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Finding a new way with words

A growing number of writing groups have started in France and budding writers have found them a help

3 September 2014

Many people are inspired to put pen to paper when they start a new life in France. Often it is something they would not have done if they had not made the move.
JANE HANKS talks to readers who have joined the growing number of English language writing groups and book clubs

Paris has always been a source of inspiration for writers – and what could be better than attending a writers’ group at Shakespeare and Co – the famous English bookshop on the Left Bank, a traditional haven for artists.

The Other Writers’ Group was set up by David Barnes (seen in photo, above) in 2005 and every week between 15 and 20 people – some regulars – some who are passing through – meet in a room in the shop.

The policy is an open door one: “I set it up because I am passionate about writing and I wanted to find out what reaction I would get from readers to my work.

“There are a lot of Anglophone writers in the city – Paris seems to attract them and I’ve stayed here because I’ve met a lot of people who care about writing – it’s very strong in the French culture.”

Mr Barne’s philosophy is to put everyone at ease: “ I want people to feel safe – while at the same time allowing them to get some insight into their work. The youngest is 17 and the oldest is in his 60s.

“Some are established writers – others are beginners. We usually hear six or seven people’s writing in the course of a session and then discuss – trying to find out why the piece had this or that effect. It costs e6 a session and we welcome anyone who wants to come along.”

Mr Barnes has also set up an open mike poetry reading evening which is every Monday at a bar, Au Chat Noir in Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. It attracts between 80 and 100 people and about 20 will read their poems.

“It works really well. It is truly international with English-speakers from all over the world – as well as from countries where they speak excellent English such as Scandinavia, and some French poets who have a very high level of English. Again, we try to create a safe environment and are creating a community of people who love poetry.

“We ask for a nominal e1 and it is open to everyone. We have had some of the most well-known Paris Anglophone poets, and complete beginners, and all styles.”

The Other Writer’s Group published an anthology of their work, Strangers in Paris, which can be bought on Amazon. Find out more about the book and both groups on the site http://spokenwordparis.org

Sarah Talbot has lived in Toulouse for over 25 years and before that, lived in Germany. She now belongs to French, German and English reading groups, as well as an English writing group. She says they are all very different. The French group is dynamic and takes advantage of local literary events including free lectures with well-known guest authors, while the English one is more relaxed and the German one more academic. Each group meets once a month.

“I’ve joined the three groups because I love reading. I find it challenging and it means I read a wide range of literature,” she says.

“It’s not always easy in a foreign language, but I think that if you can read a book in French there’s no reason why you can’t join a discussion group.

“I find the French one particularly stimulating and, even if you can’t enter into the finer debates, you can listen and learn and improve your language skills.

“Sometimes I make mistakes – for example I recently called the characters in the book we were discussing les caractères, when the French don’t use this word to mean the same thing, they talk about les personnages, but that’s how you improve your vocabulary.”

Mrs Talbot has also joined a writing group, in English: “We meet every week and we all do so because we love writing – we don’t necessarily want to get published. For many of us it’s a new activity.

“I started when I retired – because before that I didn’t have time.”

They usually begin with a simple exercise: “For example we take three words and write around them for five minutes. Then we might do a longer exercise where we are given an opening sentence to inspire us. We also set ourselves homework which keeps us writing at home.”

Joining a writing group can be daunting at first because it takes courage to expose your work to strangers but Mrs Talbot says members are given a gentle introduction and only read out their creations if they wish to – “Sometimes they don’t have the confidence to do so until the third meeting.”

The English Writing and Reading Group is part of the Toulouse Women’s International Group www.twigsite.org

James Vance is part of a writers’ group at the English Library in La Souterraine in the Creuse. Members meet on the last Thursday of each month and discuss a piece of work that they have sent to each other before the meeting.

Mr Vance is a published author and finds it a valuable activity: “I submitted quite a few passages from my latest book and it was really good to have suggestions from other writers.
“They picked up on points I’d missed and it was like having a team of personal editors. We are there to help each other and to try and give advice.”

