A walk in the sun

Leap Day. What to do with an extra day in February? Better yet: an extra day without French class! (And no, I’m not even disappointed that I’d reviewed my homework, got my Americano brewed, and walked down to class–just five minutes away–only to discover it was cancelled.)

With the sun shining (rain is supposed to be back on the way soon), it was time to get outside and off the beaten path. So today that meant Parc Monceau and the Église Saint-Augustin in the huitième arrondissement.

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It was chilly, but the ducks didn’t seem to mind the cold. Not sure what the pyramid structure is. Random mausoleum? Ostentatious park maintenance storage facility? Entrance to a secret underground Illuminati stronghold? If you know, leave a comment!

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The Saint Augustine church doesn’t even merit a mention in my guidebook. In any other town it would be the star of the show, but Paris has an abundance of riches.

From there it was off to Starbucks to do some writing with my headphones in, since the guy next to me was slouched snoring in his seat. After last week, my writing goals today were much more modest: just get some writing–any writing–done.

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Move to Paris. Join rock band.

Of all the things I didn’t expect to experience in Paris, this clocks in at number one: joining a rock band.

I mean really, when we talked about moving to Paris, what did we dream of? Picking up the daily baguette from the bakery. Enjoying coffee on the terrace of a café. Strolling the streets, taking lots of pictures, finding hidden corners that don’t make the guidebooks. Visiting the Louvre without the pressure to see everything in one trip. Meeting locals. Learning some French.

But rocking “You Shook Me All Night Long” at the Australian Embassy, complete with a guest didgeridoo player? Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.

It just goes to show what idle conversation can lead to. It was last fall. I was picking up Evelyn from a school trip at the Montparnasse Station and got to talking with one of the other parents. Turned out he was in a cover band–The Doodads–with some other parents, a few teachers, and other assorted expats. I mentioned that I played bass and keyboards. Just making conversation, you know. A few weeks later we met for coffee at one of those café terraces–just what I’d come to Paris for. We swapped stories, told musician jokes, and talked about life in France. Next thing you know, the regular bass player can’t make a gig and they ask me to fill in for the night at the Australian Embassy.

I think that was six gigs ago.

If I had any artistic dreams for my move to Paris, it was to make a lot of progress on writing a novel (what American writer doesn’t want to live in Paris and write? Right?). Even though I love music and still enjoy playing, I gave up the rock star dreams a long time ago. The bands I played in when I was in high school never seemed to manage more than one gig before falling apart–if we even managed one gig. And that summer in college when I travelled around playing with a group? I think I netted maybe a hundred bucks for my trouble (it was actually a lot of fun). Good thing I had a scholarship.

Well, soon enough we were back at that same café where we’d had coffee, but this time packed together in corner playing “Take It Easy” and “Superstitious” till almost two in the morning. Since then, we’ve been back to the Australian Embassy, played at a club on a boat moored on the Seine, been back to the café a few times and even played at the Paris Polo Club.

Honestly, I wavered on whether to say yes to the Paris Polo Club gig. We already were going to be back at the Australian Embassy for their Australia Day celebration the night before. And the last time we played there, it meant not getting to bed till about three. Did I really need another gig on the same weekend?

But what am I doing here anyway? Answer: I’m here to experience Paris. To see and do what this city has to offer. Meet people. See things I can’t see back in Seattle. When am I ever going to get another chance to go to the Paris Polo Club? Answer: Never. So, yes. Let’s do this.

The Polo Club couldn’t have been more different from the Australian Embassy. The embassy gig? Completely casual. Aussies in shorts and sunglasses dancing and drinking Aussie beer. The Polo Club? Parisians dressed to the nines, the Taittinger flowing, people making speeches and giving huge silver trophies to each other. Not to mention the best pre-gig dinner I’ve ever had at a venue (charcuterie, veal, and profiteroles? Bien sûr!). 

