21 May 2010

Taking the Pen from Paris - A Writer Wakes Up

At Cafe de Flores in Montparnasse, trying to soak in the inspiration.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
-Ernest Hemingway

Eventually, I always thought, eventually I will be a published and praised novelist/poet. From the age of 14 this just seemed like an inevitability in my head, something that I wouldn't have to work at and would just one day, y'know, happen. "Live an exciting and interesting life, Dear, and you won't be able to STOP yourself from jotting down the next great novel!" As if it would happen absentmindedly in between rounds of vodka sodas, or on top of a cathedral in Europe, or perhaps even in the line for the washroom not used for sex at the Gay bar.

But the opposite is true.

There is a famous quote by Tallulah Bankhead: "Good girls keep diaries. Bad girls don't have time." And it is true. It's a catch 22 that the busier, the more exotic, the utterly fabulous stories that you acquire and rich layers of experience you gain - the less time you have to write it down.

Not that that is my only excuse for the last 15 years, the 15 years since I promised myself, a raccoon-eyed, Manic Panicked 14 year old, that I would be an brilliant novelist at some point. No, my main excuse comes back to complacency, to school essays and 9-5 jobs where you get home and just want to watch 6 hours of Arrested Development and pet the cats, not pick up a pen or a keyboard and weave magical worlds of complexity. I have been lazy. I haven't wanted it enough. I trusted, stupidly, that it would just happen.

And so of course it has not. This isn't some hilarious sitcom moment where I am going to find out I've been sleepwalking and fulfilling my life's passions while unconscious. I need to put time in, the put down the facebook and the news, to schedule my schoolwork more effectively so that I have the time to write.

BUT, and its a big but, it's not just about time, is it? It's not just about amazing, life-changing experiences and galavanting travels. It's MOSTLY about confidence, inspiration and gumption.

And I got me somma that in Paris.

Great writers have lived in Paris for hundreds of years , and while I am fascinated by the age of the Bohemians, by the characters depicted in Toulouse Lautrec paintings, by the earlier poets Balzac and Baudelaire - the era that fascinates me are the years between the wars.

The writers of the Lost Generation -American and British writers flooded Paris in the 1920s to soak up its rich artistic atmosphere and its relaxed social mores- spent hours in cafes and bars producing some of the most compelling writing of the twentieth century. James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald (and his crazy wife Zelda) Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett - that's just a sampling of the writers that I adore. And they all.lived.here.

As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary - Ernest Hemingway
Despite (and maybe because of) Hemingway's personal problems, he is one of my favourite writers. His sparse, clean style is what I try to remind myself of when I get overly verbose, and though this photo is all kinds of cliche I was truly happy at this moment. I am seated in the Cafe de Flores, where a coffee is the exorbitant 6 Euros and wannabe writers from around the globe flock to spend it.

Why? It is in this cafe that Simone de Beauvoir huddled during World War II and wrote The Mandarins. It, along with Les Deux Magots next door, is where every single writer listed above has sat and written in the worn wicker seats.

Best address ever.
Montmartre, Montparnasse, the Latin Quarter - neighbourhoods so steeped in lore and fairytale that walking through them feels surreal, like I need a good pinch (not on my rear, either - although S is happy to oblige) to really be able to absorb that I'm there.

No, actually? This is the best address ever.
As if fate stepped in, in our wanders we unintentionally stumbled upon a place that I had planned on seeking out a few days later - Shakespeare and Company. This place is truly legendary amongst young writers - a bookstore on the Left Bank of the Seine that opened in 1919 as part shop/part library and part hostel for aspiring writers. In fact, I found out that to this day there is free rooming upstairs for impoverished scribes - and I may head back next Summer to take them up on that offer.

Catching up on my literary smut in the Latin Quarter.

In the 1950's a competitor, George Whitman, took over the name and applied it to his shop, formerly called Le Mistral and also on the Left Bank. In this era the famous erotic novelist (and longtime paramour of Henry Miller) Anais Nin was a frequent visitor, and her quote is posted in the back room:

And there by the Seine was a bookshop, not the same, but similar to others I had known. An Utrillo house, not too steady on its foundations, small windows, wrinkled shutters. And there was George Whitman, undernourished, bearded, a saint amongst his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell, in the back of the store, in a small overcrowded room, with a desk, a small stove.
— Ana├»s Nin, Diary, Vol. 5.

I got goosebumps being there.

Yes, I rinsed my mouth. A lot. With wine. And more wine.

After an Edith Piaf walking tour, we ended at the Pere LaChaise cemetery to visit her grave. I then made a beeline for Oscar Wilde's tomb, and in keeping with tradition gave it a big lipstick smack while S looked on, horrified. "It's all for art!" I exclaimed, giddy with life and promise and, well Paris.

So maybe I have it now. Maybe I have that missing piece - the bone-soaking, encompassing inspiration that walking Paris' cobblestone streets gives a writer. I mean, if they could do it, why can't I?

And it's a good lesson, no matter what. Your dreams - especially if they are scary and bewildering and overwhelming - won't just happen. You make it happen. I make it happen.
And so it's time to grab life by the balls. Or, in this case, the pen.


Jordan said...

This post is wonderfully written. It's like you're a good writer or something ;)

But most of all, it's got a wonderful message. I need to print out these sentences and post them on my wall to read every day.
"your dreams won't just happen. You make it happen. I MAKE IT HAPPEN." Gosh I needed that reminder today. Thank you.

Ed Baker said...

you might enjoy this:


first night in Paris I slept on the floor in a corner in Shakespears... this was in 1968


Violet Dear said...

Thanks Ed - Great link!

And a fascinating tidbit of info - Thanks!

N.L.G. said...

Oh, cheers! I love this post. I felt similarly inspired on my recent (first) trip to Paris, and am busily working to get myself back there... perhaps I'll see you on the floor when you return!