Why I Write


by Maggie Dugan

I was seven months pregnant when I decided that it was time to start writing, really writing, the sit-in-the-chair-every-day kind of writing. Within a month I rented a tiny studio across the street from my apartment and furnished it with only the necessary items: a writing table and chair, a lamp, a computer. There was no telephone and no connection for Internet access.

I’d been a writer for as long as I can remember, it’s just that I’d been writing for everyone else. I was a journalist, and I headed up a small radio network. When I moved to Europe, it was with the intention to write. But within two-years I jumped back in the grind, working just as hard, churning out lengthy documents once again, for somebody else. I even ended up in Paris where it’s in vogue to sit in cafés and write, but I wasn’t really writing, not the kind of writing I wanted to do.

I didn’t want to let my child become an excuse not to write, and I didn’t want to resent her because I’d stopped chasing a dream. I knew having a place to go to write was the only way; if I didn’t have a room of my own, nothing would change. Two years later, a second daughter followed and there were more demands on me than before. But I kept crossing the street, climbing the narrow stairway to my little atelier and facing down my computer. Sometimes I’d sneak over at night after the girls had gone to sleep. With only the dim light of a table lamp and the glow of my computer screen, I could see my reflection in the dark window. I’d nod at myself, certain that whether my words were published or not, what my daughters would witness was just as important: seeing their mom making time to do what she loved, simply because she loved it.

Of course, in order to model this for them, I had to really learn it.

I had to learn how to put myself in the chair and just write, no matter what. I had to learn to pour myself on the page and live with an awkward and imperfect first draft. I had to learn – I’m still learning – to silence the judge that critiques my work too quickly and keeps me from putting it out for the world to read. The hardest part to learn is the patience; giving the process time, and to just to keep doing it anyway.

It sounds romantic, the life of a writer in Paris. Now that I’ve been doing it, I know what a grind it can be. Still, I keep making the trek across the street, putting in my time in my little studio. Sometimes it hurts to sit there. Sometimes it feels so natural that I can’t stop smiling.

I want to tell you something about my mother. She was a model of professional and domestic organization. She made a list of every product she would ever consider buying at the local supermarket, in the order of how they were placed the aisles of the store. She typed it up, made a hundred copies and bound them in a large note-pad that she kept on the kitchen counter. As we ran out of supplies, she checked each item we needed. On Thursdays, she’d tear off the top page and take it with her to buy the groceries. Nobody got in and out of that store faster than my mother.

She had a list for everything and it seemed her satisfaction was measured by how many boxes get checked off. Even opening the Christmas presents was something we had to “get out of the way.” After the first day of school she’d ask how many children were in my class, but she never asked what it felt like to be assigned to a different class than my best friend of the last three years.

As I grew into a woman, I wanted to share with my mother the deeper parts of my life, but I found she couldn’t talk about her emotions and she didn’t really want to hear about mine. I asked her what was it like the night my father died; she told me about getting the telephone to work with her hearing aid, and how the sheriff drove her to the hospital behind the ambulance. The pain and anguish of watching her husband die – and the loneliness of her life since – was left out of that recollection.

This morning, standing at the kitchen counter eyeing the clock and trying to get out the door and across the street to my own room and my own words, I’m caught in the web of things to do. Something is wrong with the vent for the kitchen fan, it’s raining and water is dripping in on the stovetop. I stand on a chair trying to wipe the excess water from inside the fan unit, thinking about how to find the phone number for a roof-top chimney repairman, remembering that I also need to call and make a doctor’s appointment for the kid’s vaccinations. I have to stop by the conservatory to organize the music class schedule and file the insurance papers for the musical instrument we rent from them. The other daughter needs a gift for an upcoming birthday party, and there’s a note in her cahier that she needs a specifically-sized binder notebook for school, by tomorrow. The girls’ ID cards must be procured at the prefecture, an ill-timed administrative errand that disrupts time I’d set aside to work, but urgent because of an upcoming trip. There are a dozen tiny things like this on the list, none of them on their own particularly time consuming, but their accumulation and interruptive quality stuns me. That long chunk of hours I’d set aside to write squeezes in on me like the narrowing walls of a horror movie; I finally get to my studio and just as I fall into the groove of concentration, it’s time to go wait outside the school and bring the girls home.

I understand, now, why my mother deflected her feelings with logistics and figures and the items on her list. She couldn’t afford the time it takes to feel. That was how she coped, how she kept the engine of our household going. I’m acutely aware of how easily I could avoid the feeling part of my life. There’s always so much to do.

That’s why I write. Writing means, to me, feeling my life. Writing forces me to dig deeper than the first layer of disclaimers and excuses, to explore the murky, feeling world beneath. The first words on the page start out as something cerebral, they evolve into a portal for raw and real emotions. Writing takes me beyond being a thinking woman, or a doing woman. It demands that I be a feeling woman, too.

Since I took my studio and started taking myself seriously as a writer, I’ve learned that being engaged in what I’m writing is one of its greatest gifts. I’ve learned how essential it is to feel the tiny pointed details of every day and connect them in the map of how I live my life. Writing is what spans the territory I inhabit, the bridge between how I wanted to know my mother and how I hope to know my daughters. The pivot point is in that chair, alone in the peace of my writing studio. It’s there that I feel the next sentence, the next paragraph – one by one – each day writing a page of a life that is fully lived, feelings and all.

