“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Ernest Hemingway
Picture yourself in Paris at midnight, stumbling on the cobblestones of the Rue McClanahan or Champs-Eloise, sniffing fleur-de-lis by the clair de la silvery lune (for the record, all French sounds like that to me).
A Peugeot Type 176 pulls over and invites you in. Being a bit on the tipsy side, you accept, only to be whisked away to the mid-1920’s, ending your road trip at a party for Jean Cocteau. Cole Porter plays “Let’s Do It” on the 88’s, while Hemingway and Stein chat feverishly in the corner. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stagger over and spill a drink on you.
“Sorry, Sport…didn’t mean to get you all wet, but in my defense, you wear that martini quite well.”
Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? Or at the very least, a scene from a Woody Allen movie.
Well, that’s exactly what it is: both a dream and a scene. It’s from Midnight in Paris, and is one of the few Woody Allen films I can stomach. As a matter of fact, I actually love it, and have seen it at least a dozen times. Its premise is intriguing: a time-traveling writer careening to his ideal Golden Age — Paris in the 1920’s.
I can relate to that, because those years comprise my ideal Golden Age, as well. To pick the minds of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, then turn around and banter with Gertrude Stein in real life would indeed be a dream come true. Even to have Scott spill a martini on me would be a treat. We’d laugh like good sports, and then I’d make him buy me a double, three olives. I’ve always yearned for the same sense of camaraderie these contemporaries shared, and have secretly wished for a moveable feast of my own.
During the first week of November, that wish was granted.
But before I continue, being the writer and Hemingway aficionado that I am (and with a little memory boost from Wikipedia), let me brief you on A Moveable Feast, in case you’re unfamiliar.
A Moveable Feast
The Boring (yet critical to the backstory) Info Dump: In the spring of 1928, Hemingway stashed away two small trunks in the basement of the Paris Ritz Hotel, which contained journals from his early days as a writer. A remarkable twenty-eight years later, he recovered the trunks and transcribed the notebooks into a memoir. Although he completed a final draft, he died before seeing it to publication. However, three years after his death, the book was edited and released by his fourth wife under the title, A Moveable Feast.
A Moveable Feast is an account of Hemingway’s expatriate years in Paris consorting with not only Fitzgerald and Stein mentioned in the dream sequence above, but also such literary notables as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Thornton Wilder, and a host of others.
At times, the portraits he painted were quite expository and unflattering, but the friendships formed were unflappable. Truth is, the group of authors were brutally honest to the point of irreverence with each other, which, in some creative circles, can be rather beneficial. As a result, Hemingway’s talent was sharpened to a razor edge, and he is regarded as one of the most influential writers of his — or any — time.
Life is a Banquet
During the past couple of years, finding a writing clique with which I clicked has had its share of hurdles, mainly because of the time constraints. As Mom’s illness progressed and her caregiving needs increased, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to feast at the tables I wished. Lord knows I tried, but by the end of the day, I was always too damned exhausted.
The cool table of young, hip writers at the 2012 NaNoWriMo Kickoff Dinner. Needless to say, I wasn’t one of them.
I remember my first NaNoWriMo — which, by the way, I give my consent to strap me in a straight jacket and commit me if ever I start babbling that crazy talk about participating again — but as I was saying, through their organization I connected with a local group of writers insane enough to sign up, too. As a matter of fact, I wrote a blog about the 2012 Tallahassee NaNoWriMo Kickoff Dinner right here.
The evening was…eh. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, but I knew this wasn’t my tribe; they could never be the Stein to my Hemingway. On the upside, the food was excellent.
Around that same time, a friend directed me to an online fellowship, the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, or IWSG. You may have heard of them; they’re a wonderful support system filled with some of the most talented and helpful people in the industry. I spent an enjoyable year-and-a-half with them and made many friends, but after my mom passed, I cut my online presence back considerably. I simply didn’t have the gumption to visit anyone, either on the ether or in real life, and eventually, left the group — and life as I knew it — altogether.
In my grief, I isolated.
The Ice Cream Cometh
Yet, ever since the beginning of this whole literary pipe dream, Writer Unboxed has been there. If you’ve followed me for more than five minutes, then you know how I feel about this group; I’ve found my Stein. Bartender, pour me a Guinness.
