by Deborah Murphy
The National Post, Canadian newspaper
I am sitting in a locals’ café in the Marais, an old now very chic quartier on the right bank in Paris. I have been writing as per my teachers’ instructions about the people in this place. There is a romantic young couple, a dignified grandmother with her grandchildren eating ice cream, a middle aged woman with her poodle in a straw basket and a disheveled man drinking a beer. I am watching them like they are actors in a play–my play–and I am making up stories. Writing in cafes all over the city of lights that is Paris. Each café has its own clientele, its own rhythm, its own colors. Some are like charming old ladies wearing way too much make up, others are sleek and shiny like fitness fanatics, others are run down and seedy– like old bums who can’t wait to tell you their life story?Here I am drinking my café crème and eavesdropping on people three thousand miles away from home?I am in Paris, I am writing, I am living my dream.
It has been a hot summer in New York City, even with air conditioning, you could feel it sizzling in the streets and I dreaded going out. All I wanted to do was escape. But where and what to I kept asking myself? My husband was busy with a major court case, my youngest (finally going off to college this fall) was in the Berkshires being a life guard at his old camp, my friends were at their summer homes in the Hamptons or visiting beaches in the Mediterranean. That just wasn’t for me–I wanted to maybe take a workshop, learn something new, rediscover something, maybe even reinvent myself. I was surfing the net for some workshops or educational travel when I saw a site for The Creativity Workshop writing, drawing, storytelling and personal memoir. It turned out to be just the right thing. Before marriage and kids, I’d always loved writing stories. And somehow, along the way, I forgot how much I enjoyed making imaginary worlds. I guess I just didn’t have the time with the children and my husband and so for twenty years creativity got put away in some drawer with my scrapbooks and college memories. I decided this hot exhausting New York summer to try to get back to my writing, and to recapture my creative life, to go to Paris to The Creativity Workshop.
The Creativity Workshop is a unique I think because the teachers are more interested in helping participants learn about their own unique creative process than getting them to make an artistic product that follows the teachers’ personal sensibilities. The teachers, writer Shelley Berc and multimedia artist Alejandro Fogel have been teaching the workshop for many years and Shelley is a professor at the renowned International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. They teach their workshops in Greece, Paris, Florence, and Barcelona (as well as in their school in New York City) because they like to work with people outside of their everyday environments–they say it helps them rediscover aspects of creativity and play that are buried in their day-to-day lives. I couldn’t agree more–my time in Paris away from my country, husband, and kids made me remember my dreams of being a writer.
During the six-day workshop, I spent three hours a day working with Shelley and Alejandro on various writing and creativity inducing exercises. Then they would send the group out into the streets of Paris to see the city and do some little projects that would help us look at Paris from different and exciting perspectives. They sent us to Cluny and had us searching like detectives for a missing piece in the fantastic Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. Then we had to write about this ‘missing piece’ and create a story as to what happened to it. Everyone shared their stories over lunch in a near by brasserie (wonderful omelettes and salads!) which ranged from romantic medieval quest tales to funny stories ala Inspector Clouseau! Shelley told us after we did the assignment (she never tells us anything much before because she says surprise is a key element in creativity) that the most important thing about the missing piece exercise isn’t what we find but what we see. When we think something isn’t there, she continues, we look at a painting or an environment with greater scrutiny and so we see the little details that might pass us by. Meantime, I really got to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. I sat in the beautiful oval room that houses them and looked and wrote about them for the required hour. Normally I would have just gone in, glanced at them for a few reverential minutes and then felt compelled to do the rest of the museum. But The Creativity Workshop and its exercises gave me the permission (and the assignments) that made me concentrate on a few things in Paris and really get to know them rather than trying to stuff in a thousand wonders and not see any of them.
The next day Shelley and Alejandro held class in the Jardin des Plantes and we did fantastic exercises using our senses of smell and touch among trees and plants gathered from around the world. Then we created diorama boxes out of the natural objects (rocks, leaves, tree bark, bird feathers) for which we made up stories and shared with our fellow workshoppers. All it took was a shoe box, some stuff off the ground, and our imaginations in which we gaining more and more confidence. We had a great group of people–teachers, writers, a computer expert, a dancer, and businessmen from the US, Paraguay, Hong Kong, Italy and Ireland–all eager to learn and experience their creative process through writing, drawing, and story telling of personal memoirs. In the Jardin des Plantes, there is a superb 19th century natural history museum which has been recently restored. Architecturally it looks like it is straight of out Charles Darwin’s time but when you get inside, the antique cabinets and old stuffed elephants are interspersed with hi tech displays, videos, and computers. I spent the rest of the afternoon there going through the vast four storied metal grilled and glass roofed building learning about evolution from the sea to man going into outer space. And of course, the museum like most museums in Paris had a wonderful café and of course I sat down in it and did the required daily writing that Shelley and Alejandro insist is the needed exercise for the muscles of creativity.
The exercises for the Creativity workshop were stimulating tools that I will be able to use throughout my life. As a group, we went to see the collection of illuminated manuscripts at the Louvre and then proceeded to make our own illuminated book of days–a chronicle of our week in Paris that combined language and art. I’m personally a terrible artist but the point of the creativity workshop isn’t to be a great artist but to let yourself explore making images and playing with colors along with writing. We investigated old maps and globes at the Musee Carnavalet and then we made our own life journey maps–twelve foot scrolls of writing, drawing, and storytelling on the floor of the workshop studio. Also in this fantastically eclectic museum, we explored sense memory munching on madelines (to the chagrin of the guard) in Proust’s corklined bedroom where he wrote Remembrances of Things past which was brought to the museum piece by piece after the famous author’s death. We did a lot of collaborative exercises and really got to know the other participants very well. I am sure many will remain friends to share writing and ideas with–thanks to the Internet. It was a wonderful week reconnecting to my writing, my sources of inspiration, and learning about things that stimulate me to create. There were these wonderful daily classes and then all the museums, boulevards, and restaurants of Paris to keep me wandering and wondering the rest of each magical day. The last day of class, our teachers had us write a letter to ourselves to be opened in a month. In it we wrote what we had experienced that week in and out of class that helped us in our creative expression–the things we learned that we would not want to lose or forget.
I will open this letter next month and I am sure I will smile and all the memories and wonders of a writing week in Paris will return to me and I will go to my own café and my New York museums and try to sustain what I learned in The Creativity Workshop in Paris which is so alive and vibrant in me now.