Milchtoast

Living, learning, eating in Switzerland and beyond


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Some thoughts on writing workshops

Our awesome Craft of Fiction group at the Paris Writers Workshop (Photo via CoreyMP)

I don’t often post about writing-related things in this space, mostly because I’m aware that my readers are, for the most part, not writers. But when a new friend that I met at the Paris Writers Workshop offered me a chance to spout my opinions about workshops on her blog, which is dedicated to writing, I jumped at it. If you happen to be interested in the topic, head on over to my post on Corey’s blog. And if you are a writer, you might want to stay tuned to the site — it’s full of interesting and thought-provoking content.


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A week in Paris

So, I didn’t fall in love with Paris at first sight. Nor did I realize we were meant for each other the second time I went. On my third visit, I still failed to swoon, but I did begin to better understand and appreciate the city’s diversity. I realized that while I don’t so much enjoy being a tourist in Paris (given my aversion to crowds and lines), it could be nice to live in a city where work-eat-sleep routines are punctuated by feasts for the eyes, ears and taste buds. For me, Paris’ charm lies in the man who stands up from his seat to preach salvation through Jesus the moment the metro doors have snapped shut; in the saxophone music issuing from another car as I exit the train; in the sense that dessert is sometimes obligatory; and in art that is unexpected and whimsical.

For my week’s stay, I rented a small (small enough that there was considerable toe-stubbing) apartment in the 15th arrondissement. From there, my commuting options to the American University of Paris, where the workshop was held, were either a 40-minute walk which took me right past the Eiffel tower, or a 10-minute metro ride. I did a mixture of walking and metro-ing during the week, and while the former was lovely, it was being sardined with office workers in a stinky, humid metro car that made me think, “Look at me! Comme une vraie Parisienne!”

The Eiffel Tower pops up unexpectedly

The workshop itself was great. Our instructor for the morning master class was, in addition to being an accomplished writer, also a very gifted teacher. He arranged our five days of class around five core themes: Structure and plot; consciousness and thought; dialogue; description; and narrative. Each of the twelve participants had submitted a manuscript in advance, and certain of them were chosen to be discussed each day to tie in with the given theme. I have left other workshops feeling deflated, but I came away from this one full of ideas about how to revise my piece, and excited to try out some newly learned techniques.

A week was also long enough for friendships to form among the participants. By midweek the excellent Café Constant, near the AUP and quite affordable at midday, had been deemed “our place” for lunch; in the evening we ate crepes — both sweet and savoury, the latter being a revelation to me — discussed books and writing, and walked around the city. Here are some of us at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, a place I had long dreamed of visiting but hadn’t made it to on previous visits to Paris:

Since the workshop finished on Friday but the apartment rental lasted through Sunday, Stelian came to stay the weekend. Together we spent some time poking around the Marais district and the Porte de Vanves flea market. We considered buying a lamp made to look like a robot before we learned its shockingly high price, and we went to the combined museums of Magic and Automation, where I had the dubious honour of being the only non-child selected by the magician to take part in a trick during the “spectacular,” or magic show.

At the Porte de Vanves flea market

All in all, I had a great week away, and I will continue to savour my third taste of Paris, that bustling, glittering, maddeningly unpredictable city. As always, though, I breathed a sigh of relief upon coming back to Zürich, where things are wonderfully clean and quiet, and where I revel in simple pleasures like running through the city’s forests and drinking my beloved pasture milch.


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On paying to be free of the net

I have sung the praises of our internet age in earlier posts. But the truth is that while this whole world-wide-web thing is a great friend of mine where communication and research is concerned, it is also a formidable foe where other things are concerned. Things like productivity on days when I feel unmotivated.

What is it that we call this thing, again? Oh yes, the net. Or else, the web. Have you noticed that these are both things designed to entrap?

And entrap they do, sometimes spectacularly well. I think we have probably all had the experience of sitting down to do something specific (write an e-mail or look up a piece of information) and found ourselves instead going down a facebook-youtube-twitter rabbit hole that we may not snap out of until an hour has gone by and we realize that we’re watching a string of terrible music videos from 20 years ago. Or is that last part just me?

The thing is, there’s just way too much content. And like some kind of dismembered monster, it never stops regenerating itself — facebook is beckoning with “new stories,” youtube with recommended videos tailored just to my taste, google reader with an onslaught of new blog posts each day. These are siren songs, irresistible but sure to lead to distraction and self-loathing if I look at them during times that I’ve apportioned for work.

I’ve been in this situation before. My first year of undergrad, I lived in a dorm. I thought I was lucky to have a (teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy) single room, because then I could dictate the terms of my social engagement: I could study when I needed or wanted to, I thought, without having to negotiate with a roommate who wanted to talk endlessly or have people over or be otherwise distracting.

