About half a mile south walking distance on La Petite Ceinture, is one of those “free libraries” boxes that seem to be popping up all over the world. It’s a box with a two door glass front up on stilts where people leave books and are encouraged to take a book. This wonderful invention is just becoming popular in France. I find them in the most remarkable places. “My” free library has both French and English language books. I’ve found a 1937 beautifully printed book of Baudelaire poems and, in the same trip, a Harry Bosch detective thriller.
I walk down there two or three times a week and just peruse through the offerings as if I were at a regular library. I never expect much but am sometimes refreshingly surprised. As I was last week when I found Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Ms. Doerr was seventy-four years old when Stones was published in 1984. I know this because someone I knew well back then had been in a writing class with her. When I complained that I was getting too old to write a book (I was thirty-seven at the time), Ms. Doerr was held up as an example to me that you can never be too old. I immediately bought the book and read it. As I said I was thirty-seven years old. Since I don’t remember much of the story except that it took place in a small village in Mexico, I’m hypothesising that I didn’t read books the same way I do now. Of course, I still read so fast that I often worry that I don’t retain anything. I think that back then, and especially with Ms. Doerr’s book, I read it competitively and negatively. ‘What does she have that I don’t have?’ Well, for one thing, she knew how to put a sentence together using a spare amount of words but had a big punch.
When I saw Stones for Ibarra in that little free library on La Petite Ceinture in the 16ème, it was like being struck in the head with a 2 x 4. A wake up call? Maybe. Of course, I grabbed it as if it were a precious jewel. As soon as I got home, I started to read it. It’s a beautiful little novel. Her language is sparse, engaging, and poetic. I immediately googled her and learned that she’d thought about writing as a young girl (she was born in 1910). She met her husband to be in her teens and eventually left Stanford University to marry him. It was after his death, when she was in her mid-60s, that one of her sons encouraged her to go back to college and get her Bachelors degree. She graduated from Stanford in 1977. She began writing while at Stanford, earned a Stegner Fellowship in 1979, and soon began publishing short stories. One of her writing professors got her into the Post-Graduate Writing program. And at the age of 74, she published her first book.
Three days ago, I got an e-mail from the Stanford Continuing Education Writing Certificate program. I was being invited to an informational Zoom meeting about their two-year writing program. I’m seventy-four.
I wrote a first book. It was published when I was seventy-two. I wasn’t writing the great American novel though I did hope it would sell better than it did. I wrote the book to let people suffering with a debilitating eating disorder know that there was hope and that I’d found a solution that worked long-term for me and many others.
Writing a book is hard work. And they say that writing a second book is even harder than writing a first book. I decided I wouldn’t do it. That I was too old. That I didn’t have the energy. But I couldn’t help writing chapters anyway and telling myself it was just for me because I like to write.
Then I found Stones for Ibarra. Then I get the e-mail from Stanford. Nobody I know believes in coincidences. It’s just what you do with them. I have an idea. That’s always a good start! I also have limited energy. So…. well, between writing the first paragraph of this blog and this last sentence, I accepted the invitation to go to the informational meeting. That’s called one step at a time and also called no commitments. I can always change my mind—about everything! But, it is true that I, and you, are never too old.
In case anyone is wondering how very cold it is here in Paris, here is a photo I took of the snow outside my window on Saturday.
We had no summer last year, it was so cold and everyone is crossing fingers for a warmer summer this year. This is not a good start!
For those of you who are visiting France soon or entertaining a visit, here is a blog by David Lebovitz. He usually writes about food but this has a lot of information about requirements and what’s happening here. https://davidlebovitz.substack.com/p/covid-update-for-visiting-france?s=r