Writing Lessons from Paris

My classmates and I, drinking wine along the Seine, dappled by that Paris light.

I recently returned from Paris after completing my third residency as part of New York University’s Paris Writers Program. Another year – and two more residencies to go –  and hopefully I’ll have an MFA, and more importantly, a decent draft of my novel.

Residencies in Paris are inspiring and exhausting. I love every minute of them. Days are spent workshopping other students’ writing and listening to accomplished authors lecture on interesting topics; evenings are spent attending readings, drinking wine, talking shop with fellow students, and marveling in the unrelenting beauty that is Paris.

The extent of what I’m learning cannot be summed up in pithy takeaways. I know I’m becoming a better writer. Nevertheless, here are some pithy takeaways that have resonated with me.

On Structuring a Novel

Novelist, memoirist, and NYU faculty Darin Strauss said the author Ford Maddox Ford believed in a method of structuring scenes referred to as 4, 1, 2, 3, 5. That is, you have five exciting scenes in your novel (ranging in excitement from 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and you put the second to last most exciting one first. Then you end with the major one, the climax. Fans of the TV show LOST will recognize this method – each episode often opened with a major event and then the rest of the episode flashed backed to explain what led up to the event.

I’ve learned a lot of so-called “craft techniques,” but as Strauss points out:  “A lot of craft techniques are gimmicks. The trick is doing it artfully.”

What to Include in Your Story (aka: Plot)

Leigh Newman, memoirist and editor said, “A short story is the point at which nothing will ever be the same.” (I’d say this applies to novels too. There must be some change, otherwise what’s the point of telling the story?)

Darin Strauss’ tip on when to start your novel: Picture a boulder perched unsteadily on a hilltop. A bird lands on that rock, setting the boulder in motion. Your story should open the moment that bird lands on the rock. There is no story without some trouble for the main character (no trouble = no story). The rolling of the boulder is the trouble, the bird landing on it is what caused it, so it’s a good place to start. (This advice is particularly relevant to me because I’ve changed the opening of my novel several times, upon advice from my mentors. “Get to the action!” they’ve said).

Words of wisdom from novelist (and my first semester mentor) Helen Schulman: In writing each scene in your novel or short story, you need to ask yourself a version of the Passover question (“Why is this night different from all the other nights). For writing: “Why is this day (the one you choose to dramatize) different from all the other days?” Keeping this in mind has lent a focus to the scenes in my book. The scenes that were just there for description or background are resting peacefully in my “deleted scenes” folder.

Several professors quoted Aristotle saying that the ending of a story should be “surprising but inevitable,” meaning you can’t see the ending coming. If you can easily think of how your story is going to play out from the beginning, so can your readers. In thinking about the ending to my own novel, I know it needs to be inevitable – it could have only happened this one way – but surprising nonetheless. That’s a difficult thing.

Putting Words to the Unknown

From novelist Aleksandar Hemon, who was one of my previous mentors: It’s okay to not know what you think about something until you write it. The process of writing is discovery. Sometimes putting words to paper lets you sort out things that didn’t come clearly or obviously in your mind.

Indeed, poet Tracy Smith described writing as a “submission to the inner voice” and said another author described inspiration as “something in his throat that hadn’t found words yet.”

On Inspiration

You may have heard Paris is an inspiring place for writers. Emile Zola, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my friend Neda who moved to Paris for six weeks to finish her memoir have all found inspiration in the vibrant streets of Paris. I fell for it too, which is partly why I’m doing a MFA program in Paris. Naive thing I was, I thought perhaps this inspiration-by-osmosis might elude me. After all, I didn’t find much writerly inspiration in Manhattan’s dark bustle when we lived a dreary autumn in a midtown highrise. But Paris, that’s a different story (a hundred different stories, really). Part of the reason I’m so inspired by Paris is because I’m seeing it all with new eyes. It’s easy to be inspired by a thing you haven’t seen before; it’s harder to be inspired by the familiar.

Meghan O’Rourke, poet and NYU professor, lectured on how we writers need to make ourselves available in response to art. “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees,” she said. “Let the familiar become strange.”

That is, poems and stories about wandering the streets of Paris can be wonderful, but no more wonderful (and arguably less strange) than the thing you see every day in your neighborhood or in your home.

This past residency, I cried again at the poem “This is Your Home Now” by Mark Doty, who’s also a NYU faculty member. (And I just reread it, and cried yet again, and then ordered Doty’s newest book Deep Lane). In the poem, a man walks by a barbershop that he’s gone to for years and finds it has closed. The poem is not about how the light hits the slate rooftops of Paris or how people of all stripes gather on the Seine. We all have these non-Paris moments – where a local haunt closes, where something happens on a city bus, or where we notice something we’ve never really noticed about a backyard tree or a sideyard neighbor. The key is seeing these familiar things through unfamiliar eyes.

“Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”

To finding inspiration,

The Dame in Spain

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