What’s the secret sauce to being a writer? Community. Other writers. Little gangs and groups. Even if the face-to-face contact is infrequent. People who ask how your new draft is going as if it’s a sickly, beloved pet. Writer buddies who tell it to you straight when you’re in draft mode, and cheer you on when your book’s out in the world.
When I first moved in Paris in 1999, I went to every book event at WH Smith. It was my social lifeline. I’d buy the author’s book, edge forward, ask for a scrawl. Dared not actually say anything further. I’d look around at the people who knew other people there, and slink out the door.
I went to WH Smith and Bretano’s regularly and always grabbed a FUSAC on my way out. I learned of writing classes at WICE, at the British Institute of Paris, at Shakespeare and Company. This all led to meeting others who wrote. Those people became friends. One was even my temoin (witness) at my wedding. She’s going to be the subject of a whole other post soon.
Years passed, classes morphed. Support structures shifted but I could always go to book events and see familiar faces. The Red Wheelbarrow, Village Voice, Carr’s Restaurant, Upstairs at Duroc readings, the American Library, Abbey’s, the Canadian Embassy – I’d edge forward clutching the paperback or the hardcover, ask for a scrawl. I dared speak up to Margaret Atwood that I was half Canadian and my mother hailed from Ontario and did she have advice for an aspiring author – she blinked at me quizzically as if to say, Too Much Information – and where would I start?
I know I’m something of a goofball if you put me beside well-established authors. I’m some girl with a mish-mash accent – ‘Where are you from really?’ I get asked. ‘New Zealand, but parents weren’t from there… we moved at lot…’ I trail off. Obscure.
For me, the best thing about Paris is the anglo writing community. Sorry not to tout the French writing world or the famous architecture or the shopping, but I will never be able to write in French and I’ve done the Eiffel so many times I could have a leg name plaqued for me. But the anglo writing scene? It’s many tentacled and likes to hug. There are people from way back in the days of Pharos. Jen K. Dick’s faithful followers. Friends who went on to create Paris Writers’ News and a long-standing writing workshop at Shakespeare and Company. And Paris Writers’ Group. There are poetry open-mic nights. Play readings at Carr’s Restaurant. Things put together by bright young sparks and well-read gentlemen and panels at the American Library and fab little journals and the week-long Paris Writers’ Workshop through WICE and Toby Brothers’ literary salons.
I met another mini community at Toby’s literary salons – of readers with writers in there too. We studied the greats. We ploughed through Joyce for six months and ended up in Dublin for Bloomsday. I listened to a drunk geezer in a bar until 2am and overpaid for a lemon-shaped bar of soap wrapped in yellow paper. Totally fab.
I helped out on the Pharos literary journal. The printing happened in the 5th arrondissement and the other day I walked through that tiny intersection to go to a lunch with writer friends and had a sudden jolt remembering that I’d been there – a decade prior – to print up Pharos’s 10th anniversary edition.
When I did NaNoWriMo in 2004 I failed by 2,000 words because I was like, euehhh, couldn’t muster the muse (2004 was such a solitary year for me that when I look back on it I’m amazed I didn’t totally give up words altogether and become a silent retreat hostess in a cave someplace). But I failed because I didn’t draw on my community for help. I sat in our bedroom and went to the gym and watched an anorexic girl fan herself as she ran in a flowy dress 10km per day because she felt bad about herself. I didn’t feel much better than Fan Girl. (I hope she’s okay now. I don’t know because she wasn’t a writer so we didn’t become friends.)
By 2012 when I did NaNoWriMo again, I was just determined and I realised it was all about community and how that helps you get where you need to go. I had a Canadian-now-in-Hamburg writing buddy also going for gold. And we both made it. We’d met in a WICE writing class and she’d invited me into her writing circle that met six floors up in a studio where we drank red wine, ate peanuts and helped each other write better.
Now I’ve ferreted out a wide group of author friends who are lifelines. I reconnect as often as I can with all the old writing pals from all of those classes, those critique groups, those beta-reading circles. I’m amazed when authors like Nicola Keegan take time to help me with a thing, or Janet Skeslien Charles offers to interview me again. I help other writers as much as I can and they help me. They’ve read endless drafts or said a kind word just when I want to shred my latest manuscript. I have a whole circle of talented author colleagues who listen and offer good advice and help get word out and brainstorm better approaches.
The secret? The more I do for others, the more good things happen. Writing is a process and you can do it alone, but boy that sucks.
I thank Paris and all of the people I’ve met along the way in those basements with plastic cups for the wine and the cylinder of pretzels and scattered Lay’s chips. It’s all been like a trampoline to bounce drafts off — bounce myself off, really. The lunches and the coffees and the weekend workshops, the literary salon marathons and the book launch parties at Jennifer Butler’s Varenne apartment. My bookshelf holds many works by people I’m honoured to know. I love asking for a scrawl in a book – everyone feels good in that moment.
Today, Amazon put Triumph at #2 in Boutique Kindle…Short Stories; #2 for Best sellers in Short Stories; and #1 for New Releases. It’s not amazon.com, it’s amazon.fr but that shows me it’s my community that made that happen today and I’m flipping amazed.
I’m also so happy to support others with their events, ongoing drafts, book launches, news to Share or Like, there is nothing better than the feeling that you’re not alone as a writer.
Tomorrow night I’m going to the book launch of That’s Paris by Velvet Morning Press. This week I’m reading Candace Walsh’s memoir and Ellen Hampton’s murder fiction and Janice MacLeod’s call-to-artistry ode to Paris and soon I’ll beta read Jennie Goutet’s new novel. Kristin Louise Duncombe and I talked about her new memoir the other day for an hour. I’m sharing Samantha Vérant’s stories about Love. I read Chantal Panozzo’s article in the Washington Post. Elizabeth Bard just wrote me the nicest email. If Nicola Keegan ever needs a kidney, I’ll volunteer.
If you’re a writer — write and all that — but take care of your community. Join good groups, good classes, do workshops with awesome authors but not so you can approach the awesome writer and fluff up some aspiring-writer-‘pick-up’ line but so you can meet other writers, form a tribe, become a gang.
Be a Writers’ Cheerleader. It’s the best.