a child in the Dominican Republic and reflects on questions of identity, home and writing as a young woman in this country.
"To help writers, you must be a perceptive listener," she says before class as she unlocks her office door covered with fliers announcing events from literary readings to Hispanic theater productions. "You have to listen for what the writer is trying to do with the work, rather than just criticizing it."
Alvarez has much experience in reading between the lines of short stories, having spent seven years teaching writing at universities, prep schools and arts councils all over the country, including the University of Vermont, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and the Kentucky Arts Commission. Her own work has received attention at writer's enclaves such as the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
"This is the first time that I'm living in a city full of so many Hispanic activities," Alvarez says of Washington. "I love the diversity here, and especially the ambiance of Columbia Road."
She describes the "sense of shared culture" among the students in her class, who come from varied ethnic backgrounds. "I encourage my students to go back to their roots, to write about what they know. "I find it interesting to see how other immigrants have combined disparate languages and cultures to make sense of the world. Some of the stories students tell are wild.
"How often do you hear of someone trying to bring a goose home?" she chuckles. "A live one!"
Because Alvarez never took English for granted, she has a greater appreciation of the language than many native speakers do. "I had to learn what people meant by what they said, so I really listened to the way people talked. Before moving to the States I wasn't interested in language. I'd much rather paint, dance and, believe it or not, bullfight."
She sometimes forgets that not everybody shares her enthusiasm. "I tell my students to think about why certain verbs are chosen. In one class, I really got excited about a description of a closet 'bulging with darkness.' I went on and on about bulging, and all of a sudden I looked up and saw all these little eyes blinking at me, wondering, 'Why is she so worked up?' At that moment I felt my style was very Latin."
Her own poetry is filled with verbs that crackle and pop. "We hunched over our iron or bunched in froggy squats beside our soapy buckets," she writes in "Posture Lesson," "backs buckling, all elbows and buttocks." She says she purposely wrote one of the "ugliest sounding lines" to stress the hard work involved in house cleaning.
Although one can't teach people formulas to write well, Alvarez says, one can show them models. Through "apprenticeship," or imitation of literary masters, writers learn about form and structure until they can write about "their own stuff."
"You know the apprenticeship is over when what you have to say finds form," she says. "Inner timing will tell you."
Her own alarm clock went off in 1979, at Yaddo, in New York, a prestigious writers' retreat where she contracted a severe case of writer's block. Ready to call it quits, she roamed the corridors looking for another blocked writer and found instead the best storyteller in the place -- the cook who had spent 30 years feeding writers.
"I listened to her voice and recalled the voices of my mother and aunts talking as they did housework when I was a child. I had been upstairs in my tower trying to write something important, and it wasn't until I found my roots in the kitchen that I found I had something to say. I raced back to my desk and wrote my sewing poem."
Alvarez will read from her work at the Larry Neal Writers' Conference, May 10 at 1:30 p.m. in George Washington University's Marvin Center. Then she will pack her bags for the University of Illinois, where she will teach writing at the Champaign-Urbana campus. Forever the nomad, she is still saddened when leaving.
What does she call "home"?
"I don't know," she says, gazing off. "The epigraph of my book is 'Language is the only homeland.' My only luggage is my books."