A Writing Workshop and Then Some

Paris in June with Jaime

Writing workshops are a great way to meet kindred writing spirits and exercise our writing muscles in new ways.

Monet's garden painting; writing workshops

I’m captivated by Monet’s large lily pad paintings at Musee de L’Orangerie.

My daughter Jaime and I traveled to Paris in June of 2018 to take a writing course with Patty Tennyson, owner of the Paris Cafe Writing workshop and a former Chicago Tribune writer. What aspiring writer doesn’t want to spend mornings in various Paris cafes writing and noshing on pain au chocolate and cafe creme?

While keeping my expectations in check, I planned carefully for the trip and found an apartment in Le Marais, the hip/fashion/gay area of town where our Paris Cafe Writing classes would be held at various cafes. Patty and her husband Joe have an apartment in La Marais so it makes sense we’d be in their neighborhood.

Patty and Joe live in Chicago and spend the summer in Paris. Patty is a journalist and a foodie who has authored cookbooks; Joe is a retired English teacher who loves history, food and the history of food, which he shared with our group.

Le Marais is one area of Paris that still has most of its historic buildings dating back several hundred years. When neighborhoods of historic buildings were being razed across Paris last mid-century to build large apartment and office buildings, they didn’t get around to Le Marais.

That’s one thing about Paris proper; everywhere you look, the French love of grandeur is evident… architecture, gardens, bridges, the Seine River, the Eiffel Tower. Even lamp posts and public water fountains have delicate decorative details. The city center, straddling the Seine north and south, actually isn’t that big. You could theoretically walk across town in several hours. Luckily you don’t have to; Paris has an efficient and pleasant Metro system.

Jaime at arc de Triomphe.

Patty and Joe taught our class how to ride the Metro. Jaime and I got the hang of it, zipping around town from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe.

We stayed in an apartment on the fifth floor of a 15th century building. Our apartment was on the back side of the building, overlooking a small garden, so no street noise. We left the tall windows open every night and enjoyed the coolness, and sometimes a gentle rain.

But here’s what made being in Paris so perfect, besides spending lots of time with Jaime: Patty is an excellent writing coach AND event planner.

Patty’s workshop fee included meals. Each morning our group would meet at a charming cafe, upstairs, and they’d take our order for a croissant or chocolate croissant or toasted baguette with jam. Jaime and I ordered cafe creme each day and fresh squeezed orange juice. All we had to do was sit back and participate in the daily writing exercise with fascinating women while sounds of pedestrians and cars floated into the open windows.

Our writing group enjoying dinner on our first night together: Jaime is on the left and I’m next to her.

Almost every day when class ended at 11:30 a.m., we’d go downstairs and eat lunch, getting to know each other better. Afternoons were free for us to explore the city and write. Jaime and I did not write in our free time… too much to do and see in Paris! Although, each night when we returned to our apartment, we would talk about our day and I’d record our activities (and impressions) in Notes on my iPhone. Those notes would later turn into a record of our time in Paris.

One evening, our writing group met up with Patty and Joe and they took us to Duc des Lombard, a jazz club, where we saw Daniel Romeo lead a jazz band. Parisians love jazz, and having been to the New Orleans Jazz Festival the month before, I could appreciate Daniel and his team of musicians.

Patty had warned us ahead of time: do not talk while the band is performing. In France it’s rude, so no whistling or yelling, just gentle clapping. No one talked or cheered during the entire hour performance.

Our writing group visits Duc des Lombard, a Parisian jazz club.

Another night, our writing group met up and took the bus to the left bank to visit the Shakespeare & Company bookstore, originally started (at a different location) by American Sylvia Beach more than a hundred years ago. Sylvia befriended Ernest Hemingway when he was a 25-year-old writer-in-practice, published James Joyces’ Ulysses and was at the center of the expat crowd who made Paris in 1920s a creative hotspot.

Small, with book-stuffed nooks and crannies and an upstairs devoted to poetry, Shakespeare & Company feels like a church or museum. The guy who checked me out was American and young, most likely a “tumbleweed” allowed to spend nights in the book store for helping out during the day. Ethan Hawk was a tumbleweed. The young man behind the counter must have been living his dream.

After we all paid for our books, which were stamped with the official “Shakespeare & Company” seal, we went next door… literally next door… to a restaurant and settled upstairs around a large oval table from which we could look out of two gabled windows and see Notre Dame across the Seine.

Notre Dame was built starting in the 10th century and they’ve added to it over time. It sits on Ile de la Cite, one of two small islands in the middle of the Seine, and Patty made sure our group had the amazing opportunity to experience the river and the cathedral. When Notre Dame caught fire on April 15, 2019, like many people around the world, I felt the devastation and grief.

Notre Dame as seen from a restaurant next to Shakespeare & Company bookstore just across the Siene.

On our final night together, our writing group ate dinner at La Coupole, a restaurant where musicians, artists and writers in the 1920s would gather. The art nouveau interior hasn’t been altered and I could imagine Hemingway, Man Ray, Picasso and Gertrude Stein sitting in a banquette, drinking champagne or cafe creme, discussing the issues of the 20s.

Our group dined at La Coupole restaurant on our final night together.

In our free time, Jaime and I visited Yves Saint Laurent’s (YSL) museum, traveled up to Giverny to visit Monet’s home and gardens, and viewed Monet’s huge water lily paintings at Musee L’Orangerie.

The only problem with Paris, which really isn’t a problem, is that in June the sun doesn’t set until after 10 p.m. Jaime and I didn’t get to bed before midnight each night, too busy to realize how late it was. But we didn’t mind losing sleep to the sights and sounds of Paris!

Taking the writer’s workshop with Patty allowed us to experience the city with a knowledgeable “guide” who was fluent in French… and who was also a resident! Patty took care of the bill at every cafe and restaurant. Our writing group was quite spoiled. We just showed up, sat down, ate, enjoyed and left.

Patty had pre-arranged every meal, concert and excursion, even escorted us all via bus, walking or the metro. She and Joe were our personal guides. If any of us had questions, they had answers. And, boy, did they have some great stories to tell! Joe taught writing and poetry in Chicago public schools and took a three-year tour in China to teach English. He knows French very well, too, and is a wordsmith like Patty.

La Marais, paris; writing workshop

Patty and Joe introduced our writing group to the best falafels in Paris at L’as du Fallafel.

Patty could be just a writing instructor, but she does so much more for the people who attend her workshop. While she’s not responsible for her students’ satisfaction with Paris, they usually come away happy with their experiences and more informed about the things they saw and heard. Patty makes the trip special and an excellent choice for anyone who wants to travel solo or with a friend.

Taking Patty’s course is the best way to experience Paris for first-timers! And for second-timers, because I’m attending Patty’s Writing Workshop for Returnees in November 2019 and am staying an extra week to explore the city and museums… and maybe take a couple of day trips on France’s excellent train system.

When you attend a writing workshop in another city, or another country, the experience becomes richer and provides not just a way to improve your writing but also lots of fodder for future writing!

If you know of a writing workshop like Paris Cafe Writing that is held by a host like Patty and who also exposes the group to the local area, please let me know! Or tell me about a writing workshop you would HIGHLY recommend to others.

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Cindi Brown


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