Seeking Connection with Writers

April 3, 2011 at 2:50 pm 2 comments

For the past fourteen years, I have taught a class called “Paris: A Literary Adventure*” in Paris each summer. One of the first questions people often ask me (excitedly) when they hear about my class is whether I take my students all around Paris and “show them all the places where the writers were.”

It’s a natural question, and I know that the people who ask it assume that the answer is going to be yes. So the challenge for me always is how to answer the question truthfully, succinctly, and in such a way that they are not disappointed. My answer is usually something on the order of, “Well, we do a little bit of that, yes. And I encourage the students to do it on their own if they like, according to their own interests. But mostly we are in the classroom together, talking about what they discover in the texts they’re reading. And how what they’re reading illuminates, deepens, enriches their own experience of Paris.”

Usually this answer is met with some form of polite confusion or even stunned disbelief. After all, if  “all we’re doing” is reading the books, couldn’t we do that anywhere?” (Yes, we could.) “So what would be the point of going to Paris and ‘just’ reading the books?” (Well. It turns out that reading books written about Paris in Paris is in fact a much richer experience, especially for people who have never been there, than it is reading those same books elsewhere.  What was a mere theory when I first created my course has now become a proven fact, observed through the lived experience of hundreds of my students.)

And though I do understand how natural the question is, I have always been just a bit perplexed as to why it is that many people assume the most interesting thing we could do in Paris is to go and stare at the outsides of windows out of which famous writers once stared into a Paris that has changed significantly since they were there looking out. Or to go into the bars and bistros they made famous, to pay for overpriced drinks and be surrounded by other tourists doing the same thing.

I have always felt that the advantage of being in Paris to study the works of expatriate writers who have lived there is to read their words while living in the same city they were writing about. And to allow the words themselves to inspire thought, action, a more fascinating exploration of a changing, but endlessly fascinating city.

A new book just published, A Skeptic’s Guide to Writer’s Houses by Anne Trubek, a professor of English at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of writers’ homes that have been made into museums. Why do we visit writers homes in order to feel close to writers?  Trubek wonders, in this very well-written and thought-provoking book. Why don’t we just read their books?

Trubek began her search for an answer to these questions as a Ph.D. student in 1991, at the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey. “I decided to go to Camden to expose not simply Whitman’s house, but all of the writers’ house museums as the frauds I believed them to be,” she says. Though setting out in a very skeptical state of mind and remaining somewhat skeptical to the end, Trubek’s openness to learning and growing, and to changing her mind along the way, cause her to come up with conclusions that are much more complex, nuanced, and interesting than the one she set out to prove.  “I believe, still, that a house is often not the best way to honor the life and work of a writer,” she writes. “But I no longer scoff at those who do want to build them…We pick and choose our stories. The ones we want to hear offer us something we need to hear, be it solace, support or a cautionary tale.”

Trubek tells many wonderful stories, and poses a number of interesting questions in her book, but to me the most interesting and the central one is summed up when, after years of visiting the small museums that struggle to attract visitors, to pay the crushing costs of maintenance, to sustain themselves financially, she asks someone engaged in the daunting prospect of raising funds to restore a dilapidated house Langston Hughes once lived in in Cleveland. “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house?” she asks.

It’s similar to the way I have felt every time someone asked me if what I do in Paris with my students is show them the places writers have been. To me it has always been pretty obvious that to visit the locations where writers have been is not the best way to feel close to those writers. To me the best way to feel close to writers is to read their work.

Granted, with the right storyteller as guide, the writers can come alive again in house tours, as Trubek discovered. (The best guides, she found, not surprisingly, were the ones who incorporated the author’s own words into their tours, the ones who made those words, and through the words, the authors too, come alive for their listeners.) In literary tours as in literature itself, the skill of the storyteller is crucial.

For it is through the power of words, not buildings or stones, bistros or bars, that writers create their connections to the world. Ironically, sometimes the absence of a building can be more moving than the presence of one. Trubek discovered this as she and other visitors stared at the charred ruins of a dream house Jack London had built on his California ranch, but that was destroyed in a fire before he ever had the chance to live in it.  Another writer’s home she visited was being kept in a state officially described as “arrested decay” rather than being brought back to a pristine and picturesque approximation of what might have once been.  “I prefer burnt stones and arrested decay to fake manuscripts on borrowed desks,” Trubek concludes.

I have very little time with my students in Paris, just a month. In the time we are there I try to help them dig deeply into the words the writers wrote about a Paris that is now gone forever, because it is in the past. And then to use the insights and wisdom the writers we are reading have shared to enrich their own experience of a Paris that is still very much alive, waiting just outside their doors.

That Paris has changed a great deal from the days when Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton and Langston Hughes were there. But it is still enduringly Parisian, enduringly French, and an enduringly fascinating place.

Also, much has not changed. And sharp-eyed writers from Edith Wharton to David Sedaris have captured these things, and committed them to paper, along with their own unique insights into France and the French.

Words, especially the words written by great writers, have the power to deepen and enrich our experience of fascinating places, as well as to transform lives. And so what I do with my students in Paris is to focus, mostly, on writers’ words.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offers Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France. She recommends Paris-Walks for some wonderful walking tours of Paris, including a Hemingway walk given each Friday morning.

*Originally called “Paris through the Eyes of Travelers.”

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work, Why Words Matter. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chelnor Griffin  |  April 4, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Writing is an art of the mind and of the heart. A person’s writing should take the reader where they intended the reader to go and give the reader the emotions and thoughts they intended for them to have. Now in relation to making connections, the great writer is vivid and descriptive in his or her writing so that the reader is taken to the setting of the story.

    I think it would just be a personal adventure to actually visit a writer’s home or birthplace. It would give some insight into why the writer writes as she or he does or explain why writers put certian imagery or settings in their writing.

    Chelnor Griffin

  • 2. Loretta  |  September 4, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I have studied the expatriates of the lost generation and teach Hemingway, Hughes, Stein, Fitzgerald and many others. This article was fascinating to read because I would have been one of those students that would want to walk in the wake of the famous writers. Yet, I agree to make a connection to the writer you must read their words. It is a personal adventure and in some ways an emotional one, especially when you’ve studied their words and works and are familiar them. It’s like visiting a memorial that profoundly affects you.
    Loretta Messer


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