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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”