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Sharon Olds at the Workshop: Postcard From Paris


Online Only, posted 7.19.02

The 16th annual Paris Writers Workshop wrapped up on July 5 after a week-long schedule of workshops, lectures, readings, and walking tours.

Forty-nine participants—twenty-three from the U.S., one from Canada, twenty from France, and five from various other European countries—gathered each morning to work with one of four writers in residence: Sharon Olds in poetry, Speer Morgan in fiction, Laurie Stone in nonfiction, and Eric Maisel in "deep writing." Afternoons were spent listening to other invited writers speak on such topics as "Research in Fiction: When to Stop" and "First Writes," a seminar introducing the basics of book publishing. Evenings featured readings by both local and visiting writers, made possible in part through partnerships with two local bookshops, W.H. Smith and the Village Voice.

On Monday, July 1, poet and memoirist Jeffrey Greene gave a lecture called "The Art of Literal Truth, or the Problem of Portraying Actual People." This was followed by a walking tour with local writer Elizabeth Reichert, who led participants to the literary haunts of some of Paris's most famous writers, tracing the footsteps of Colette, Hemingway, Camus, and Baldwin. Scholarship winners and poets published in Upstairs at Duroc, a local literary magazine, read from their work later that evening.

"Research can be dangerous to the imagination," warned novelist and Columbia University journalism professor Helen Benedict in her Tuesday afternoon talk on bringing a reporter's eye to writing novels. "You can fall in love with your research and let it overwhelm the action, plot, and characters," said Benedict, whose most recent book is The Sailor's Wife (Zoland, 2000). "Trust the storyteller in you."

Benedict was followed by novelist Jake Lamar, who gave a candid speech on being an obscure writer during what he called an era of "anti-literature" when intelligent writing is devalued. "If you're not real famous by your third or fourth book, you're an endangered species," said Lamar, whose novel If 6 Were 9 was published by Crown in 2001. "Writing novels is like driving a bus: tedious, thankless, generally anonymous, and low-paying. For me, it's a compulsion and an addiction, but I'm not looking for a 12-step program."

Perhaps the most highly anticipated event was the reading by Jeffrey Greene, Speer Morgan, and Sharon Olds on Tuesday night. Olds read new poems that explored her familiar themes of family, lovers, and death. "This is the first time I've ever worked in Paris," she said afterwards. "I'm moved and honored to be here, to take the Métro, to walk the streets." Knopf will publish her next book of poems, The Unswept Room, in September.

On Thursday, July 4, literary agent Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency presented an eye-opening workshop called "Practicing your Pitchcraft," a nuts-and-bolts introduction to pitching fiction and nonfiction book proposals to agents. "I'm trying to heal the disconnect between the writer and the industry," said Sands, who frequently lectures on the topic. "It always breaks my heart to see writers who can't take it to the final step."

The Paris Writers Workshop is organized by WICE, a 24-year-old organization that offers educational programs to the English-speaking community. The Workshop, staffed entirely by volunteers, is co-directed by Marcia Lèbre and Rose Burke.

Lèbre says most of the participants in the Workshop are professional writers who have already published poems and stories. "Others just want to improve their writing, and Paris is a wonderful backdrop for that," she says. Next year's program includes writers-in-residence Isabel Huggan, Alice Mattison, and Adam Zagajewski.

Sharon Olds

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