My Spanish Story: How a Madrid open mic night helped me find my voice

Shawn Goldberg had been writing folk tales in the third person. Then he moved to Madrid and found an open mic writers' night. This is his story:

My Spanish Story: How a Madrid open mic night helped me find my voice
Shawn Goldberg publishes his first book this month.

In October 2012 I sold everything I owned and moved from Florida to Madrid to teach English, my main reason behind this life-changing decision to have plenty of time to write.

Another important detail: For the last half decade or so I'd only been writing folk tales in third-person.

By late 2016, I'd received more than 400 rejection letters, four of my stories had been published in small magazines, and I was tired of writing folk tales. It was a dreary overcast day in the middle of November, while walking through Retiro, trying to figure out what to write about next, that for no reason whatsoever I began to jot down notes of the images around me, what it felt like to live in Madrid, and this was the moment I decided to focus all of my creative-energy writing about myself, my friends, and the city.

I spent 2017 writing about Madrid, all in first-person, a style I hadn't written in since I was a teenager, and I didn't know what to do with all of these pages when, in October 2017, I ran into a friend, who told me about an open mic night.

I asked my friend, “You're telling me there's a place where I can say whatever I want?”

I knew of other expat open mic nights in the city center, but I'd never been in front of a microphone like that, and had no desire to perform, yet I was very curious to see if anything I'd been writing made any sense.

So I sucked up all my nervous feelings and the fear of embarrassing myself and checked out Writers' Night Madrid open mic at Roll, a restaurant in Madrid's Conde Duque barrio, and recited what I'd written into the microphone, and no one laughed at me; none of the nasty embarrassing incidents I'd imagined beforehand came true.

Roll was a friendly joint, the atmosphere not too intense, not stiff or stuck-up, and I kept going back, discovering there a talented crew of poets and writers, experienced and novice, who were encouraging each other creatively. Prose, poetry, in English or in Spanish, you had a few minutes where you could say anything, and it was unpredictable and incredibly entertaining.

The weekly event was attracting more and more people, and there were no rules. Everyone was pursuing their own weird inventive voice and everyone was being congratulated for baring their personal vision, whether it was polished or underdeveloped, because what was important was pushing your own boundaries, and I could see people improving and gaining confidence.

Talented folks were coming up with wild stuff, incorporating music, dance, yelling and jumping around, being brutally honest, reading insane hilarious adventures.

This was all very unexpected. I hadn't anticipated this.

Inspired by those around, who were incorporating more theatrical elements into their delivery, I was culling through 2017's short stories about stumbling around Madrid, and rewriting it all for voice, deciding to use this as an opportunity, challenging myself every week to come up with a new thing to read on Wednesday.

In spring of last year, Jake Shane, who hosts Writers' Night Madrid open mic, and Ryan Day, a frequent attendee and literature professor at St. Louis University in Madrid, began to suggest publishing a book of my stories alongside others from the open mic.

I saw the sequence of events clearly: fed up with folk tales in the rain; a year of collecting ideas, writing in my room; a stage to display those ideas; and crystallized finally as a physical object.

 Although I didn't know I was doing any of this at the time, even after the fact, I still don't question the serendipitous timing.

From the group of stories I read at Roll from winter 2017 to spring 2018, I rewrote in the summer and fall of 2018 into my first book, Boiling Rainbows, to be published March 16 by Lemon Street Press, which grew out of the spirit of Writer's Night Madrid.

Boiling Rainbows will have a book launch March 16, 21:30h at The Village Taproom, and will include a performance by the author entitled, If It Wasn't So Damn Messy I'd Smear Glitter All Over My Face Right Now.

Later this spring, Lemon Street Press has events in the planning stages to celebrate the publishing of two additional books.

The Writer's Night continues also, every Wednesday, though it now takes place near Plaza de España at The Village Taproom inside a cave-like room. There is a stage and microphone.

What are you doing Wednesday? Are you creative? Are you sitting in your room writing? Are you in your room thinking up a weird idea?

You should come out and share it.

Two excerpts from Boiling Rainbows:

There's A Timeless Quality Here, That's What I Like Best

In Retiro, by the checkerboard tables and bocce lanes filled with old men mulling their next move, near where the inbred cats nap between thick bushes, I kill time, eating mandarins, and stroll by the statues, the monuments, the manicured paths, picnics, games of fetch. Nicely-dressed old ladies toss breadcrumbs at birds. Scores of young lovers fool around in the grass.

A busker plays a jolly rendition of Shostakovich's Waltz Number Two on accordion. Families wait in lines for enormous sleeves of popcorn, fluorescent candies, and animal balloons. Folks gather round a statue for a photo. I scoot through a dense crescent of kids, their eyes lit up, dazzled, glued to a Punch & Judy style puppet show.

There's a timeless quality here, that's what I like best.

Only in the park are there signs of thriving vegetation, which makes leaves seem lusher, a brilliant green. Limbs plump more muscular, healthy, and blossoms sprout in ripe hues, dangling like tired tongues.

