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The Writer’s Trip

This past May I had a chance to take short trip to France, to learn some more about writing.


The tip of my elbow is sticking out from under the duvet. It’s a duvet, not a påslaken. I am in France and I am freezing! I have come to the south of France for 5 days, to Provence, to a small town named Cotignec to participate in a 3 day long Writers Retreat/Workshop. It’s a small workshop, just the 8 of us, but still…
And did I mention I was in France?

When I was about 15, my mother bought me a small notebook with lined pages. It had a beautiful cover of turquoise patterned silk and a string bookmark attached to its spine. What it didn’t have, was one of those cheap locks on its open end, so it wasn’t what I would have called a girly diary. It didn’t say My Diary on it either, for which I was very thankful. My mother gave it to me, maybe as a birthday present, but maybe not. I don’t remember anymore. As she handed it to me she said, “Here. You can write down what you are thinking about in this book.” I think she gave it to me to get herself off the hook because she was the one who I always kept tossing all those thoughts at. She had gotten tired of having to listen to me.

The sound of voices downstairs wakes me. I poke my head out of my warm cave as I listen to an engine starting up and the sound of tires on the gravel driveway. Liz is on her way to buy fresh bread for breakfast. My first morning in Provence is about to start. I am staying in a large stone house, overlooking an incredible view of fields and mountains, together with 8 other people. I am here to enjoy the pleasures of real French bread and to write.

By the time I reached high school, I had decided that I was going to go to be an artist and that I would go to Art School. I didnt know yet exactly what I wanted to study. At the time, it was a toss-up between Fashion Design and Architecture. I knew it would be something that required the making of pictures. I wasn’t going to be a writer. Somewhere, I had gotten it into my head that you had to pick one or the other – words or pictures – because you couldn’t do both. That’s what I thought then. And I had long ago, already chosen pictures. I filled the notebook my mother gave me with words though – all the thoughts and ideas and opinions that took up space in my head got funneled down into those lined pages. But I made a decision, when I started putting those words on paper, that all I would do is write what I was thinking about or had an opinion about. I wasn’t going to make the words pretty or fancy or artistic or even be there for their own sake – because that is what I did with pictures. The words were just there because there was no more room in my head, so I put them on paper.

We have just landed in the airport in Nice and right away the four of us go to the small airport cafe and order something to eat and drink. I order coffee and a pain au chocolat. I need the caffeine after a night of almost no sleep and an uncomfortable three-hour flight – and the pastry…well, hey, I’m in France! Liz arrives in her rental car and we head off. The sky is grey and overcast and the air chilly as we drive through the damp French countryside.

I went to Art School – for Fashion Design – not architecture. But after a year and a half, I realized I didn’t want to design clothes for other people. So I switched to Commercial Art and came out prepared to be an Art Director or Graphic Designer or Illustrator. In the commercial art world, you had designers who worked with pictures and you had copywriters. The copywriters worked with the words. So that theory which I had back in high school turned out to be true. When working with a copywriter, I occasionally contributed to the words that were used but it was still the copywriter’s job to finish it. I continued to write my words in my lined notebooks. New ones had been bought and filled. I didn’t make up stories, like writers do. I only wrote what was True. Because I was a graphic designer, not a writer.

And so I continued – all through my career in New York City and even after I landed in Stockholm – it was always about the pictures. Occasionally, I still added words to my notebooks but less and less after I moved here. In 1991, I had my son and any thoughts of putting words on paper went out the door along with the dirty diapers.

And then the World Wide Web and the Internet happened. In the beginning of the new century, my friend Amy started up a website for English-speaking parents in Stockholm called ParentNetSweden. It was an ambitious undertaking and she needed content. She asked me if I could write some articles for her. Someone else would be doing the graphics so I said yes. I wrote about how one eats at a Swedish smörgasbord. I described what Swedish life in the countryside is like. I did a few book reviews. I wrote a review about The Lord of the Rings films and described going to Trilogy Tuesday here in Stockholm, dressed in costume. I found I had trouble keeping myself out of my texts. I wasn’t interested in statistics or facts. Instead I wrote personal pieces. I wrote pieces about how it was to move to Sweden and how I adjusted to life here. I wrote about being Jewish here. (Some of those stories ended up on this blog.) After a little over a year, the site closed down and we all moved on to other things but I had gotten a taste for putting words outside the boundries of my lined notebooks.

