Hello from Paris!
I’ve been here for a week with my daughter, soaking up the Christmas season, which is, overall, more subdued here than in the U.S. The only place we noticed playing Christmas music was Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore run by Americans. But we loved seeing the lights around the city, the Christmas markets, and the extraordinary decorations at the Galeries Lafayette department store (below).
We also had a lovely Christmas Eve dinner in a medieval-era restaurant on the Isle-St.-Louis, and a festive menu de noel on Christmas day, complete with champagne.
One highlight of the trip was a Christmas gift from my daughter, a ride around Paris on a WWII-era motorcycle. A lovely young Frenchman from Retro Tours was driving, she was behind him, and I was in the sidecar. Riding around the Arc de Triomphe was particularly thrilling. As we entered the circle, he said, “Here we go! No lines. It’s crazy!” There are no traffic rules in the circle, he said as we sped around. Any damage from accidents is charged 50-50, as it is impossible to determine who is at fault.
Other highlights included visiting the 19th-century department store Bon Marché, well worth a visit any time of year, but extra special at Christmas (I loved their Grand Epicerie, full of foodie delights), a day at the Louvre, and an outing to Versailles.
We also saw an exhibition att eh Musée Carnavalet on the long struggle for women’s liberation in France (which included some American women, such as Josephine Baker and Sylvia Beach), and a special exhibit on Frida Kahlo at the Paris fashion museum, Palais Galliera, which showcased her private life and self-fashioning. They had many of her dresses, medical corsets she wore to support her broken spine from the bus accident she suffered, and clippings of press coverage that show she was always described as Diego Rivera’s wife. I think it’s so interesting that today she is the one everyone remembers!
Our 8-day trip was quite a whirlwind! Now, saying goodbye to my daughter will be sad, but she is on such an adventure of her own with college, seeing old friends in New Orleans, and a hiking trip for Spring Break. I’m happy for her happiness. We talk on Zoom every week, so she doesn’t feel that far away.
As she flies back to visit her dad, I’ll be off to Cassis, in the south of France for a week. It’s a town I discovered in 2019 and have longed to return to. Then I’ll spend the first month of the new year in Sicily. I look forward to sharing that trip with you!
New Newsletter Format
As I shared in my last letter, “London Adentures,” I have moved my list from Mailchimp to Substack. As part of this move, I’ve created two subscription levels. One is the basic newsletter, which everyone will continue to receive (no need to sign up again). I’ve also added a premium level, which you can join by clicking the button below. (A big thank you to those who have already signed up!!)
The rest of this letter is the kind of essay you can expect from me every other week if you sign up for it. I discuss my decision to move to Substack as well as what it’s like to live in limbo and make mistakes along the way to creating a new life. I’m sharing it here with all subscribers to give you a taste of what’s to come.
I’m excited about this new approach, and I hope you will be too! I look forward to sharing more of my experiences of life on the road and what’s really going on behind the scenes of all those pretty the pictures I’ve been sharing here and on Instagram and Facebook.
Living in Limbo
Over this past month, I haven’t just been sightseeing and reading, which I realize is the impression my newsletter and Instagram give. Those are my highlights. But there also plenty of lowlights, too, or simply challenges that need to be faced.
I have particularly struggled to carve out a writing life while I’m on the road. To be honest, I’ve felt pretty scattered. But in the middle of this whirlwind of traveling, trying new projects, and helping other writers as a coach, I’ve learned some things about where my interests and loyalties truly lie, including with this newsletter.
In fact, I would like to say a big “Thank You” to all of you who have come to me over the last seven years largely through my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson and my book on Little Women. Thank you for sticking with me as I’ve transitioned away from academia and toward a new life as a traveler and writer. I’m so grateful! The responses I’ve received from many of you have been a beacon in the dark moments I’ve faced along this road so far.
To recap, for those of you who are new to my list or may have checked out for a bit: I left my tenured position as an English professor, I sold my house in New Orleans and gave away or sold nearly everything I owned (only 9 small boxes are in storage in my mother’s basement in Maryland). This fall, I took my daughter to college, where she is now thriving in her new life, and at the end of September I hit the road with a one-way ticket to Paris. Something that I haven’t shared here yet is the more personal news that I also left my 20-year marriage in the past year.
So lots of change! I’ve realized, in fact, that I’m still very much mid-transition, which is both exciting and disorienting. I’ve been feeling my way, trying to figure out where and how to spend my energies as I embark on a full-time writer’s life.
For years I contemplated leaving academia and what it would take, especially if I was single. I knew I wanted to return to Europe. But instead of deciding _____ is where I’m going to live and _____ is what I’m going to do, I decided to travel until I figure those things out, which means living in full-on in limbo.
I’ve planted myself squarely in the messy “neutral zone” of transition, as William Bridges calls it in The Way of Transition. I read the book last year and can recommend if you’re in your own transition. He writes that in between the old and the new, “nothing feels solid. Everything is up for grabs. Yet for that very reason, it is a time when we sometimes feel that anything is possible. So the in-between time can be a very creative time too.”