There’s a season for everything, it’s been said. And sometimes the season that comes is unexpected, something you didn’t foresee. I didn’t move to Paris to join a band. But I’m glad I said yes.

The final lap

A wise man said, “Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.” The point being? If you wait for perfect conditions, you will wait… and wait… and wait…. and never get started.

I’ve had people ask me, do you wait for inspiration strike before you write? My answer: do you wait for inspiration to strike before you go to work?

This week seemed like perfect conditions for writing: a week to myself in the city of Hemingway, the fridge fully stocked, no shortage of coffee, and plenty of cafés and coffee shops to choose from. I set my goal–15,000 words, 3,000 words a day–and set to work.

The curve ball I didn’t see coming: feeling pretty lousy for half the week. Suddenly conditions were no longer perfect. Who cares that it’s Paris, I don’t even want to go outside!

I was hoping to get a lot of writing done in the mornings. It didn’t work out that way; instead I ended up writing through the afternoon (usually my least creative time) and well into the evening.

I wanted to try new places in Paris and get back to some others I hadn’t been to in a while. That didn’t really work out either. Who wants to sit in a café–or a library–hacking and coughing and generally being a public health hazard?

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Here’s one of the libraries I didn’t go to… Maybe next week.

So it didn’t go like I’d imagined. But it did go, I got through it, made it to the end, made my goal. And what was the result? Too much to describe here (it would take about 15,000 words…), but some good progress… and some utter junk.

Like the parts that were just filler words; literally writing things like: “Oh here’s an idea… etc. etc.” or “I need to rethink this part” or “This character needs to…” Some of it was lists of ideas (most of them dumb) until I got to the one that worked.

And that’s okay. I’ve read plenty of articles on how to free write where the encouragement is given to just put the pen to the paper (or fingers on the keys) and start writing, even if it’s just “I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write.” Because as you keep writing, keep typing, eventually words that start to make sense start hitting the page. It really works.

So, the Audacious Writing Week is in the books. Tomorrow is another day. And I’ll be writing.

 

Ignoring the voice that says, “Quit”

Well. I thought yesterday was a challenge… but sometimes things get harder before they get easier! Used a tree’s worth of kleenex today. Fought off a persistent headache with some big guns. And believe me, if I hadn’t set myself a writing goal, it would have been movies on the couch all day long. As it was, I only left the apartment to go for a short walk this evening to get some fresh air. (And chanced upon some good breakdancers doing their thing at the Trocadéro across from the Eiffel Tower.)

 

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Sorry, this isn’t from the Trocadéro, but I didn’t take any pictures tonight. Hope you don’t mind.

Let me tell you, the excuses and rationalizations were nipping at my heels all day. You’re 200 words OVER your goal for the week–that means you can quit with fewer words today. Or heck, just quit whenever you want and make it up tomorrow… You’ve done enough, call it a day…

But I made it. And discovered things about the plot, my characters, and the world they live in that I never would have if I hadn’t spent so much time with them today.

And even wrote 250 more words than I was aiming for.

 

Stuck in the middle

Anyone who’s ever started anything knows: beginnings are exhilarating, endings are fulfilling (hopefully), and middles… Yeah, the middle can be a slog.

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Sometimes in the middle, you can’t even see the end…

In my college days, a number of times I hiked the Manastash ridge trail in central Washington State before dawn to catch the sunrise. It was the same every time: Getting up and heading out in the dark to hit the trail? Yes! How exciting! And then at the end, standing at the crest while the sun inched up over the horizon and the dawn light filled the valley below? Awesome. (It was the nineties, so everything was awesome.) But slogging up the seemingly never-ending trail in the shadowy, predawn half-light with a head full of bleary thoughts? It went something like this: What am I doing here? I should still be in bed! I’m starving and my side aches… I really don’t even like this trail!

No doubt about it: the middle is hard.

