I write books which feature, describe, take place in, or mention Paris. Why do I use the City of Light as inspiration and background? Because I am a Parisian writer.
“What makes one a Parisian writer?” you might ask.
First, one must dress the part. There is nothing like sartorial authenticity to add impetus to one’s writing. Before starting my latest deep dive into the domain of literature or at least of books, I don my Franco-American writer’s duds. Gray wool slacks, white knit fisherman’s pullover with a rolled neck, leather jacket, and a black beret tilted at the correct jaunty angle make up the classic intellectual’s outfit. Now for the accessories.
Jean-Paul Sartre smoked a pipe. Ernest Hemingway, the role model for American novelists of a certain bent, smoked cigarettes, Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did as well. Did Marcel Proust smoke or just binge-eat madeleines? Never mind, I do not smoke tobacco or anything else so those carcinogenic props are out. Madeleines are too rich for me. Anyway, it is time to get to work.
Sitting at my computer, I try to begin. Nothing. I am deep in the throes of writer’s block, Parisian or otherwise. No original ideas surface, no vivid imagery materializes, no snappy dialogue is uttered, no exciting aerial action takes wing, and no convoluted plots unfold.
Perhaps I need a stronger sense of Parisian ambiance. I rise and stride across my barren writer’s garret in Le Quartier Latin and throw open the wooden window shutters on the mansard roof. Instead of a perfectly framed view of Le Tour Eiffel, all I can see is my back garden where the lawn wants mowing, badly, even in December. If I squint just right, my overgrown grass resembles Le Champ de Mars, only very much smaller, less well-cared for, and not historic. No World Fairs were held there.
With COVID-19 travel restrictions in place, my annual trip to Paris to research source material is on hiatus. My passport is inoperative and Air France does not return my phone calls. I am stuck at home in California. Worse yet, now the literary part of my brain is stuck in neutral.
When in Paris, my breakfast comprises two warm, buttery, flaky croissants, with fruity confiture de fraise from La Grand Épicerie, and a strong café crème. Today I survived on corn flakes with non-fat milk and weak instant coffee. It is no wonder my creative stream is dammed.
What about that age-old author’s aid, alcohol? I open my personal wine cellar, the left-hand bottom drawer of my desk. I have exhausted my cache of Bas Armagnac. Making do with budget brandy, I pour two fingers’ worth into a jam jar cum snifter. Whoa! That’s disgusting at nine in the morning. Two sips and I’m done. The cheap California “Cognac” does not help. Instead of dancing on the keyboard, my fingers imitate stubby sausages.
Hemingway wrote in bistros, nursing coffee cups for hours. Maybe I could take my laptop to Starbucks and write while there. No, after a few half-soy skinny mocha frappuccinos with extra Chantilly, I get really wired and type gibberish. That scene would not work for me.
My cursor remains alone on a blank screen as empty as my imagination.
Dogs can be muses. Often, I see people with their canines in convivial Parisian brasseries as well as elegant restaurants. But the last time I took my dog to McDonald’s in California, we were firmly directed to exit, sans sandwich.
Back at the word processor, or word non-processor at this point, I am still frozen in space/time. My prose should be marching down the screen in precision, left-and-right justified ranks like the stalwart troops of La Légion Etrangère Française slow-parading down the Champs-Élysées on 14 July. Instead, words stubbornly barricade themselves inside my skull like those same legionnaires defending Fort Zinderneuf in Beau Geste.
Perhaps mood music would inspire me. I put a Sidney Bichet CD on the stereo. He hailed from New Orleans, like me. Bichet found a home and love in Paris as a composer of songs, not books. His haunting soprano saxophone on Petite Fleur does not energize me. It makes me all misty for the French Quarter. As Chuck Berry‘s classic song informs us, “C’est la vie.”
Suddenly, I am thunder-struck by a blinding flash of the obvious. Hemingway stated in his book of the same name that Paris is a moveable feast. In your mind, you can take it with you anywhere. The Paris I crave is in my head! I can access images indelibility etched into my memory bank whenever I want. Ditching the faux writer’s costume. I am back to being me in jeans, tee shirt, and baseball cap.
In my mind’s eye, my wife and I are relaxing in wicker bistro chairs by a tiny table on a café terrace in the 4th. With glasses of Sancerre in hand, we watch as the world saunters by. I see us sailing toy boats with the grandkids in the pool of the Jardin du Luxembourg under a blazing azure sky. The vivid images come fast, each triggering the next. The waiter who chased us half a block to return a left-behind umbrella. Midnight, Place de la Concorde, streetlights glinting gold off the wet pavement in misty rain. A restaurant’s cat on a windowsill daintily devouring our granddaughter’s leftover salmon. More memories arise, even quicker now.
I am walking across Le Pont Neuf while it is coddled in coarse cloth by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. I see the taxi driver who refused a tip because he did not find an address quickly. Not all scenes are pleasurable. I picture Notre-Dame de Paris aflame and I tear up. Another treasured memory floats into my internal view. We two are having dinner at Le Coupe Chou, chatting with our fellow diners, and bantering with the server who finds our French hilarious. A warm tarte Tatin arrives, then coffees appear, in that order, never in the reverse, and never together. Finally, I see the two of us as flâneurs on l’île Saint-Louis lapping coronets of ice cream from Berthillon. Life is good. We are together in Paris. How could it not be, if only in my imagination?
I return to my computer and begin to write. The words, the right words, fluent words, flow like the river Seine under a padlock-free Pont des Arts, only not as fast nor as deep. It is a Parisian writer’s life for me.
Bestselling author Ed Cobleigh is a former fighter pilot and intelligence officer. His new book, Fly with the Falcon, a novel of sexual harassment and peregrine falcons, is now available at Amazon. And yes, Paris is in it. For the inside story, check out www.edcobleigh.com
Lead photo credit : Photo credit ©