Lessons in Paris

I had the incredible opportunity this summer to travel to Paris, France and take a writing course through the British publishing company Faber & Faber.  The course, taught by Erica Wagner (writer and literary editor of the London Times) and Helen Dunmore (prolific British novelist, poet, and children’s author), was called Sense and Sensuality.  It focused on evoking a strong sense of place in your writing by drawing on the five senses to create vivid description, and it was fantastic. 

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The class met in the second floor library of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company, where Hemingway used to hang out in the twenties and where many British and American ex-patriates still hang out today.  The bookstore is managed by Sylvia Whitman, the granddaughter of the original owner, George Whitman.  Sitting amidst the dusty shelves, surrounded by books, a cobwebby chandelier hanging above us, open windows letting in the sunlight and view of Notre Dame, I couldn’t help but feel that every second of this experience was pure magic.

jess reading 3

Erica Wagner was the principal teacher of the course, and she was beyond inspirational.  After the three days were over, we each got a few minutes of one-on-one time with her.  I first asked her for advice on writing my novel (if that wasn’t vague enough!).  She said to keep on going, no matter what.  After chatting about the merits of MFA programs, I asked her what her secret to teaching was.  I had learned more in these three days than I had in any other creative writing course I’d taken (and I’ve taken a lot!). 

She smiled and said, “My secret is my husband.”  She went on to explain that her husband is Francis Gilbert, a big-time teacher, writer, and all-around education guru in the UK.  “I had only taught one workshop before,” she continued.  I was amazed–this woman got us writing, got us thinking in new ways about craft, about creating a sense of place, about how to describe vividly and in non-cliched ways.  To think this was only her second time teaching absolutely floored me.  She then said that wanted to create a good experience for her students and consulted her husband, who was much more knowledgeable about teaching.  “He told me to figure out what my objectives were, what I wanted the students to take away from the class.  And from there we made a plan that would make sure those objectives were met.”

I couldn’t believe it.  There I was, three thousand miles and four years away from all of those the Rutgers pedagogy classes I took where the professors harped on the importance of objectives, of assessment, of all the jargon that I struggled to incorporate into my lesson plans when I first started out, not truly understanding how it all worked together.  And yet here was this woman telling me it was these very principles of planning and learning that drove her to create this very class that had such an indelible impact on me.  Learning hadn’t strayed from these basics–it all comes from the same principles.  Turns out that I’d know the secret to successful teaching all along… I just hadn’t realized it until now.

I flew home that Wednesday with a completely revitalized mentality for my novel-in-progress and re-outlined the whole story on the plane.  The writing course had been a success in terms of my personal progress as a writer.  Its revitalization of my perspective of how to teach–and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a well-planned course–was a delightfully surprising bonus.  When the school year began three weeks later, I was more excited than any other first day of school.  

Of course, upon my return, I had to go out and buy the DVD of Paris Je T’AimeMy absolute favorite vignette is the last one with the American tourist.  I’d seen this movie in the theater when it first came out and had always loved this last scene, but it resounded with me so much more watching it again after this summer’s trip.  As Carol says, “Sitting there in Paris, in the garden, I felt alive.  That’s when I fell in love with Paris.  And that’s when I knew that Paris loved me back.”


  1. Kate says:

    Great post! Sounds like it was an incredible opportunity! And in Paris no less!

  2. Sherri says:

    Sounds so wonderful. Have you read “A Moveable Feast?” I read it when I was there (EH wrote much of it sitting exactly where you are in the picture you posted).

  3. [...] would be Shakespeare and Company (read about the history of my love for this bookstore here and here).  Last week, I received notification that Killing the Angel, my literary magazine, will [...]

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