According to this graph I found online, reaching the creative stage means you’re on the upswing, but you’re still not at “normal productivity.” That is very true for me, which is frustrating at times. Transitions take a tremendous amount of energy, and sometimes the tank feels pretty drained.
Embracing the neutral zone, I’m trying out ways of living and working while I’m on the road, and I try to remind myself that this is supposed to be a year of experimentation and exploration. How do I want to live? Where do I want to live? Who do I want in my life? What is most important to my happiness? These are the questions that I have set out to answer. I really should write them on a post-it note that I stick to the bathroom mirror wherever I happen to be, because day-to-day I can lose sight of the big picture.
How Life Design Made Me Comfortable with Being in Limbo
A few months before I set out on this journey, I read an incredibly helpful book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dale Evans. I’ve always been a planner and had this deep need to know where I was headed, or at least what I was aiming for. Shifting to an exploration mindset was key. Here is how the authors introduce the book:
Designers try stuff: they test different possible solutions, see how they work, and then tweak them as necessary. Or they cast them aside if they are not working and try something else. There is no endpoint to this, no specific goal. Here is how they explain this approach to life:
So that is what I’m doing: taking steps forward, making some mistakes, letting go of what isn’t working, and hopefully getting closer to a life that fulfills me. In spite of my mistakes, I’m gaining clarity on what I’d like my life and work to look like.
Crafting a Writing Life and Mistake #1
In the back of my mind all of these years, while I’ve been studying the writing lives of women, has been the question of how I could become a writer myself. I had no clue how to do that after I graduated from college, so I went to grad school and studied how others did it. Alongside my academic career, I also figured out how to write books that people would read (i.e., nonacademic books), which has been a dream come true.
Nonetheless, I knew I had a long way to go to become a self-sufficient writer. My books earned me enough to live on for about nine months, cumulatively, despite the years of my life that I put into them. So I set out to write a nonfiction narrative about a woman writer’s life that mattered to me and would earn me enough to live on while I wrote it. What I discovered, though, is that the economics of publishing today make that nearly impossible.
I put well over a year of research and proposal-writing into a project about the writer Kay Boyle. Her life is endlessly fascinating, but it was hard to convince publishers that it would be a bestseller. That is a high bar. As it turned out, I condensed her life as much as I possibly could into a marketable package, but it wasn’t enough. I needed a story that could be summed up in one or two sentences. And Kay Boyle’s life and career was never going to be that—she was a member of the Lost Generation in Paris, witnessed the rise of the Nazis in mid-1930s Austria and the fall of France to the Germans in 1940, and she wrote about occupied Germany after the war for the New Yorker. And that’s not even half of what is important and interesting about her life.
I did receive what is considered a respectable offer for the project, but once taxes and the agent’s cut were taken out, and given the fact that you get only half up front, I was looking at living well below the poverty line for two years of intense labor. And I just didn’t have it in me.
So that was failed experiment #1, sending me back to the drawing board. I still want to tell Kay Boyle’s story, or one of her many stories, but I’ll need to find a new way to approach it. For now, she is on the backburner, although often on my mind.
Rather than commit myself to the next big thing that might be a bestseller, I have given myself the gift of time to approach my writing life as a designer would. I’m trying things out to see what works.
One of my current experiments is a novel. During my semester of medical leave during the pandemic, when I couldn’t do much more than lay on the couch, I gave myself permission to try to write a novel, something I’ve wanted to do my whole life. Writing a very messy, very shitty first draft (borrowing Anne Lamott’s famous phrase) was the first time I let myself explore as a writer. I’m now rewriting in fits and starts, finding my way and enjoying the process, knowing full well that it may lead nowhere. But I’ve determined that this is one thing I have to keep trying.
Another thing I’ve been trying in my writing life is a memoir about my life transition. That experiment has been less successful. I haven’t abandoned it, but I’ve realized that you can’t write about something you’re still in the midst of. I am taking notes, however, and one day I may sit down and find out that there is a story there worth telling.
As you may recall, during my first month in Europe, I started a travel blog called “A Journey of One’s Own.” I had grand plans. Not knowing exactly what I was anymore, I thought I’ll be a travel blogger, despite my misgivings from square one. I thought I could make this something that is meaningful to me and might become a modest source of income someday.
So I took online courses and learned about SEO, cornerstone content, silos, affiliate links . . . blah, blah, blah. I spent a lot of time and money building a website and many more hours creating content for it. But less than two months in, I realized—with great relief—that this was another mistake, a prototype that should be thrown away or simply let go of.
Letting go of something you’ve tried can be frustrating and a little embarrassing. Some experiments can remain private, like writing poetry or rearranging your furniture. Or they can be rather public, like dying your hair or publishing a memoir. I wondered, did I really want to give up on the blog after less than two months? I had just announced it in my newsletter and had been promoting it on social media. Could I just stop doing it? I decided that yes, I could, but also that I didn’t want to pretend that it never happen. I’d explain why, and maybe in that way help someone else let go of something that wasn’t serving them.
