From avid reader to avid writer

Marie Medevielle never really considered herself a “serious writer”, until, taking a leap of faith, she joined one of our workshops. She just finished her second term with teacher Inge Lamboo. Now she’s leaving behind her job as creative producer at a communication agency in Amsterdam to do a masters degree in creative writing in London. We are going to miss her but we’re also so proud of her for going for it and wish her all the best. We sat down with her recently to talk about what scares her, what inspires her and what she’s learned during her time with us.

 

Q: What led you to creative writing?

A: I am a very new writer, and to be honest I have a hard time calling myself a writer. I am first and foremost an avid reader. But for some reason I almost stopped reading in university. I was a student in cultural studies. The mandatory books I had to read were for the most part very analytical essays, in sociology and anthropology. These did not rock my boat at all.

When I started working as a producer, I started reading again, a lot, much more than ever before actually, probably to compensate for what I missed in my very practical and hands on job. I love fiction as a general rule. I guess that’s because fiction is to me both an escape and an inspiration. I live with and through the characters of the books I read and I tend to learn more trying to understand their thoughts and their actions, than reading essays that explain more literally the why’s and how’s of human behaviour. With fiction, I can travel through different times and spaces and learn and think at the same time. The narrative of a great story is one of the most powerful thought-provokers.

Because books started to play a bigger and bigger role in my life, I registered for my first workshop with the wish and need to share this passion with like-minded peers. I had the feeling I kept stuffing my head with stories, readings, words, ideas, but I could not quite manage to revert to flow and get things a bit out of there, instead of always in. Writing was the most appealing form, but I had no clue how to start. So when I heard about the workshop, I thought this definitely could be something that would allow me to both share my passion for books and learn about the craft myself.

 

Q: What does your writing process look like?

A: I wish I could say I have a process! But that would be a lie. So far the only thing I know about the process is that it’s painful, oh how painful! I find writing extremely challenging. I am still trying to figure out the right time and places to be productive when I write. It is still at an embryo stage. I am also a bit nomadic. I have moved seven times during the past three years, hopping from one house to another, so it’s not like I have a room somewhere I can always go back to. It can be that one place inspires me one day but definitely won’t the day after. I like movement. And this applies to my writing too.

The hardest part is to actually sit down, open my computer or my notebook and get to it. What’s been working the best though, so far, is to go outside to a bar or a cafe that does not offer a free Wi-Fi connection. I do not take my phone with me, I order a cappuccino (and a piece of chocolate tart if I need an extra push), sit there and write. We distract ourselves so unnecessarily in so many ways nowadays, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, emails, iMessages, this news app, that news app, the weather app, this pic, that video…

I feel like I got used to opening one of my social media accounts anytime. It’s terrible! But the satisfaction I feel when I get a bit far through a writing piece is absolutely empowering. I might sometimes spend three hour to get one page done, and then ten more hours editing it. It sounds gargantuan, but as bizarre at is sounds, I recommend it to any aspiring writer. Imagination and thoughts do not require any online tool: it only requires your eyes, your brain, your senses, and, if you dare, a pen.

 

Q: Where do you get your material from? What inspires you?

A: When I first started, everything I wrote was very personal because inspired from my own experiences, almost exclusively memories of my young childhood growing in the French Southern countryside with my mother, my grandmother and my brothers. I also wrote a lot about the year I spent in New York when I was 20. However, I realized very quickly that, first, when it came to sharing these writing with peers in class, I got very uncomfortable having them comment on bits and pieces of my life they did not know about, even though their focus was on the style, the tone, the technique. When you’re a very little experienced writer, I think it is difficult to separate the emotional content from the “box” you put it in, and this results in you taking things too personally.

The second issue I had is that my life is not as exciting as Indiana Jones. Not that you need to be an Indiana to be a writer, but events do help provide you with writing material. I very often felt like I was stuck with the same themes, and I did not know how to make them a bit more universal and bit more exciting too. From then on, I let my imagination lead the way a bit more. Instead of telling my stories, I would just tell stories. In the context of the workshop, I let myself be inspired by the tones of voice and the narrator of the sample piece we studied.