However, there were still six people living on my floor (which we called an alcove); six more on the floor below, six more on the floor above, and…you get the point. Someone was still always knocking on my door, asking if I wanted to go eat, to watch a movie, to go out…sometimes I’d say “no, I really have to study,” and they’d say, “ok, but we’ll be in the common room downstairs if you change your mind…” After that I would typically study distractedly for a short period, before giving in and joining them. My grades, as you might imagine, were not top-notch that year.

However, I did get around to reading, for my Classics course, about Odysseus having to lash himself to the mast of his ship and block his ears with wax in order not to succumb to the sirens. I might have followed his lead and tied myself to my desk and made use of earplugs, but I didn’t. I never found a good way to resist the pull of the social activity happening just outside my door. I had to move out of residence before I could become more conscientious.

Now I have been asking myself, how do I do a similar thing for the internet? How do I stop feeling like there’s a party (or multiple parties) on my computer that I could be joining any moment? I’m a fierce introvert by nature, but there’s something about those rolling newsfeeds that just beckons, making me believe I might be missing important news from someone, somewhere.  I also hate the way that I almost automatically click over to my e-mail or to my news page when I’m stuck on something in a story I’m working on. I wouldn’t call this problem of mine an addiction, but I would call it a set of rather bad habits.

So here’s an irony: I’m going to rely on more technology to save the day. For now, anyway, and until I develop the necessary self-restraint. I recently learned about a program called “Freedom” which you install on your computer, and each time you use it it blocks the internet for a time period that you specify (up to 8 hours at a time). You cannot shut it off once you have activated it — the only way to regain access is to reboot your computer. I have been using the software on a trial basis for a few days, and so far I’ve been happy with the results.

Now, let’s make note of the irony that in order to gain this “freedom” I will be paying ($10, but still) to install a program that actually denies my access to certain things. But I think this is necessary, for the moment. Distraction is a huge threat to any writer who has no one who makes them work, no company to feel guilty towards, no paycheque to feel as though they are not earning when they waste time. So I’m willing to swallow the irony and admit that I sometimes need intervention. Like Odysseus, I’ll do whatever seems necessary to stay on course.


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Running and writing: an extended metaphor

There’s a lot of running advice available to those who want to read it. So much advice, in fact, that deciding which books, magazines, and online articles to read can be daunting, and can suck up a lot of time that you could have used to…well, go running. Some of the advice is good, some of it is detrimental. Some of it works for some people, and not for others.

When I trained solo for a marathon, I sought out a lot of advice. Some of it was highly technical. But what I remember today, and what was most useful, was very simple advice that went along these lines: start gently, and build slowly. But be persistent; keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. To my amazement, I found that I was able to take one step after another, all the way to the finish line. As a result of that journey, I arrived at a place where I was comfortable saying to people: “I’m a runner.”

If I’m going to blog honestly about my life in Zürich, then I’m going to have to risk boring you, from time to time, with my reflections on running and writing. These threads are woven deeply into my everyday life, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that they are twin threads, composed of the same fiber.

In both things, starting slowly is of utmost importance. A person who can’t run the 5K distance probably shouldn’t sign up for a marathon; a new writer might find themself hopelessly mired when thinking about the amount of work that goes into a novel (I know this is often the case for me). In both things, there are sudden challenges — the runner’s hill is the writer’s moment of realizing that he or she doesn’t know how to make a scene work, or that characters are refusing to stand up and tell the reader who they are. In both things, there are periods of boredom, feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, and epic battles against inertia. In both things, there are injuries: moments when one’s body, one’s pride, or one’s sense of “this is worth doing” is greatly challenged or wounded.

Admitting that you engage in either running or writing regularly can cause others to question your sanity, or your instinct for self-preservation. Why are these activities –both of them frequently painful — worth doing? For me, they offer similar rewards. The scenery gets to me, first of all. I get to see things that I never would have if I was sitting on the couch — exciting and beautiful things that I never knew existed within my city or within my imagination. I get to see progress: as I add up my miles, or tally my word count, I notice that my stride or my prose has gotten a little smoother along the way. I write things and run distances that I never would have believed myself capable of; I get the feeling that I am developing, getting stronger. Maybe most importantly, I still feel the excitement of starting out on a run or a writing session with a loose plan, but without knowing exactly where I’ll end up going.

There is a lot written about writing (not surprisingly, I guess). Just as a runner can pore over the minutiae of hydration, fueling, intervals, and tapering, a writer of fiction can obsess over whether their plot is in good shape, their dialogue is working well, their characters are believable. All things that I need and want to learn more about, and that I will learn more about. But it’s more basic advice that keeps me afloat on a day-to-day basis. Advice that says, “just keep writing, and let the experience pile up.” Advice that says, you can and you should (thanks, Stephen King, for the permission slip). Acknowledgement from other writers that it’s hard, but it’s worthwhile, as I have found to be true about running.

I’m not someone who is comfortable saying to people, in response to the question of what I do: “I’m a writer.” But I am sitting here, building slowly, being persistent; putting down one word after another. Hoping to someday cross that line.