Everyone is sitting around the large oval dining table in Brynn’s kitchen; Ting, Eva, Liz, me, Cassie and Joe and Matt and Ulrika with their 2 month old baby Kay. Brynn, is Liz’s friend and he has graciously allowed us to invade his big stone house in Provence just before the tourist season starts. Several fresh loaves of bread, along with a multitude of cheeses and various spreads are arranged on the table and we sit around planning the next 3 days as we eat. Sleeping places are assigned. Weather is discussed – it seems like we brought typical Swedish summer weather with us, not the warm sunny south-of-France kind of weather that we have all been expecting. The weather report says it is going to be chilly with periods of rain throughout the week. We decide to divide our days into exploring the neighborhood and writing. When the sun is out we would leave the house to explore. The writing could be done when the rain comes down.

By 4 o’clock the drizzle has stopped and the sun is trying to show its face. A group of us decide to go off and take a walk down the country road. The air is still damp from the recent rain so I make sure to put on my hat. I don’t want my hair to frizz. We walk till we come to an unpassable puddle and then turn back. The bread and cheese from earlier in the day was starting to wear off and it was time to go have dinner at a charming little restaurant in the center of town.

When Facebook came along, my friend Janet talked me into joining. For the introvert that I was, it was like a hand finding its perfect glove. I could be opinionated, witty, contemplative, and clever with all my friends and I didn’t even have to go outside my door or put on my makeup. But you had to keep it short. No long-winded pieces for Facebook. And I had no control over how anything looked – it all looked like Facebook.

So eventually, the glove started feeling a bit too tight. One size fits all was never a good fit for me. I decided to start my own blog. My husband and I already had a domain name and the WordPress blog could go there. I looked through page designs till I found a design I liked and then redid it to make it personal and truly mine. (I was still a graphic designer, remember?) I could write as many words as I wanted in my blog and keep everything I wrote in one place. I called it Just Hilarie because it’s just me. So far, I’ve published exactly 84 pieces. But I’m not very prolific. I have a number of fits and starts that never got finished and I am the world’s worst publicist so very few people ever actually read what I write. I announce on Facebook and Twitter when I have a new piece up but, you know how it is…..

During my last few years at IGBP, where I worked as their in-house graphic designer, I would spend lunch times talking about writing with my co-worker and friend, Ting. She knew she wanted to be a writer. She read some of my blog posts and told me that the kind of stuff I wrote could be called Memoir. Wow! I was a genre! Ting suggested I take the University of Iowa’s online MOOC. It was titled Storied Women and I signed up. It was my very first creative writing class and it was definitely a challenge. I watched the video classes and I loved reading what the assignments were. I even managed to do 3 of them while spending a month in New York City.

Ting told me she was regularly attending a writers workshop and suggested I join her there. She said the group leader, Cassie, was very good. And Ting was right. I found myself planning my life around these alternate Tuesdays. By then, I was officially retired, which was basically a nice way of saying I was out of a job. I had been spending a lot of time wondering about what I was going to do with my life once retirement started. Unlike for my parents, retirement had never been my end-all goal in life. The work I did as a designer was who I was. It defined me. So who was I if I didn’t make pictures anymore? Attending these writing workshops seemed to be filling a gap in my new life.

After a few months, Cassie announced that she was offering a 9-session writing course. I signed up and for the next 5 months every other Sunday, I spent my time learning about Plot and Character and Structure and Dialogue. Cassie introduced me to writing prompts, which I loved. Many of the things Cassie discussed, I had probably been aware of, because I’m a reader. But no one had ever talked about them to me as things that a writer does consciously. I felt like something was missing when the class ended. But I continued to attend her workshops, occasionally submitting pieces to be dissected and workshopped. I loved having a piece workshopped! It reminded me of being back at Pratt, in art school, and putting an illustration piece up for a critique. After a session, a small group would often go out for a beer together and just talk, about writing, and life in general. I got to feel like I was getting to know these people. They were becoming my writer friends and a new part of my life.