Mr Vance started writing when he retired to France 14 years ago, though he never imagined that one day he might become an author: “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do once I’d renovated my farmhouse.

“Then I discovered that a local man in his 80s had been involved in the Maquis in the French Resistance and once I’d heard his story I realised I lived in an area rich in reminders of the Occupation and I thought it would be worth keeping some of these experiences alive. Now my research takes me all over France.”

His latest novel Something Old, Something New is the story of two girls in Montauban who find a medallion which leads them to discover decades of tragic secrets that had been buried since the Second World War.

Mr Vance admits it was a challenge constructing the book: “I had to create huge charts on the wall to make sure I knew where I was in the story. But I love the experience of writing. I’m passionate about it and the local history and it’s given me a new lease of life.”

To join the group at La Souterraine or get more information, contact Mr Vance at jamesvance.author@sfr.fr

In Bordeaux, two reading groups and one writing group have been set up in the past 12 months and are part of the new International Club of Bordeaux which was created just over a year ago.

Writers Inc. was begun by Victoria Corby who is a novelist and has lived in the city for 20 years.

She said she missed the writing group she belonged to in London: “I’m really pleased with the way it is developing. Currently we meet once a month – but I hope we will be able to increase that soon to twice a month.

“I get a lot out of it – it spurs you on to keep writing. It is good fun, and that is important, to be with people who like talking about writing and share your passion.

“It’s not about criticism. People are often nervous. But there is no pressure to read your own work if you don’t want to.

“One friend comes along and gives very interesting comments – but she doesn’t show us her writing, and that’s fine.”

Before they meet, the members are set an assignment: “One of the most amusing ones was to retell a fairy story from a different character’s point of view – and Snow White’s stepmother made the heroine of the tale seem a very prissy young lady indeed!”

The group is also launching a short story competition – open to any adult with an address in France for a e3 entry fee – and there is also one for children which is restricted to lycées and collèges in the Gironde.

It is to be judged by novelist Amanda Hodgkinson, who is an English and American best-selling author living in the Gers. The deadline for entries will be in early November.

Victoria Corby is also a member of the ICB’s two reading clubs. The Reading Café takes place from 10-11.30 in a book-lined café and is convenient for mothers who can attend while their children are at school.

The second is The Uncommon Reader’s Club, whose members often lunch together after the meeting. There is a truly international flavour as one is run by a French woman and one by a Russian.

“I find both these groups highly stimulating – and the group leaders are fantastic because they know how to lead a discussion and the sessions are immensely interesting and very inspiring.
“Even though you might not like the book you are reading it’s worth carrying on because you know the discussion is going to be worth it.”

Details for the groups and the Short Story Competition are on www.icbordeaux.fr

The Limousin Writers’ Group was created about four years ago and meets once a month in members’ homes with a shared meal.

Sue Crampton, who started the group, says they have all sorts of writers: beginners, published authors, those who prefer poetry, others who like detective works and some interested in local history. During their sessions they do various activities such as writing 300 words on a chosen theme or working on a project such as children’s writing, song writing or plot or character definition.

Recently they held a writers’ weekend retreat at the chateau in her village, Lagraulière in Corrèze, with 20 participants and speakers on various topics. They had also held a short story competition and the group has also met up with another in nearby Dordogne.

Mrs Crampton started writing when she retired and published a memoir about her father and a fictionalised life of one of the first Labour MPs, Edith Picton-Turbervill, called A Head Above Others.

Leaving England has enriched her writing: “Before I came to France I lived in Spain where we had a writing group and we had Spanish members and published some stories in both English and Catalan. In France I find writing has helped integration – even though I write in English. We have two French members which is great because they can translate our writing. Also, many of our writers are interested in local history which means they go and talk to the local people about their past.” You can get in touch by email: suecramptonhill@gmail.com

IN DEUX-SEVRES, Blake Morrison will be the guest writer at the St Clémentin Literary Festival along with Michèle Roberts and Beatrice Colin. The August 29-31 festival, near Bressuire, will also include music and poetry. www.stclementinlitfest.com
Photo: Sabine Dundone

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