My good friend, Julie Luek, told me about Writer Unboxed early in the game, a few weeks into our “prompt group” days. I went, read, lurked, and finally commented. It was through those conversations — some of them silly, some serious, but all of them synergistic — that I got to know people, share insights, and eventually, make more good friends. Then, as is always the case with the internet, something odd happened.
The mysterious Powers That Be — the ones who navigate the wormholes from here to yon, sending emails and gmails and PM’s and IM’s and Comments and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen (oops!…got away from me…reining it in…) to their proper destinations — yes, those powers — they interceded and started tossing my comments to SPAM. I simply couldn’t have that. After toiling for hours creating the perfect witticism (okay, really just a few minutes and maybe it wasn’t perfect, but that’s not the point), I’d hit Submit Comment and POOF! It was gone. Seeing as though I’d already added my two-cents’ worth on more than one occasion, I didn’t know what the front door had happened — there was no comment, no waiting on administrative approval, no nuttin’.
Therese Walsh, author of “The Moon Sisters” (photo by Rachel Rene).
And that’s how I met Therese Walsh, author of The Moon Sisters and co-founder of Writer Unboxed (Kathleen Bolton being the other co-founder). I jotted a quick note to them through their Contact Us form…Hellerrrr…anybody there?…and explained the horrific injustice that had been done to me and my VIC (very ingenius comment). She looked, and sure enough, there it lay — an innocent little lamb in a spam field of Chinese Handbags and Gripped Rubber Walker Stoppers.
Akismet, we have a problem.
Therese immediately responded to my query in the most apologetic way and queued it to the comments. Disaster averted. Only thing was, every single comment after that went to spam. I’d tweet her, she’d fix it, I’d apologize for bothering her, she’d apologize for the site’s issue. It was like a Chip and Dale shtick: “After you…” “No, I insist, after you…” “No really, after YOU.” She eventually took it to their IT Support, who came up with the following technical diagnosis: A Computer GLITCH.
Well I’ll be a son of a glitch.
Dumbfounded, we examined new advancements on the cutting edge of the Cyber World and tried one more thing: a different email address. Voilà! Problem solved. Simple, yes? So why did it take two intelligent minds (not counting tech support) several weeks to figure it out? Out of embarrassment, we decided never to speak of it again, that is, until I spilled the beans today. Sorry, T.
I bring up this interaction because it was unlike any of my previous experiences with large websites. Sure, I’d had questions before, contacted the heads of other organizations, and only received automated responses, if that. There was no personalized care, concern, or even a “thank you for not smoking.” Needless to say, I didn’t stick around those sites long. At the conference, Therese proved to be sweeter than she was online, if that was possible.
Enter the Fortune Cookie
Friends, I won’t beat this into the ground any more than I already have, but when my mom died, I was a mess. I can’t express that enough, but I won’t fully elaborate, either. I was consumed with sadness, and the only articles I posted were pre-fabbed book launches or cover reveals. Supporting my fellow wordsmiths was the best I could do, even if it meant they had to do it for me.
I tried to keep up; tried to participate, but essentially stayed to myself. I had subscribed to WU from the start, and therefore received daily updates in my email, but I rarely strayed over to comment anymore.
About the only thing I did on a regular basis was make snarky comments and post one-liners on Facebook. There, I could mask my pain. People couldn’t see me (or my guitar) gently weep behind the smiling, moustached profile picture. Those one-liners were the tears of a clown, my friends. People handle death funny; I handle it even funnier.
Another thing I did, other than dish up snark, was looked for signs everywhere, something that told me Mom was still keeping watch over me — that she didn’t really leave me. And certain things, most of which I’ll keep to myself, did show themselves, with one such happenstance being the fortune cookie.
Now, I don’t put much stock in fortune cookies printed up by Employee #5, 978, 436 at the Peking Noodle Factory in China and served cafeteria-style at the Panda Express off Capital Circle near the Lowes in Tallahassee as a rule, but on May 2, after a delicious Orange Chicken Bowl, I cracked open one that read: Take a vacation, you will have unexpected gains. Other than noticing they should have used a semi-colon to separate the two independent, yet related clauses, three words jumped out at me:
Take a vacation.