It isn't until I'm out of the park, a cigarette away, that I realize the sun has nearly set. I decide to take the long way home though it's an uphill walk.

Through narrow streets feeding into plazas whirl smiling tourists shooting off in all directions bathed in the sky's pink glow.

In the roar of chatter I hear laughter, grand bellows of it, all ages and sizes jiggling their jaws, babies gleefully high-pitched. Mixtures of hearty chuckles echo from the entrances of bars and alleyways and stores. Terraces boom with lengthy belly laughs, drawing an entire table into knee-slapping bedlam.

Out of the bars stumble packs in purple and white, and I guess that the big game has just ended, and from their gregarious chanting and beaming expressions I know our team has won. A dozen or so clean-cut teens, overcrowding benches cluttered with stray wrappers and empty bottles, toast fresh beers and howl to the sky. My gaze automatically goes in search of the moon.

A passing sweater reads, Be Brave. Take Risks.

All at once, all around me, the street lights switch on.

From a window somewhere, a group of people sing Happy Birthday.

A gorgeous couple dances ballet right past me.

Painting of The Dog By Francisco Goya / Museo del Prado 

In Goya's Black Room At The Prado

I stand before Saturn Devouring His Young.

Two teens, who I guess have snuck off from their school field trip, enter skipping and commence to make out like kids do, their mouths clapping in sloppy wet smacks against one another, and the sound doesn't irk me until I notice it's getting closer and closer.

I glance left, and even though the room is completely empty, they're almost next to me and encroaching steadily.

I clear my throat. They keep coming, spinning, kissing, wrapped up in each other.

I cough. I'm baffled. They're not stopping.

An intense wave of heat mounts my temples. I don't want to make a scene. I say, “Hey.”

But these kids are about to make out on top of me.

So I move over to the far side of the room and stare at the dog in the sand.


Further information about the Boiling Rainbows Book Launch HERE

Lemon Street is interested in publishing more books. Send a submission. Learn more about Lemon Street Press at the website. Follow on instagram and if you want to join in the Writer's Night Madrid click HERE

For more stories from Shawn Goldberg, check out his blog HERE.





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OPINION: ‘These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life’

Did you know that a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else in the world? This is just one of things that makes Spain's capital a place to love, according to author Soledad Fox Maura.

OPINION: 'These are the things that make Madrid a celebration of daily life'
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Sometimes Madrid feels like a huge, sprawling city (i.e. if you’re on the M-40 highway), but if you manage to stay within the central part, and walk or use public transport, it can feel like a collection of charming, connected villages or small towns. I love the latter incarnation of the city because of its human scale, and the way it reflects organic urban growth.

When I was little my mother and grandfather would often point out a newly developed area, and tell me “There used to be nothing there. La Castellana was a dirt road where children went roller skating”or “The bus route that now goes to Pavones used to end right here at the Retiro Park. That was the end of that part of the city.”

Where there was nothing, new apartment blocks were built so that people could move out of crowded neighborhoods like Chueca. Flash forward a generation later and many of the people who grew up in those contemporary utopian developments with grassy areas and swimming pools would do anything for an apartment in Chueca and other central neighborhoods that came into their own and became the height of trendiness.

There were many empty building plots or solares in my childhood. These made the city seem even sunnier and brighter than it nearly always is. Over the years I have come to love new small neighborhoods that I have lived in, and discovered others along the way. Some of my favorite places are lifelong standards. My Madrid is a mix of a primal blueprint and constantly adapting to novelty and my changing tastes.

For many years, I studied flamenco at the Amor de Dios dance studios on the Calle Santa Isabel, just across from the Filmoteca de Madrid.The studios are on the second floor of the Mercado de San Antón. I always looked forward to walking through the market, seeing the varied stands, and enjoying the aroma of one of the best olive vendors in Madrid. Once upstairs, there was nothing but flamenco. Small and large studios, showing their wear and tear, but fully functioning and packed all day with students, mainly local, but some international, learning bulerías, or guitar, or cante jondo, or how to play the flamenco percussión instrument, el cajón.

The windows of one of the small classrooms looked onto the inner courtyard of a convent. I always wondered what the nuns thought of the racket we made. For an hour a day I could feel like a true bailaora and I always left the market with a delicious purchase, or some flowers, and a feeling of exhilaration. I hope that Amor de Dios—temporarily closed–survives the pandemic. It is such a magical madrileño institution, thanks to the hard work, passion, and arte of generations of teachers and students.

A perfect afternoon-evening for me would be a dance class with sevillano Juan Fernández, a movie at the filmoteca, and a quiet dinner at Vinoteca Moratín. Another favorite is the Renoir Retiro cinema (great selection of V.O. films) and then a bite (or two) at the bar of Catapa.