When Liz texted me, this past spring, inviting me to join her and a few of the regulars from our Writers Workshop at her friend Brynn’s place in France for a kind of writers retreat, my first reaction was “Oh that’s a cool idea!” And then my sometimes irrational brain kicked in and started saying “No no no…can’t go. I hate traveling!”

Liz and Ting managed to talk me down from the edge of the windowsill and promised that everything would be fine. When I heard that Cassie and her Joe were going, I booked myself on the same flight so I wouldn’t be traveling alone and my brain quieted down. So at 5 am, one very foggy May morning, this very timid traveler, met up with Ting, Cassie and Joe at Arlanda Airport, poised for a new kind of adventure.

Our first morning in Provence was going to be rain-free so we decide to go exploring. Like the day we arrived, it was damp and chilly out so I put on multiply layers of my summer clothes, not forgetting my knit hat to protect my hair from the humidity. The sun was at least threatening to peek out between the scattered cloud cover. We headed off for a walk in the forest alongside a river. I’m not much of a hiker and among this bunch I have to admit I’m the old lady but I was determined to keep up. There were several sections along the path that I needed the help of our male companions to make it up the steep places. I figure it’s always nice to let men feel they are needed sometimes. We ended up at a beautiful waterfall tumbling from far above our heads into a still pond that made it worth the struggle to get there. After returning the way we came, with me getting help again from the boys, we wandered around the outskirts of the town, exploring small paths and finding hidden gardens. We took a breather at a very French cafe and I got to taste extremely strong espresso. We wandered to the center of town and stopped for lunch at a small Brasserie. We sat down to eat, at the tables outside, but after about 5 minutes, we looked at each other and unanimously decided it was too cold and we went inside for our lunch. We weren’t in Sweden after all, and we didn’t have to pretend we liked sitting outside in the cold just because it was summer.

We drove back to the house and gathered around the big table for our writing workshop – the real reason (or excuse?) for being here. Cassie lead us on an exploration of the use of Defamiliarization – how to use the familiar and the strange in writing to make your writing unique and original. She discussed how to make memoir speak to a reader. And then we did writing prompts! I wrote my very first piece of Science Fiction from one of these prompts! It was very short and not really very original but it took place on a space ship instead of planet Earth. And it wasn’t about me for a change!

After almost 3 hours of inspiration we were ready for more food. So around 5 pm, we hopped in the cars for a trip to Super Marché, a big supermarket, to buy food for dinner. It was great fun to wander through a French supermarket seeing what they sold. With bags and bags of food we headed back. Joe had volunteered to make pasta with a sunflower seed pesto. Also on the table was a huge salad platter, filled with bright red tomato wedges, slices of crisp yellow sweet peppers, red-tipped lettuce, juicy green-edged cucumber chunks and crunchy pieces of French bread left over from the day before and fried in olive oil and salt. The French bread crutons were good enough to eat by themselves. After supper, we huddled around the fireplace, struggling to get it lit in spite of the scarcity of dry wood, because we were all still so cold. My husband sent me a screen capture of a map showing temperatures around Europe with Sweden having temps in the 20s (Celsius) and southern France being down in the low teens. It’s not often Swedes can boast about warm weather and he was enjoying himself.

Tuesday morning was Market Day in Cotingac and the sun was predicted to show its face, so after a breakfast of freshly bought French breads we headed to town. We spent the morning wandering amongst the stalls and offerings. I bought 2 thick slices of French nougat to bring home to Stockholm. We ate fresh made crepes off a food truck for lunch. Mine was with ham and cheese and an egg – all the flavors dissolving together in my mouth. And then we were back at the house for an afternoon of writing. By this time the sunshine had warmed things up a bit so we dared to sit around the patio table on the terrace, with a view of fields and forests and mountains spread out before us under a bright blue sky studded with compact clouds. We started off with a writing prompt to get us thinking about Character – how to make our characters physically believable in their world. We practiced writing about Space (not the kind in Sci-fi) but up and down, in and out, the space a character takes up as they move around. Cassie led us on a discussion about Staging and Tableau – who is in the frame that you are writing about. And she discussed Stakes – something I am very poor at writing. You have to write characters who want something very much, she explains, something that they are in danger of losing. This is a way to create tension and makes your story interesting enough for the reader to continue to read it. I still have a lot of work to do on this. I am much too kind to my characters, unfortunately. Maybe because my character is usually me??

