When Writers Come to Paris

Because I live in Paris and because I love the American Library in Paris, I get to meet some great writers. I’m fairly sure this wouldn’t happen to me anywhere else. Paris is small for a world class city. Everyone comes to Paris. When Audrey Chapuis, Director of the American Library, introduced Ann Patchett at the Yearly ALP Gala last Thursday evening, she told us that Ann had sworn off traveling after the pandemic. Wasn’t going to do much anymore. But when offered the opportunity to speak at the largest fund raiser the Library has every year, she was easily persuaded. And I got to meet her. When I told her I was a budding author at 74 years old, she looked at me and said “Good for you!” Then she wrote ‘Write often, read everything, love in Paris’ on the title page of her latest book of essays These Precious Days.

Anne Patchett

Maybe it doesn’t mean much to the average person but it certainly does to me. I got to meet Ann Patchett! She wrote to me personally in my book. I’ve read the inscription every day. It makes me smile. Then comes the problem: when one’s favorite writers are people like Ann Patchett and George Saunders, it is hard not to compare my written words to their written words. They are great writers (in my humble opinion). Not only that, they are great speakers. It is not every author who is also someone who can captivate an audience. You can hear Ann’s talk on YouTube on the Library Channel. And if you haven’t already done so, listen to Saunders’ commencement speech on Kindness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruJWd_m-LgY

I’ve been writing creative non-fiction for over six years and a journal forever. I write this blog. I wrote a memoir of my eating disorder Saving Sara My Memoir of Food Addiction. I wrote another book with five women on the practicalities of abstaining from addictive binge foods. I’ve definitely honed my skills and learned the craft of writing non-fiction. Now I want to try my hand at fiction. I am a beginner. I love words. It shouldn’t be so hard to put a sentence together. Right? Wrong. With fiction, I first have to choose a Point of View (POV). In non-fiction, that’s a done deal, it’s my POV. Choosing the POV in novel writing is huge. Is it one of the main characters with all their baggage flavoring their thoughts? Is it a distant third person and the story is told from some unnamed observer?

I have an idea for a novel. I’ve had it for awhile now. It’s why I felt able to entertain the possibility of applying to the Stanford Writing Certificate program in novel writing. But to get into the program, as part of the application process, I have to submit 3000-6000 words of fiction. The application letter kindly says that it is ok to send in published work. They just want to know how the applicant writes. I not only don’t have published work, I don’t even have finished works. I have had to hire an editor to help me so that I don’t completely embarrass myself. She is the one who has stressed my need to pick a POV. I am a quick learner and I’m smart enough to know that if I were actually to write this novel, I need a structured environment with teaching and feedback to proceed. I just have to get in to the program.

Steven King started writing when he was nine years old. He started submitting his fiction to many different places when he was fourteen. Ann Patchett wrote as a teenager, published her first book when she was twenty-seven. George Saunders‘ story is more like mine. He wandered around doing many things in many different countries. I think he majored in a science in university. Since he started writing, he has won many awards including the Man Booker prize for his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. And these are the people I find myself, hopelessly, comparing myself to. I told my editor. She said “That’s good. It means you will keep improving yourself.” I didn’t expect that.

A Class in a book for both writers and lovers of short stories.

So who else have I had the great good fortune to listen to while residing in Paris. Colsen Whitehead before he won the Pulitzer Prize; Richard Russo; Ta-Nehesi Coates was a visiting fellow and wrote most of his award winning book, Between the World and Me, down in a small cubicle reserved for Fellows; Lauren Collins, who writes for the New Yorker, married a frenchman and lives in Paris. She comes to the Library often to interview other writers. I subscribe to her newsletter and wonder if I ever could put together a sentence as she does.

Lauren Collins writes wonderful essays about France

Just a few days, I went to hear Colm Tóibín talk on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’ve not yet been able to get through more than a few pages of Ulysses at a time. I went because it was Colm Tóibín. He wrote Brooklyn, made into a wonderful movie; The Magician about Thomas Mann another writer I tried to read but couldn’t get more than a few pages. (Colm told me to read Buddenbrooks. He said that was an easy book to read). Maybe it’s because he’s Irish! Mr. Tóibín makes anything sound fascinating. I loved The Magician and am now part way into The Master, his 2004 book on Henry James.

Colm Tóibín speaking at the American Library in Paris

I think you get the idea. I’m in Writing Mecca. If I can restrain the part of me that loves to say “You aren’t good enough,” I can listen and learn. I can say “Pay attention. Maybe one day you will be good enough.”