I’m into day three of five days of focused writing–my Audacious Writing Week. (And I actually got a head start on Sunday evening, and I’m thinking I’ll extend into Saturday… but either way—I’m smack in the middle.) Today was most definitely more of a slog than the previous two. The novelty has worn off; now it’s feeling more like a grind. And a face-filling head cold has decided to come my way which means I’m propping up the kleenex industry and drinking loads of seltzer.

But I’m still on pace for my goal. And in the midst of just trying to get my 3,000 words down, I even had some unexpected–and welcome–character and plot breakthroughs. And I guarantee, without the goal in mind, I wouldn’t have gotten those breakthroughs. Perseverance pays off. And even though the middle can be a grind, I managed to cap off the day with an evening with friends. Now to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s coming.

Got a goal driving you? Has perseverance paid off? Leave a comment!

Audacious Writing Week, Day 2… and excerpts of eloquence

It’s Audacious Writing Week……… Day 2!

So far so good. Made my goal on Monday, more than 3,000 words written in five different scenes in the final act.

Yesterday, on my way to a coffee shop near Saint-Michel (for my third writing session of the day), I took a wrong–yet serendipitous–turn and came across this statue of that most celebrated of essayists, Michel de Montaigne.

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Michel de Montaigne, by Paul Landowski. Situated across the street from the Sorbonne.

Notice his shiny shoe: apparently students think it’s good luck to give it a rub before an exam. Of course, this is the guy who is largely responsible for popularizing the essay form. Not sure how many students want to thank him for that…

Today, instead of hitting a coffee shop, I met with my writing group for conversation, a bit of critiquing, plenty of eating, and yes, even some writing.

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The writing group spread: camembert, baguettes, pickles, salami, prosciutto, ham, coffee… my contribution was the chocolates from Jeff de Bruges. They say you can never go wrong if you show up with chocolate!

Whereas yesterday was all about getting some scenes into shape, today has been mostly work on backstory, world building, and solving story problems. So not as much “real” writing, but crucial stuff nonetheless. And I’m already well on my way to my daily goal: just 850 words to go.

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Before I sign off today (and get back to drafting/outlining/world-building), here’s a lovely little morsel from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence (which I’ve been re-reading on my writing breaks). From Chapter 1, Alliteration:

You can spend all day trying to think of some universal truth to set down on paper, and some poets try that. Shakespeare knew that it’s much easier to string together some words beginning with the same letter. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It can be the exact depth in the sea to which a chap’s corpse has sunk; hardly a matter of universal interest, but if you say, ‘Full fathom five thy father lies,’ you will be considered the greatest poet who ever lived. Express precisely the same thought any other way–e.g. ‘your father’s corpse is 9.144 metres below sea level’–and you’re just a coastguard with some bad news.

Why does The Tempest still get put on every year by a theatre company near you… even though nobody has spoken like Shakespeare for hundreds of years… even though there’s no shortage of playwrights, no shortage of plays… Is it the universal truths he serves up? Perhaps. Or is it his use of language, his turn of phrase? Maybe it’s actually the alliteration after all…

Audacious writing week

Put on the coffee, log off Facebook, and get the laptop charged up–it’s time to write. A lot. Yes, it’s time for an audacious writing week (came up with that myself). Okay, maybe that’s a bit much. Maybe aiming to write a whole mess of words doesn’t quite fit the mold of “showing a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks.” After all, it’s just writing; it’s not like I’m going to be swimming the English Channel or climbing the Eiger. But it does mean putting everything else aside, putting in the hours, and putting down the words.

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Here’s a distraction I can handle: a lovely view of Notre Dame from Shakespeare & Co.’s new cafe.

Why now? Well, Merideth is off to D.C., the girls are on a ski trip with their school (gotta love the schedule of vacances scolaires in France!), so for me, it’s the perfect opportunity for a mini-NaNoWriMo of my own.

Now, I could use the time to get out of Paris to see another part of France; I did that in the fall and had a great week in Colmar and even got some good writing done. But doing that also means a lot more planning and energy spent finding places to write. So this week I’ll stick to Paris and see how much I can get done.

