"I was a free man in Paris, I was unfettered and alive," Joni Mitchell sings to us. I hear her, loud and clear. When I lived in Paris for five years, I felt freer than any other time in my life. Wait a second: I had two babies with me at all times during those years! I was struggling with a failing marriage! And yet.
A writer is always a kind of outsider. We have to stand apart from our experience and observe it; we have to learn how to use the good lines, the perfect moments. We're never fully immersed in our lives. I'm not complaining—that kind of life suits me. I was a bit of an outsider throughout my life: I was a kid who read under the covers at night in a family of jocks, I was a Jew at a Waspy school, I learned not to use the big words I learned at school so as not to intimidate my parents who never went to college.
And then I moved to Paris. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was supposed to be an outsider! I was a foreigner, an exotic and fascinating being. I remember the constant questions: what do Americans think about this? How do Americans do that? I couldn't even pretend to fit in - my French, even when I finally became conversant, shouts: Americaine! And I don't look French - I never learned to wear those damn scarves or those stiletto shoes.
My bones seemed to settle more comfortably in my body. I stopped trying so hard to pretend I was a member of an illusive club. I took pleasure in being an outsider. And my writerly self flourished. I was always watching, listening, taking mental notes of every rich, colorful moment. I was also kept on edge - the foreign world is full of surprises, sharp turns and occasional potholes. That edginess kept me observant. And it kept me writing.
Years after that time in Paris, I got an idea for a novel. Three Americans spend a hot summer day walking the streets of Paris with three French tutors and find their lives transformed in surprising ways. I wrote the novel in a kind of mad rush - all of those Paris notes flourished into story material. I felt as if French Lessons had been writing itself in my mind those many years ago, while I walked the streets with one baby in a Snugli, the other in a stroller, taking a long hard look at the world around me.
I return to Paris often. I keep refining my practice of being an outsider in the world, a writer who observes life at the same time as I live it. Living and traveling abroad feed my writerly soul and strengthen my writerly habits. Paris, je t'aime.
–Ellen Sussman's first novel, On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller. It has been translated into six languages. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which was aNew York Times Editors Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller.Her newest novel, French Lessons, is out this week from Ballantine in 2011.
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Causes Ellen Sussman Supports
Susan G. Komen For The Cure