Life Suddenly Unlocked
A blue pen was the key, a blue pen that inexplicably says HiFi on it in silver letters, that was the key that opened a door that had been closed to me since we arrived in France.
In English I think of myself as a writer, because I want to write and so I do, like I want to breathe, that easily. But writing in French has always been a painful process of sorting through my available vocabulary, verifying the conjugations, getting the right sequence of tenses, checking the spelling, and then, if after all that I have the least desire to continue, figuring out what to say. Oh yes, and at the end of my struggles, handing over my scruffy effort to someone who has a red pen and the mandate to use it.
In English I never seem to run out of things to say. As long as I keep my life full of color and motion, my fingers dance their way through putting it all into words. I never have to think about whether I actually know how to say what’s on my mind, or wonder whether the average twelve year old might correct my grammar. It’s something that, I hesitate to admit, I actually take for granted. But such luxury has never been granted me outside the broad confines of my native tongue. Until last week, when for two shining hours I found that same freedom writing in French.
This happened because, in an excess of courageous folly, I signed myself up for a writing workshop. In this weekly class, everyone writes for twenty minutes on an assigned topic, then reads aloud what she’s written and accepts compliments and critiques. It’s a lot like what I’ve done for years in my writing group in the US, except, in French. No other non-native French speakers were in the group. As you can imagine, I was mildly panicked in advance. I warned the group and the instructor that I probably wouldn’t be up to snuff, that they could kick me out of the class if need be. But all that patati and patata was swept aside, the topic was assigned, the blue pen jumped into my hand, and I began.
And then, like magic before my eyes, from the humblest roots something beautiful flowered. Because we had only twenty minutes to write we had no time to think, no time to correct ourselves, no time to censor or doubt or hesitate or block or any of the other things writers might do when they’re not actually writing. It was really just a process of getting it out and onto the page as fast as possible, and for some reason under that pressure my fingers didn’t care what language they were using. The assignment was to include and evoke as much emotion as possible while writing about memories, and emotion speaks no particular language, although it’s a language I understand and feel comfortable using.
Because what’s simplest and closest to home is often the safest, I wrote about what I know best: my marriage. Because I’m American, I was very open about hastily selected intimate details, in a way that a French writer might not permit herself to be. Later, when I read my work out loud to the group, I saw that it had touched my listeners in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, given my language skills. And also because I’m American, I used the phrase “for better and for worse” in my text, which might well have been applied to my writing, but which led to my discovery that actually in French you say “for worse and for better.”
And thus I learned how our American optimism is expressed even in the most unexpected ways and in faraway places. And that optimism has spread into my very fingers. Because I dared to enroll, to write, to read aloud the details I’d committed to paper, in my HiFi way, and it was good, what I wrote, even though it wasn’t perfect. And I can’t wait to do it again. And because in this, my one and only life, better mostly comes before worse, and freedom before fear, even when sickness comes before health.
Thus it was that, with the help of a bolt of blue and silver, I began a new life in letters. French letters.