As the sun started to fade behind the mountains, it was time to make dinner. We ate eggplant parmesan and couscous with roasted mixed veggies. Again, it was a group effort but I tried to stay out of the kitchen. You know what they say about too many cooks. And as usual, there were lovely French wines to drink with the meal. The rest of the evening was spent around the living room fireplace – the firestarters finally figured out how to get it going and wood had been brought in to dry in advance. It was still cold outside and the glow of the burning wood was very welcome even if it didn’t really add much heat. We spent the time talking – getting to know each other on a more intimate level. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this kind of thing – talking with people who are relatively unknown – discussing life and who we are instead of talking about work or raising our children. It reminded me of being back in college or in the mid 70s when my friend Fern would invite me out to her summer share in Fire Island and we would hang out with the other house sharers. I like that. I like being one in a group of many – to be included in the conversation – to listen to what others have to say about their lives. I definitely don’t get to do that too often these days.

Wednesday morning was going to be sunny. So, everyone decided to drive off to explore another town a bit further away. I told them I wanted to stay at the house. I wondered if they would be upset if I didn’t go with them. Would they be worried about me because I didn’t want to join the group? I reassured them I was fine, just a bit tired. And it seemed ok. I admit to not being the best traveler. I have very little interest in exploring strange new worlds, new places in real life – reading Sci-Fi fullfills those needs for me. As much as I was loving being around everyone, this introvert (who knows how to pretend to be an extrovert) needed to spend time alone after so much socializing. Unlike a true extrovert who gets energized by being around other people, the energy needed by me, to be social, gets drained and needs to be replaced by spending time alone to recover. So I stayed at the house. I sat out on the flag-stoned veranda in the sun and stared out at the horizon of bluish mountains and dark green fields, watching the clouds move across the powder blue sky. I looked through my notes and read my Kindle. Brynn, the owner of the house was also there, puttering around with his new lawnmower or painting chairs, getting ready for the summer rental guests. When he took a break we sat at the table and talked for a bit. He was a Jewish guy, around my age, from Stockholm who had had an American mother, so we had a lot we could talk about.

When everyone else returned from their adventures, I was once again able to rejoin the group and we had our last writing workshop. Cassie talked about the differences between Story and Plot. We listened to a very character-driven short story called Emergency written by Denis Johnson and discussed how each scene works. And once again more writing prompts. As during each previous session, Cassie gave us the chance to read aloud what we had written and we workshopped each small piece. I always find these discussions of the work so enlightening. It is real, practical help – not just abstract theory.

The evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice cooked by Brynn. And more wine and conversation round the fireplace till it was time for bed.

Thursday morning and it was time to travel home to warm, sunny Stockholm. How many times can I say that? We took a train back to Nice and then a bus to the airport. We were very late and really had to high-tail it though all the security and gates. But we made it on the plane. All that running and stress reminded me why I hate traveling. I’m never flying anywhere again. Yeah, right…

Summer is almost over now and I’m sitting at the dining table out at my own country house in Stavsnäs. The door to the deck is open and the lace curtain that hangs there stirs a bit in the warm breeze. Next to me on the windowsill lies a small flat wooden stick – the kind you put in gardens so you remember what you planted and are waiting to see grow. Cassie gave this to me after I finished her creative writing class. One end is pointed and the other end has a green ribbon attached. Printed on one side of the stick are the words Write & Write & Write & Write & Edit. On the other side is my name, printed in the same kind of block letters, and above it is the word Writer. Maybe I am after all.


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