Planning the work, working the plan

Planning for this week has already paid off. Leading up to it, I spent time going through the manuscript, evaluating which parts need the most work, where the gaps are, and seeing what I could hope to get done in a focused week of writing. Suffice to say, I’ll have no shortage of material calling for my attention.

Having some specific writing goals helps, but the real enemy to getting the writing done isn’t found in the writing itself–it’s in all the distractions that clamor for my attention. (Like blogging, maybe? Hmm…) So, the more important planning I’ve done for this week has gone into how I’m going to organize my time, such as:

  • Getting to bed at 10. No binge-watching Netflix and noshing on Cheetos (can you even find those abominable things in France? I hope not!) and then waking up too sleepy and sluggish to get the writing started.
  • Getting up at 6 and getting ready for the day. (So far so good!)
  • Planning out some reading to give my brain a break from writing, since I can’t just write for eight hours straight. I’ll be starting each day with a chapter from 1 Peter and then dip into The Elements of Eloquence throughout the week for some writerly inspiration (I blogged about finding this fantastic book here. Check it out. Everyone who writes should read this book!). I’ve got a couple other books cued up as well.
  • Being intentional about exercise and meals and even chores.
  • Planning some lunches and coffees with friends and even a game night. I’m hoping to get a lot of writing done, but I still need to see other human beings!

So: here’s hoping for 15,000 words–or more–this week. I’m already more than 10% of my way there.

And now it’s time to get back to it. The next chapter is waiting.

 

A week with Marie

“Let them eat cake.”

Did Marie Antoinette really say that? Did she mean what people think she meant? Or was she misunderstood?

I confess I don’t know a whole lot about Marie or Louis XVI, but this week we got plenty of glimpses into that endlessly fascinating period in French history. Sunday it was at the Carnavalet Museum in the Marais where I learned that the revolutionary period was far more complicated than I’d ever realized: full of political intrigues, secret alliances, conspiratorial scheming, heroic bravery and craven duplicity. The museum also features plenty of appealing art (which doesn’t seem to get as much mention as all of the historical stuff).

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“Les retardataires” (The Latecomers) by Albert Guillaume (1873-1942). I’m sure this little bauble never gets mentioned in the guidebooks, but after seeing so much important history and significant art, it’s great to get a chuckle over something like this. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve met these people before…

On Tuesday, we visited the Conciergerie, the prison right in the middle of town where Marie Antoinette spent her last days. It’s pretty bleak and barren inside, but still worthwhile for a look into that historic time. Okay, it’s not on the Paris Top Ten list, it took us six months to finally get around to visiting it, and I didn’t even take any pictures (I must be getting jaded)… but hey, it’s worth a mention. You can include a visit there as part of a combo ticket with Sainte-Chapelle, which we saw on Monday–and which does make the Paris Top Ten. (It comes in at #7 out 914 things to do in Paris, according to Trip Advisor FWIW. What’s their number one? Is it saying hello to Mona Lisa? Nope–it’s the Orsay! I have to say I agree.)

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Sainte-Chapelle. Go when the light is good! It makes all the difference.

Wednesday we took the number 13 line out to Saint-Denis to see the basilica where nearly every French king has been buried. It also can claim to be among the first truly Gothic structures ever built. I’ve visited my share of cathedrals and churches, but I’ve never been to one like this: tombs and memorials of so many kings, queens, princes, princesses, and assorted other nobles. Statues of Important Dead French people I’d never heard of, and some that I had.

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Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Seeing them here, you’d never know things ended so badly for them.

Seeing all of the tombs and monuments was another striking reminder of just how short the whole American story is in the scheme of world events. Some of these guys died in the 500s!

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I swear I saw Indiana Jones rummaging around back there somewhere…

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Great architecture, beautiful stained glass (although it’s no Sainte-Chapelle), and more historical significance than most museums could ever hope to have: a worthy trip indeed out from central Paris. (And worth braving the cold: it was maybe a degree or two above freezing, and cathedrals aren’t exactly known for their great heating systems.)

