Narrative Nonfiction Writing 

 After Michelangelo died, someone found a piece of paper in his studio on which he had written a note to his apprentice,
in the handwriting of his old age: ”Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

Our daily morning sessions focus on first-person narrative nonfiction writing—story-telling based on a writer’s personal experience, sometimes accessed through food, travel, or family memories.  We discuss the craft of narrative nonfiction: the narrator’s voice and role, effective structure and organization, revision techniques, and effective language. Whether your focus is on food, travel or pure memoir, we work together to explore the techniques and craft of the genre found in model essays and to workshop your writing in a supportive atmosphere.

Many writers bring a creative nonfiction work to revive and replenish, a work in progress, a germ of an idea, or come empty-handed and ready to respond to the “delicate layers of human history” encouraged by Varenna’s charm. Lush solitude lakeside and intensive instruction throughout the week will provide inspiration and writing prompts for those interested in starting new writing projects. Important Note: Writers who have previous writing experience, working in writing groups, or taking writing classes will benefit the most from the writing instruction. 

Early afternoons are set aside for reading, resting and writing.

Here are some distinctions of the genre, although the boundaries often blend and overlap.


Memoir makes meaning of life experience as a first-person narrator writes with complexity and layered thought. You may continue a work in  progress or take advantage of the Abruzzese solitude to re-imagine personal circumstances with a new perspective.

Travel writing in the essay form reveals a narrator’s impressions of a place gained through watchful observation and reflection. The focus is on the influence of the place on the writer. 

Food essays explore a narrator’s connection to a particular food or cuisine, such as the food typical of various regions of Italy that can be traced to local traditions observed around the burgh.

During the week, the group will workshop each participant’s writing; in addition, each participant meets individually with the instructor at least once for more specific feedback.

The Reading Component: Soon after enrollment, you will receive a reading list of creative nonfiction titles—essay collections, book-length works, literature of Italy—and books on craft, so you can prepare as much as you wish with background reading. In addition, you will receive some specific essays to read and consider before arriving. These essays will serve as a starting point for discussion and modeling during the week of writing in Italy.


from top left, clockwise: Linda, Kathryn, Suzanne, Janie, Carol, Connie, Cynthia Gloria. June 2013

from top left, clockwise: Linda, Kathryn, Suzanne, Janie, Carol, Connie, Cynthia, Gloria.

Writers at Work, June 2013

Kind Words

Rhonda Callaway, Houston, Texas
The workshop in Varenna was one of the best experiences of my life, and I just wanted to thank Kathryn and Linda for providing such a wonderful environment for us. I learned so much about my narrative voice.  How I wish I could go again!

Carol Sherrill, Danville, California
Kathryn’s memoir workshop in Santo Stefano fulfilled every hope I had when I signed up. From each session, analyzing and appreciating how good writing develops, I grew in understanding of the craft. Through the revision techniques we learned in class—working on each other’s and our own pieces—and in conference with Kathryn, my confidence in myself as a writer multiplied. I left fully inspired to “do the work.” 

Gloria Humphrey, Plantation, Florida
Every once in a while the unimaginable happens along the journey of life. Being in Abruzzo for the “Italy In Other Words” retreat has changed my life forever. It was like finding a hidden treasure filled with genuine historical and cultural wealth.  I loved meeting daily for workshops in a classroom setting that challenged my writing skills and being serenaded nightly with wine and fine dining. I am undoubtedly enriched by the experience. 

Janie Ellison, Buckner, Kentucky
Combining a unique and well-planned cultural/foodie experience with a serious writing workshop, Kathryn Abajian presents writers, artists, and photographers with an invaluable gift. She is tireless, approachable, and a superior teacher. She can make writers let down their guards and interact without self-consciousness. And write better. The writers, a photographer and a watercolorist, as well as Linda Prospero, the guide/translator/IT manager/writer and all-around good person, made the Santo Stefano di Sessanio experience pretty much magnificent. Kathryn is also a perfectionist, and the workshops reflect her plans perfectly. 

Susan Imboden, Fairfield, CA
I do a lot of writing in my work and can put one word in front of the other. But the Santo Stefano workshop has given me the tools to write creatively. From the nuts and bolts of an essay to the nuances of tone, I received new skills and ways of looking at my work that have bumped both my writing and confidence a notch or two. And the cultural activities and camaraderie in that beautiful setting added so much to a fun and worthwhile week.

Dan Martin, Kansas City, MO
The content of the workshop was solid even for someone like me who teaches writing. I found that Kathryn’s understanding of the components of the memoir genre was strong and nuanced. She did a great job of explaining the elements of memoir and illustrating them with examples.

Jan Mannino, Laguna Beach, CA
Since attending Kathryn’s workshop my writing has improved considerably. Her teaching techniques, my class members, the surroundings, the food, the wine all came together in my efforts to find direction in the writing. Kathryn is an excellent instructor; her lessons on honesty in memoir writing have been a major turning point for me. She has refined my desire to write more and better. Learning to listen and to understand the critiques of the other writers have been an important life learning experience for me. I can highly recommend this workshop and trip to a magical place.

Richard Bilotti, Pennington, NJ
The content of the workshop was excellent, good enough to get me focused as never before on my work. The delivery was easy to understand and Kathryn’s making sure there was no room for nasty critical criticism made the tone very good.

Elizabeth Enger, Portland, OR
The instruction offered eye-opening insight about writing purpose, technique, revision, etc. I received great feedback from class members and the instructor. I finally feel I can understand the building blocks of memoir composition and revision because of the excellent classroom procedure and direction. I enjoyed the company of writers—amateur and professional—who came for the same purpose, regardless of experience. Watching other writers go through the process of creation was gratifying.

Arthur Darby, Calgary, Alberta, CN
The content of the workshop and the presentations were excellent, the materials were good, and the technique of having the writers listen while other gave feedback was good. I will recommend this course to anyone who will take it. Absolutely!

Julie Ramos, West Nyack, NY
All in all it was a memorable week that got me off my duff and writing again. I appreciated Kathryn’s encouragement. The individual meeting with her was very helpful. I hope you keep that part of the program.

Lorelei Albanese, San Juan, PR
Italy, in Other Words was a marvelous experience, and one I wish I could repeat. Everything was perfect: the setting, the food and drink, the writing classes, excursions, our classmates and, of course, the teacher. My best regards to Linda. She was a great asset for our workshop, and I feel sure she will be shine in her official role in 2012. Wish I could be there!

Dayle Fergusson, Goodlettsville, TN
Kathryn and Helen are amazing women with a passion for guiding aspiring writers to tap into their inner creativity, to step forward bravely, to write from the heart, to peel back the protective layers and reveal emotional truth.

Laura Vejarano, Milan, Italy
I have the fondest memories of our week in Santo Stefano! It was both inspiring and instructional. I wrote in my notebook non-stop on the train from Rome to Milan, just enjoying the act of writing. I very much appreciated Kathryn’s style because it was very organized and engaging but, at the same time, left space for change as the group dynamics and needs evolved.

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