From the perception I have of the narrator we’re looking at, arises very often different types of characters and voices that have nothing to do with my own life, but who of course I infuse of my own thoughts. I have read a lot of books by Terry Pratchett lately for example. He uses personification a lot, as a technique. He gives thoughts to little beings that have nothing to do with humans (or so it seems), to chests, to trees, and so on and so forth. Unconsciously, I let myself be inspired by him and I wrote short pieces in which I gave a voice to un-human things. In a way, this is very liberating. I can still talk about subjects and feelings dear to my heart, learning, growing, traveling, love, death, to name a few, but because the character I use is physically so far away from me, my appearance, it becomes much easier to distance myself, and I dare to approach the themes of my writing in a more experimental way.

I also use movies as writing material. I watch movies obsessively, the same way that I read books. I am impregnated with the atmosphere of the movies I see, and I use that as a frame for some of the stories I write. It’s another way to find writing material that differs from my own lived experiences only. They sometimes mingle together: I start a story based on something I myself experienced but I expand it with inspiration from films I’ve watched, and bring the whole thing in a direction that has nothing to do with my own personal life or the movie itself. I reckon we all store stories we hear about (or watch) in the magic box of our imagination, and what’s important is to find a way to open the box from time to time, shake it and be able to use it as a filter through which we view (and write about) the world. Turns out I am probably much better at leaving my own life on the side for some instants, and using instead totally bizarre characters and situations because they tell my views, my feelings, my analyses of the world better than a narrator that looks like me would do.

 

Q: What do you have squirrelled away in your experience library that you think you might draw on one day for your writing?

A: I grew up on a farm in the South of France, and my brothers and I are the eighth generation of the family to have inhabited these walls. I grew up there with my brothers, my mom and my grandmother. We found official wedding documents dating back from as far as the second Republic in France (1840’s). The house is full of pictures of ancestors of ours who we can’t put a name on anymore because even my grandmother does not know who they were; we still have a letter stored in a small metal box somewhere, written by a lieutenant in 1914 and sent to my great-great grandfather to announce to him his son had died on the battlefield. You can imagine how special of a place it is. I am hoping to be enough of a good writer sometime, some day, to pay tribute to these walls and the history they have beheld.

 

Q: What’s it like to write in English as a second language?

A: Writing in a language that is not my mother tongue has definitely helped me develop my writing, as weird as that can sound. Because English is a second language and because I do not master it as well as French, I feel more free to experiment, try out different things, different combinations. The same thing is of course possible in French, but because I am very anal when it comes to French, I am naturally drawn to writing “by the book”, and I get stuck with questions related to the structure of the (very) long sentences I tend to write in French.

Writing in English has allowed me to face my own vulnerabilities, and I strongly believe that vulnerability arouses creativity, however challenging failures can be. When I sit in class with native English speakers, I of course envy their amazing vocabulary and their lyricism. Deep down, I hope I’ll get there one day. But my own writings in English are restricted to the words available in my head. Because this material is more limited, I have to write differently, meaning I have to think differently, say complicated things sometimes in much simpler terms than what I would do in French.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that my reading in both French and English follows this logic. When it comes to French writers, Proust is my guru. I absolutely love his page-long sentences—though I understand at the same time why so many people hate it. I love them because I have the luxury to be able to follow and smoothly surf them. I enjoy getting lost with his narrator in the meanders of people’s heads and thoughts, meanders so big and long that they take up to 20 or 30 pages without any concrete action happening in between.

In English though, I like to read texts that are much more to the point, in which the rhythm is much more hacked, abrupt, but where the content is just as dense although more concise and condensed. My reading in English taught me to tell more, with less words. That is something we’re not really good at, we the French… My writing in English results from this: I like to write in an almost cinematic way, I do not like to spend too much time or use too many words to describe a feeling, I’d rather just show it. If someone’s anxious, I won’t use the word anxiety once. The only things the reader will read and therefore see are sweat drops running down a forehead or nails being bitten or a leg shaking unceasingly.

 

Q: What’s been the scariest thing about taking a workshop and what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

A: Having someone read my text out loud was the few first times dead scary. I never imagined how alien it could be to have someone make your words hers and his. I almost felt offended the first time! Someone reading your own text is never good enough, because it never sounds the way you think it sounds, and you can’t control it. And yet, you have to go with it. Better even, you must just take it in, and try to understand why their tone differs from the one you had in mind while writing the text, what you could done better or otherwise.

