Not blogging in French today. Let’s see if I can do this again. Writing. In English. Not too badly.
I am actually having a not so great week at work and I am trying to take my mind off of it. My favorite American reminded me last night of the joys of writing, of how it can be a simple way to make one self feel better. And as always, he is right!
He writes a lot himself, that’s part of what he does, and that’s actually how we met (so clearly, the joys of joys of writing!). Almost everyday I hear him say “I’m gonna do some writing”, and I am reminded that I absolutely love to write! So counting on the fact that maybe I’m not terrible at it, I started this blog. In French, and now in English, pour le plaisir du plus grand nombre: )
As far as I can remember, writing has felt pretty natural to me. When I was a kid in France—I don’t how it works in American schools these days with computers and all that—I was always excited when, from time to time, we would have a couple of hours of class blocked for “Rédaction”. The teacher would give us a subject, or the beginning of a story we’d had to finish, we would took out our best “plumme”, and voilà! Literally, we had fountain pens. Growing up I never touched a pencil outside of a geometry, drawing, or geography class, and so I always feel surprised when I see an American co-worker of mine taking notes with a pencil at a staff meeting. Hence two very important elements of the ritual of writing in a French class (in the 1990s at least!): the cahier de brouillon and the effaceur. The first one is to write down ideas as they come, and maybe an outline, or a first draft, always in ink! And the second tool is kind of magic when you think about it. You would pull it out if you had made a mistake in the process of carefully writing your final draft on the good paper (copie double perforée, as we call it) and it would allow you to erase the ink, and rewrite over it! Fabulous right?
I also had pen pals as far as the mountains of France, and even Russia. And diaries. My first one was a very nice notebook with a hard cover illustration of a cat that I got when I was 10, and still in my cat phase. (Then dogs eventually took over.) My notebooks started piling up and my written diary actually became a video diary when I reached my high school years and I had so so so so so much crucial things that I wanted to remember from those speed of light moments. I didn’t actually have the time to write as much as I needed anymore so, yep, I started to film myself (one day I will be happy to have those tapes I’m sure!)
After high school, I moved to Paris where I started “preparation school” (classes préparatoires). It’s hard to explain what it is because it’s definitely one those vestiges of French exceptionalism, an old tradition of the intellectual elite. I didn’t want to go at first, but then I decided not to take it too seriously. What I mean by that is not making myself over-worry about it, which can happen… on the first day of going back to school, our class was informed that we would be pushed to our limits and that we should be supportive with each other since they had had a student commit suicide the previous year. Yeah, welcome to prépa! Prépa is basically a two year program, very intensive. You have no time for anything else than going to class, taking all of the written and oral tests, and studying some more when you get home, 6 days a week (Sunday is the only day when you can sleep later than 7 am). It’s supposed to be a rite of passage, and the most direct entry way into the best schools in France. I only did one year and achieved what I wanted to achieve next. But let me tell you, that one year was mind-blowing, actually no, let me rephrase, brain-blowing. (Some masochists sometimes do 3 years of préra, it gets addictive I think, as a military style cocoon between high school and college life). I learned so much and some of the professors really influenced my way of thinking about subjects that I have been really interested in ever since: history, sociology, American studies (although I can’t really give them credit for that, as I already had been bitten by the US love bug when I was 15).
Other than simply “surviving” that very challenging program, there is one thing that really stands out in my memories of prépa: six hours long dissertations, in class. Yes, for some subjects (like my favorite, French history), we would be given a one sentence question and six hours to write an intelligent, well-argumented, well-constructed, and well-illustrated dissertation. I mentioned the French thing about no pencils before, well I just realize now why we had so little use for them, we never did multiple choice tests! Instead, we had to write, write, write. A six hours long test with no interruption (only for bathroom breaks, and they brought us food when noon would come) sounds hard I know, and it was, but it was also totally exhilarating. Most people stayed for the duration of the whole thing because we had absorbed so much in class and mandatory readings that we had a lot to say! For one hour to one hour and a half, we were “forbidden” to redact. We had to think really hard about the subject, gather ideas, and build an outline. Then finally, we would write: four hours of scribbling, and this goes without saying, in ink! One dissertation topic that I remember as clear as day was “World War I and the French Third Republic: apogée ou rupture?” (Google Translate suggests “peak or break”, it doesn’t sound as inspiring in English I must say!) Christmas break 2002 never felt so good, because I can say I truly knew the meaning of a break then!
A few years later, after college in France and in the US, and countless papers on countless subjects, I was confronted with the biggest writing assignment of my life so far: a 80 pages long thesis for my French history “seminar” in order to validate my first year of masters (which, by the way, means longer than 80 “American” pages, since the spacing was 1.5 and not 2.0, like most US colleges require). I was scared by the task, but excited by my chosen subject. And that’s when I discovered that I liked writing my thesis. The fact that it was a real pleasure surely has something to do with the support and encouragements from my parents. I was staying at their house that summer, a real haven for any wannabe writer, with the old dog and the fire place and the garden table and the walks along the sea!
Now that I am not a student anymore, I am a bit nostalgic for that time of my life when everything was so structured, while I was still my “own boss”. And I was so productive! With weeks of research and readings already under my belt, and after assembling all my notes and quotations into a very detailed outline, I was ready to write. I started from the top (Première Partie, I, A, 1, a) and three weeks later, I hit the bottom (the bottom of a very long Word Doc to be precise!) I could see the page count go up every day. I had a good “rythme de croisière” because I had defined a routine schedule that worked for me. I even took up running, even though I used to despise it with passion (remember gym classes in middle school?). So clearly, writing is good for the body and soul! My days would go as follow: after breakfast with Télérama, jogging with Snoopy, and checking babyrazzi.com with no shame, I would get started, write a few pages, have a long lunch break with my parents and café, write a few more pages, and enjoy my evenings off, usually watching a movie. I wouldn’t do that every day for the rest of my life but it was… so good. Monastic, pleasurable, rewarding. For my second, 100 pages long (yes!) thesis, I was staying in Paris, but I stuck to my self-imposed discipline. I had much more friends around, so sometimes I had to say no. A temporary sacrifice that paid off since I finished when I needed to and managed to impress my advisor with my efficiency: she told me I was her first student to turn the work in, before the deadline. Everybody was pretty happy about the result, but thinking back now I realize that, as my favorite American likes to say, it was about the journey, not the destination.
As with any good dissertation, I will now have a few words of conclusion and say that writing did not improve my typing skills, hélas, (and here I will have to incriminate the French education system for once), but like Winifred Gallagher I believe it increased your general sense of focus and happiness. Writing is cool, dude, I highly recommend it.
Rétrospective: "The Joys of Writing":
Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)
Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991)
The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)
Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010)