So here I am announcing that my travel blog idea was a flop. And it has nothing to do with how many or how few views it got. (I haven’t actually checked.) It has everything to do, though, with what brings me joy. I reminded myself that the whole purpose of this life transition is to figure out how to live in a way that brings me happiness and fulfillment. And it became clear pretty quickly that the blog was not going to bring me either.
The authors of Designing Your Life encourage us to focus on what is working in our lives in the areas of wellbeing, fulfillment, happiness, and connection (or their words: health, work, play, and love.) I have to admit that a travel blog was scoring low in each category. Building the site itself was a major investment in time, energy, and money (which can make something hard to give up), but writing each blog was also taking me a really long time—not just the writing but also formatting and adding pictures and links. I was still spending way more time with the technical aspects of it than the actual writing. And I hate all that technical stuff. I really hate it!
What Matters Most
Here’s the main thing I realized: I really just want to write! Travel bloggers are not necessarily writers, I discovered. Many of them even use AI to “write” their posts, which they then edit. I kid you not. Learning that from a podcast episode about how to decrease the amount of time you spend writing your posts was the last straw for me.
Writing a blog post was also infinitely less satisfying that writing a newsletter. What I wanted was to share my personal stories of life on the road mid-transition, and a travel blog wasn’t the best place for that. I wanted to feel like I was connecting with an audience, and a newsletter is a way better place to do that than on a blog.
I also learned from some of you that you wanted to receive my blog posts in your mailbox, not go hunting for them on a website. Duh! I realized that I already had something that was working. Why put all of my energy into something different that wasn’t?
So that brings me to my decision to commit to documenting and sharing my journey in this newsletter. But to be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the platform I was using, Mailchmip. The formatting is still quite labor-intensive, which would make me procrastinate about sitting down and writing a new issue. Trying a blog and discovering how much I hate dealing with the tech helped me see that Mailchimp wasn’t right for me either.
A New and Improved Newsletter
The solution has been in my inbox for a while, but I only just realized it recently: Substack. I subscribe to a few newsletters that use the platform, and for a couple I pay for the premium content. I haven’t been thrilled with the plain look of Substack, but as I looked into it, I realized it’s exactly what I need, and I hope you also will find it appealing.
It would have been much easier, and neater, if I had simply found my way to Substack in the first place, but by taking the travel blog detour, I was able to home in on what is most important to me. This means that as of Jan. 1, I will continue to provide my newsletter for free to anyone who wants to follow my journey. Instead of occasionally landing in your mailbox, you will hear from me each month with my updates, reading suggestions, and travel ideas.
Premium subscribers ($5/month or $50/year), will also receive twice monthly an in-depth essay like this one on what I’m experiencing and learning (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Think of this as a kind of backstage pass to what’s really going on behind all those pretty pictures I’ve been sharing. When I talk to my friends, they are often surprised to hear what’s really going on with me. People tend to see each pretty picture posted online as proof that you’re having a fabulous, carefree time. The reality is, of course, more complicated—and more interesting, I hope.
It may seem like a big leap to ask readers to pay for something that I once doled out for free. But I’m actually offering something new. Although I wrote very personally at times, I wasn’t able to do so regularly because I was trying too hard to jumpstart my writing career in other directions. By offering premium subscriptions, I’ll have the time to devote to my letters and, more importantly, the time to really connect with readers. I’m hoping you’ll find food for thought, inspiration, and things that make you curious and want to know more.
You’ll also have the opportunity to comment and ask questions, even suggest topics for future letters. Is there something you’d like for me to write about or something you are wondering? Just ask, and I’ll do my best to be as open as possible.
I hope you’ve found something useful here. If, like me, you’re trying different things, I hope you’ll forgive yourself if they don’t work out. And if you’ve been reluctant to try something, maybe you’ll feel inspired to give yourself permission to do so. The key is to become less attached to the outcome and more willing to fail, The real goal is not sucess, which presupposes an endpoint, so much as growth, which is ongoing.
I hope you are having a lovely holiday season, although I know it can also be a rough time of year for some of us. Whether your celebrating, grieving, or just trying to ignore the whole thing, I wish you the best until the new year. You’ll hear from me again in two weeks from Sicily!
All the best from France,
P.S. You can upgrade or investigate the subscription options at the link below.
I'm so impressed with your engagement in a new life's journey, Anne. Pleased to sign up for the paid version.
There's a lot here! Thank you for sharing in such detail and so expansively about your ongoing process -- an inspiring way to slide away from 2022 and into a new year. "Shifting to an exploration mindset was key."
"People tend to see each pretty picture posted online as proof that you’re having a fabulous, carefree time." -- LOL! I hope you'll keep doing this, though -- a rich source of dreams and imaginings.
"The reality is, of course, more complicated—and more interesting, I hope." -- And yes, the hard work and disciplined routines that make possible all the fabulousness.
An instant subscribe; looking forward to hearing more about your travels and adventures.