I had to learn how to trust my peers and be more tolerant with myself. I had to understand and remind myself I was not there to show how good I could be or was. I was there to learn about what could help me improve, and my fellow classmates, all of them, have been fantastic at helping me understand this.

But I think what I actually learned the most from was giving feedback. It requires from you to sharpen your reader’s eye. Reading a text and commenting almost instantly on its structure, its narrative form, its tone of voice, its style, its mood, but also sometimes on the motivation of its characters, asks from you to be really alert. This training and this sharpness is something I can and I try to apply to my own writing and my own reading too as well as to some social or professional situations.

 

Q: What’s your writing superpower? What’s your kryptonite?

A: I would tend not to apply the word superpower to writing. If there is something I’ve grown to understand while taking this workshop is that of course talent is involved in writing, but really, work, work, work and more work is the key. I guess this is why I call it a painful process. Writing is not about super powers, not about super hero writers, not about the magic light we see in our head one day that makes us put down 20,000 words on paper all at once like a divine flow and makes us the next Stephen King. Nope. I wish though. But nope! Writing—at least writing as I experience it—is about trying to catch inspiration when it sneakily passes by, and shape it into words that give colours and substance to our feelings and thoughts, and work on those words, look for those words, edit them, mould them, twist them, change them, delete them. Until we come close to small satisfaction, if we ever do, until the last coma, the last point; and until we decide to edit it all over again. Superman certainly has superpowers. But I am sure Superman does have to suffer loads of workouts too!

 

Q: Who’s on your list of favourite authors? And your most hated list?

A: Proust is probably number one on my “fav’s list”. It might sound a bit classic and old school, and very French, but I love him. It took me a while to get to understand his writing flow and get into it, but since I’ve started, it has not stopped. I’ve learned more about psychology with him than in any psychology essay. I’ve learnt more about philosophy with him than in any philosophy class. I’ve learned more about people with him than I ever did studying sociology for five years. He’s one of the finest people watchers I ever “met”!

In English, I have a read a lot of Terry Pratchett. He’s the one who got me to started reading in English a lot. I love his children books particularly, for the simplicity of the structure and narrative but the complexity of the thoughts unveiling between the lines. I have also read a lot of Bukowski, because I love the rawness and brutal honesty of its text. He uses the term “juice” when he talks about a text. I love this idea. I think it is a great image. A good text is probably one you want to squeeze until absorbing its quintessence, its pulp.

There are many other authors I love, the list is long and does not really have any logic in it, from Murakami to Rimbaud, stopping at Tarrt or Ishiguro and why not Austen in between and even some beautiful song texts of Serge Gainsbourg. The list is too long actually, and so diverse, that I’d need to write a book to pay tribute to them all.

I can’t really name authors I do not like, because I tend not to finish books that bore me, or forget about them. As mentioned earlier though, what I do have a hard time reading are essays. I am quite analytical myself, but I just can’t get myself to read dry and cold texts in which the thoughts or analysis of someone are the main red thread. I need stories, they inspire me, they carry me, hence help me learn and think. I almost exclusively read fiction.

 

Q: How has writing had an effect on other aspects of your life?

A: I do not journal or write to lay my thoughts down onto a blank page, it just does not work that well for me. I write because I love words, I write to have fun with them. In this way, writing—and, very complementarily, reading—is something that brings a lot of balance into my life. I do not write because it is my job, I do not write because I am asked to so, I do not write because someone told me this is the right thing to do. I write and read because it is so deeply rooted in me that it makes purely and simply happy.

 

Q: What are your plans for the future? What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

A: A couple of months ago, I decided to quit my producer job and apply to creative writing masters, in London. Needless to stay my experience of the workshop has played a major role in this decision, both my fellow students and my teacher. Spending time with classmates to write, read and discuss my readings and writings has helped me realize how important books and words are too me. I got accepted to a program in London and as it looks now, I’ll be dedicating the coming year to learning more about the craft while following this course. Who knows what I will do with it next, but I don’t really mind. What gets me excited for now is the perspective of spending a whole year studying a topic that is so profoundly a part of me.

20 July 2017

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