And so: that’s our week with Marie. After all we saw, it seems to me most likely that she happened to be queen at the wrong time more than she was some kind of evil conspirator worthy of death.

Her last words? “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.” Said after stepping on her executioner’s foot.

A surprise in Châtelet

A word to the wise: don’t, under any circumstances, if you can at all avoid it, unless your idea of a good time is forgetting what the outside world looks like… use the Châtelet métro stop in Paris. It’s an endless labyrinth of interlaced corridors that go on and on and on–so that you’ll swear you’ve already walked farther than you’re even going to go on the blasted métro (if you ever get to it). And you might be right.

Five métro lines intersect down there and you can also connect to three different RER lines at the Châtelet-Les Halles station (which is technically a distinct station from the métro stop, and is the largest underground train station in the world), that is, if you’re willing to put in the steps.

But sometimes it’s more work to avoid it. And sometimes–like today–it’s nice to get out of the rain. And sometimes, you’re rewarded with something unexpected.

I’ve posted before about the music scene on the métro, both on the trains and in the stations. Today we enjoyed something special:

Four violins. One viola. Two cellos. And some nice resonance in the tunnels. I usually avoid Châtelet; today I’m glad I passed through.

Making connections in the blogosphere

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How many blogs are out there in the blogosphere, anyway? I shudder to think. And of those, how many reward your web-surfing time with entertainment, a beautiful photo, a laugh, some encouragement, a provocative idea or a great insight? Well, those are the ones to seek out.

In the spirit of connecting people to cool content, behold: the Versatile Blogger Award. I’m still pretty new to the whole blogging scene, but as I’ve followed people’s comments and likes and looked through their blogs, it’s been great to discover intriguing people writing about all sorts of intriguing things all over this endlessly intriguing world.

So, thanks, bikurgurl, for nominating A Year with Mona for the Versatile Blogger Award. I’ve enjoyed your blog as well! Now, the rules state I’m supposed to tell you seven things about myself (which reminds me of those lists that used to fly around Facebook all the time) and then nominate 15 other blogs. Okay… I don’t even read fifteen other blogs, so I’ll have to go with quality over quantity.

The blogs I’m grooving on these days:

Angels in Paris – great photography from a friend here in Paris.

journeyinprocess – stories, photos, insights, inspiration. Another friend not only in cyberspace, but whom I’ve got to go on ministry journeys with to Italy and Lesotho.

malcolmmcloughlin.com – another blog from a real life friend in Paris. Laugh out loud funny and inspiring? Yes.

The Voice of One – “To know and preach nothing but Christ….” Hmmm… another real life friend! From waaaay back. And writing stuff that challenges and inspires me.

Some writing sites:

anaspoke – tons here about the modern maze that is self-publishing.

helpingwritersbecomeauthors – my go-to site for writing craft inspiration and insight. I’ve learned a TON from K.M. Weiland.

theeditorsblog – “Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.” Some fabulous writing advice here. For when you mean business as a writer.

So: seven sites. Seven good sites.

And seven things about me? Here goes.

  1. I grew up in the same house until I went to college. Since getting married, we’re averaging a new place to live every three years.
  2. After my first visit to Paris in 1993, I said, “Yeah, it was nice, but I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”
  3. I’ve frequented Starbucks more now in Paris than I ever did in the States–because you can order a big coffee and set up shop with the laptop for hours!
  4. I like to improvise when cooking, but baking–with all those precise measurements and instructions–stresses me out.
  5. I thought about being an English major for about a week my freshman year of college, but then said, nah, that’s not for me–I’m a musician!
  6. Sometimes I like to re-read my favorite books more than read new ones.
  7. I like focusing on the big picture and all of the details. Maybe that’s why writing a novel feels like a good fit.

So there you have it. Check out some of the blogs listed above. You’ll find something good.