A bientôt,

Sara

Anatomy of a Scandal

During the winter, Netflix had a plethora of programs to choose from. It was a veritable paradise. Then the Award Shows came and went. Netflix and Amazon Prime slowed down their productions. (Netflix is having other problems but that is another post). One night three weeks ago, I decided to take a chance on a limited series called “Anatomy of a Scandal” starring Lady Mary. Her name is actually Michelle Dockery but who remembers that? It seemed to be just another British courtroom drama. I can’t tell you if it is a good production but it was/is a surprising show. With all the news about #MeToo and #Weinstein and all the women who have come forward, not one thing I’ve read has addressed the theme of ‘consent’ in the way this series does.

The plot involves a charismatic junior member of Parliament, married with two children, who has been accused of rape. He has allegedly raped a woman that he’d been having an affair with but had ended the relationship. The rape happened a week later. The man, James Whitehouse, is on trial but really on trial is the question of what does consent mean? We, the readers, are treated to the thinking of a number of women who aren’t sure how to say ‘no’. Who question their own sanity when a boy/man says “I’m just kidding”. Who don’t know their own mind when it comes to sex. Who aren’t sure whether going along with a boy’s wishes will help the relationship to continue. In other words, about 90% of us women.

I googled “How to talk about sex”. This is part of what I got.

When I was growing up, we had to take Sex Ed courses. It was embarrassing. No one wanted to take the classes and if we did, we didn’t know how to take them seriously. No classes were given to just us girls on how to make decisions about sex. We were only told ‘don’t have sex.’ Peyton Place was popular on TV and that was our sex education. I remember hearing boys talking about how when ‘no really means yes.’ I never knew how to think about any of this stuff.

The movie Peyton Place was soon followed by a three year evening soap opera that introduced the world to Mia Farrow

This show tackles all this. It defines rape within a marriage. I’ve always said that I have never been raped. In fact, I was. By a boyfriend who would not hear No when I kept saying it. We were on a vacation and had had an argument. I’m sure that he never for a moment gave it a second thought, that that time might have been problematic for me. And I’m sure that when we broke up months later, it never occurred to him that what had happened on vacation had had a huge impact on my feelings towards him. I didn’t say anything, I was too confused myself.

Probably not the original book cover

After I finished watching the show, I discovered that I had the original book by Sarah Vaughn on my Kindle. I have no idea how long it has been there. At least two weeks had gone by since I finished the show so I started to read the book. Again, I can’t tell you if it’s good literature. It’s very compelling. It’s a best seller according to the latest cover. The series changed aspects of the story as so many do when going from book to TV but the basic premise is the same. When does ‘No’ mean ‘No’ no matter if one is in a relationship or not. And in both the book and the series, the horror of what the ‘victim’ has to reveal in front of who knows how many people and still she may not be believed. The man is always right unless proved otherwise beyond any reasonable doubt.

Right now in the US, white men, with the aid of one woman, who call themselves Judges are in the process of taking choice away from women. Most of my grown up life has been with Roe vs Wade. But now that may disappear. It is okay for men to rape their girlfriends (and others) but the women have no say in whether to end a pregnancy that may result. From the vantage point of France, the US keeps looking more and more insane. Backward and very, very mean. I don’t want to get into discussing Roe vs Wade and what’s going on because of the Supreme Court leak. There are so many places to read opinions on that. But how it relates to men and rape….well, I think that is huge.

I think more books are going to be published on this subject. I saw a review of one that will be published in the Fall. However, Anatomy of a Scandal is one I really recommend because of the treatment. There are two rapes in the book both by the same person but different in nature. We are flies on the wall to courtroom scenes where a woman is torn to shreds to reveal her experience. We are privy to thoughts of the wife and one of the rape victims. And there is the whole issue of white male entitlement. This probably sounds like yet another angry woman but these things are real. People are fighting and lying and doing dirty deeds to keep these things in place. Women may have the vote (maybe that will be taken away also), women may be able to work outside the house though it will be a rare day when the average woman can earn the same salary as the average man in the same position.

There is a movie. I don’t know how old it is. The title is What Do Women Want? I never saw it and have no right to discuss it. But the title…..I remember thinking back when it came out that I hated the title. Who was this film maker to make a joke of this. But the truth was, I had very little idea what I wanted. Not just sexually but professionally, with friendships. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I have good friends though I’ve had to drop a few a long the way as they belonged to another life. I literally fell into work that I loved and had the same career for thirty-four years. I retired while I still could do other things. I worked for the Mayor of Oakland and had a three year course in civics. I couldn’t have bought that in a university. And now I live in Paris, am learning French in my 70s, and applying to Stanford University!

But none of the above is any indication of the chatter of questions that go on in my mind. Wondering, always wondering if I’m good enough, kind enough, thoughtful enough, have I done enough, am I lazy, on and on. Nothing I’m sure that the rest of us aren’t asking ourselves on a daily basis.

I’m curious. Who of my readers has seen the series or read the book? Did it inspire any ruminating within you as it did with me? Please leave a comment so I know how others around the world are thinking presently about this topic.

A bientôt,

Sara