Photo: AFP


Of course I love the Prado, Thyssen, Reina Sofía, Caixa Forum—all so spectacular and so conveniently located in the same part of the city–and many other smaller museums. I have spent many hours at the Prado preparing to teach Spanish painting, and I don’t think there could be a nicer place to work. The museum’s library is also beautiful. 

I have a special weakness for Casa-Museos, like the Lazaro Galdiano and the Sorolla museums. It’s always wonderful to imagine how artists and collectors lived, and these beautiful properties with their gardens are like time machines that take us back to a luxurious version of Madrid where people lived in palacetes much like the hotels particuliers of Paris.

The Biblioteca Nacional is also one of my favorite places to study Spain’s past or find books and documents unavailable elsewhere. Just having access to the building and its collections is a privilege. The Residencia de Estudiantes is a semi-hidden cultural center with rosemary and lavender-lined walkways off of the Calle Serrano. It’s where Federico García Lorca, Buñuel, Dali (and many other notables) lived as students. Tip: not only does it have an intense program of evening events, it also has a wonderful, peaceful, sleek restaurant.

Madrid is a celebration of daily life. Basically, give me almost any madrileño barrio, and this could be defined as simply as a city block with a panadería, a farmacia, news agent, a couple of bars, a butcher, and a frutería, where my morning errands and breakfast (and sometimes even a second breakfast) can be taken care of, and I’m off to the races.

But nothing beats a mercado. After San Antón (which I have renamed the Flamenco market) my favorite is El Mercado de la Paz, built in 1882. It is not in my barrio, but it is close enough to walk to and once a week I go to have lunch at Casa Dani and buy a few special things.

Casa Dani, reknowned for its pincho de tortilla, is a small restaurant in the middle of the market and has no windows to the outside, but this doesn’t stop it from having the best menú del día in Madrid. The options change every day, but I can go for months with a salmorejo, lubina, and fresas con naranja. The affordable menú (which is not just menu with an accent on the “u”, but “prix-fixe”) changes daily and once in a while I will go for the sopa de cocido or the extravagant arroz con bogavante. One must arrive early or be prepared to wait in a long line. The construction workers and local office people who are regulars know exactly when to show up and accompany their meals with tinto con casera or cañas.

Photo: AFP


After all this eating and/or research at a library, I need to clear my mind, and get some fresh air. Many of my favorite destinations are just across the Retiro Park, so whenever I can I walk under the horse chestnut trees that line the wide promenades. The Retiro is large enough for me to take different routes every day. In May the book fair, Feria del Libro takes over and I like to go early in the morning before it gets mobbed to make my way through the infinite maze of vendors that set up shop. In other seasons, the international bookshop Desperate Literature on the Calle Campomames is a must.  Books, a park, and a pincho de tortilla just about cover the basics of an ideal life for me.

Look up at the city’s sky and it is an ever-changing series of blues that become lavender-tinged at sunset. The evening is the perfect time to wander around the Madrid de los Austrías—the gardens of the Príncipe de Anglona, the tabernas on the Cava Baja, and the lovely artisanal jewelry workshop that Helena Rohner has on the Calle del Almendro. Just the name of the street makes me happy. 

On another note, Madrid is a very easy city to love and leave. There are many nearby escapadas to be taken. Especially by AVE. The high speed train has revolutionized life in Spain, and in under 3 hours you can leave from the Atocha train station and be in the center of Barcelona, or in Sevilla or Córdoba. In 20 minutes you can be in Segovia (from Chamartín Station) and in the heat of summer I like to go to La Granja, just minutes from Segovia and home to an eigtheenth century former royal summer palace. The palace’s gardens are at an elevation of close to 1200 meters, and the temperature is notably cooler and clean. Even in August.

I often remember Langston Hughes’ description of Madrid during the Civil War. Bombs were falling, but people were out on the streets, and in bars drinking a beer if they could get their hands on one. After the 2008 economic crisis, a foreign journalist friend came to Madrid and was indeed skeptical about the financial woes of Spain, “All the bars and terrazas are full. Doesn’t look like a recession to me,”she said.

Madrid has survived difficult and tragic times—the Civil War, a decades-long dictatorship, financial and political crises, and most recently, the pandemic and the lockdown. It is mourning and witnessing ongoing Covid-19 deaths. And yet, madrileños are out on the street every day getting to work, looking after their families, and still enjoying the daily, simple pleasures the city offers. El mundo sigue.

On a final note, a gin and tonic tastes better in Madrid than anywhere else. Visitors have pointed this out to me over the years, and I agree. The tonic is always served in a little bottle (and not from one of those sad soda guns) and the lemons are fragrant. Is there more to the secret? Some people say the water in Madrid is especially delicious, so the ice also has a geographical advantage. Salud.

Soledad Fox Maura is a Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College. She has recently published articles in El País and Lit Hub, and her first novel, Madrid Again, was released in November 2020 by Arcade. The  MAdrid bookstore Desperate Literature will be hosting a virtual book launch on December 19th. More details HERE