Paris As I See It


by Thirza Vallois   

My first encounter with Paris, in the 1950s and as a very young teenager, came as a great disappointment. Landing at the Gare du Nord, the first Paris I saw was shabby and unappetising, light years away from the “City of Light”. “Where ARE the Dior models from Vogue Magazine?” I asked my mother in frustration. A cab driver soon whisked us off to a more flattering Paris, but even aboard a “Paris by Night” coach and horse-drawn carriages (long since gone), the city failed to live up to the mystique I had anticipated. No way could it live up to London. Based on that first visit and the few that followed, I have no idea what prompted me to pick up Paris for my student years. It would be interesting to psycho-analyse why I chose to settle here for good. There was more to it than just meeting and marrying a Parisian. It was more like the slow process of falling in love with someone one at first actively dislikes.  It is one of those perfidious tricks that fate plays insidiously on our hearts.

Not that I now love Paris unconditionally. I love it realistically and with eyes wide open. And sometimes I hate it.  Being a bit of a chameleon, it took me no time to have full command of the language and integrate into French life.  The combination of a good sense of observation and hyper sensitivity to a fault, enabled me to capture all the vibes, innuendoes and dynamics of the city. Some are nice; some are not. My love for beauty, music, art and literature, not to mention my keen interest in history, as well as current social and political issues, couldn’t find a better place   to feed on and thrive in.

It all just happened, taking its natural course. As did my writing. Unlike so many aspiring writers who come to Paris with that goal on their minds, my writing sprouted, grew and matured spontaneously, when the moment was ripe. Interestingly, it happened in Paris and not in London, although I much preferred London to Paris in those days. Paris, gruff and Gallic, exasperated me, whereas London was a smooth journey. Perhaps it was precisely because I was comfortable in London that I felt no urge to write about it. It didn’t antagonise me.   Paris on the other hand was so intense. Besides, so much in Paris was played out on the streets and public places. Of course in the 1960s London too  began to buzz, in a way more than Paris, but  it was more of a surface buzz. It lacked the depth of history and tradition, the intimate sense of community.  In Paris you may still have “your” own boulanger or butcher who will tip you how best to cook your meat. London is confidently on the way to New York; Paris is looking there too, but over its shoulder and more reluctantly.

Of course Parisians too spend time commuting, shopping, eating out and night clubbing, and Paris  too is gradually affected by homogenising globalisation, but for the time being it  hangs on to its creative individuality. Despite the rampant increase of franchised outlets, a typical Parisian street still has its own character. Can you tell one British high street from another? Unlike London, which was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, and despite the major urban works under Haussmann and his followers, Paris has preserved a sense of historical continuity going back to the Middle Ages. Its building façades and cobbled streets can be read like a marvelous book, bursting with fascinating stories, some true, some legends. All are part of Parisian lore and history.   Add to this the fact that inner Paris is quite small and  compact and you’ve landed  in walkers’ paradise, to be explored horizontally and vertically simultaneously.

Take for example a leafy courtyard  you have chanced upon — a gift from heaven to be thankful for. How much greater is the gift when you can also imagine Leslie Caron/Gigi step down into that courtyard, or Gigi’s creator, Colette, emerge into the street from another charming courtyard, a couple of blocks away. Or Mozart aged 7, stepping out into rue François Miron in the Marais. Imagine him, aged 10 popping up further north, now the corner of rue de Bretagne and square du Temple, playing the harpsichord to the city’s most brilliant and glittering society. No trace is left of that venue, the Palace of the Grand Prior, the court of the illegitimate branch of the royal family.  Imagine yourself enjoying a Häagen-Dazs ice-cream on place de la Contrescarpe, then finding out you are sitting on the very spot where  five hundred years ago the land’s most famous poets  gathered under the name of La Pléaide and wrote the manifesto that would propel the French language into future glory.  By the by, you find out that up until then that status was bestowed on Latin alone, hence the Latin Quarter, the language of the university.

Despite the proliferation of facts and details, I don’t see Paris as their accumulation but as a whole. The details I glean along the way all come together, leading to the understanding of the city, my ultimate goal. Including current-day Paris. including the bits that are not so nice. Including the dark shameful pages one would rather push under the carpet. I see Paris as a gigantic tapestry spread at my feet, into which I weave the innumerable threads of my findings. Increasingly, I see Paris also as a mosaic of ethnicities (it’s not quite London yet, but it’s heading in the same direction), boasting along its central axis a string of  miniature worlds of exotic diversity. Finally, I see Paris as a gigantic puzzle, one of those that come in thousands of pieces and take forever to complete.  Mission impossible: There will  always be that other door you didn’t notice before to be opened, a hatch at your feet to be lifted, a building site  to remind you that Paris is a city in perpetual motion (oh, please spare us your highrises and other questionable projects), a never-ending story, a lifetime commitment once you become a Paris writer and get caught by the “bug”.