It had been years. Sure, Mom and I went to North Carolina every summer for a couple of weeks to visit her sister, but when you’re a caregiver, it’s never really a vacation. It may be to the person receiving care, but not for the person giving it. At least, it wasn’t for me. I was always on duty, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I slept with both eyes open. A vacation was just what I needed. I even posted a picture of the fortune on Facebook with the caption: This came with last night’s dinner — would love to find a week-long writer’s retreat.
THE Fortune Cookie.
Ten days later, Writer Unboxed announced their first-ever conference, or Un-Conference, as it was called. And the kicker? It was a week-long event in Salem, Massachusetts, close to my brother. I planned to visit the weekend before, which happened to be…drum roll, please…Mom’s birthday. Plus — and this was a biggie — I had the money! I can’t help but believe Mom had her hand in all this. Goosebumps…in May…in Florida.
Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.
This conference was called an Un-Conference for a reason: there was no agent-seeking, no swapping of business cards, no elevator pitches or any of the usual fare found at writer’s conferences. Instead, it focused solely on the art of the craft. Wonderful wrap-ups by some of the attendees are already blogged and flitting around the web, if you do a simple search. In addition, during the month of December, Writer Unboxed will publish synopses and commentaries on each of the twenty-one sessions offered.
What I took away was so much more than that, and I’ve heard this same epiphany from almost everyone who attended: It was magical.
Perhaps conferences that focus on craft alone are more prevalent than I realize and the WU Un-Con was just one of hundreds, but I don’t believe any previous conference has captured the essence that was this experience. This was, if anything, an uncommon Un-Conference.
For one thing, the registration period spanned a good six months, and a Facebook page was started for the members. If your group is planning a retreat or workshop, I highly recommend creating a page yourself. I registered the day after it was announced and met the others, one-by-one, as they joined the gang. Let me tell you, we had a blast getting to know each other. It was a safe environment run under the watchful eye of caring moderators. And nobody was busy promoting. That made all the difference.
By the time November rolled around, we all had a pretty good feel for each other. Of course we were a little apprehensive meeting face-to-face for the first time, but any anxiety quickly lifted after the first five minutes. Everybody let their hair down, which was quite an accomplishment for a group of mostly introverts, especially the bald guys. As Jo Eberhardt said, “Everybody here is exactly like they are on Facebook.” Except she said it in Australian.
The moments stood still, yet the week flew by. It was finally time for our tearful farewells, and they were plentiful. We hugged and hugged again, and wondered if this was the end, but in our hearts, we knew it wasn’t over.
John Kelley is The Most Interesting Writer in the World (with Risa Pedzewick and Dede Obasun Nesbitt).
Ever since the close of the conference that Friday night, the UnCon page has been more alive than ever. I call it “The Conference After the Un-Conference.” We’ve become more than Facebook friends or members of any online group or website. We now know each other. We are a True Tribe. A kindred clan that will forever be bonded. We are the Steins, the Hemingways, the Fitzgeralds and the Wilders. We share pictures and stories and make playful barbs at each other. And we laugh. A lot.
Look for great things from these people. It truly was the kind of gathering from which legends are born.
If, during the course of this article, you clicked over to my recap of the NaNoWriMo dinner I attended, you probably deduced I wasn’t too keen on writers’ groups. Local friends call me an introverted extrovert; I call myself a gregarious loner. Groups have never been my thing. I can only deal with people when I can deal with them, and I’ve always been more or less a wanderer.
So it makes perfect sense that in this moveable feast, I found a home.
I’ll close with a video I made from photos and film clips taken at the conference. It may seem like a boring vacation slideshow of yore, but even if you don’t know a soul, surely you’ll feel the sense of camaraderie I’ve tried to convey. Watch and enjoy, if not simply for the beautiful lyrics of Michael W. Smith’s “Friends.” It’s dedicated to two companions we lost along the way, Lisa Threadgill and Bob Stewart, who will always be with us in spirit. Vaya con Dios, mis amigos.
May you someday be blessed with your own Moveable Feast.
ML Swift is a writer of Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult fiction, although he dabbles in many genres.
An Alzheimer’s caregiver for the past ten years, he has published several articles on The Alzheimer’s Reading Room, the largest online website catering to that community, and plans to write a novel about his experience in caregiving.
He resides in Florida with his dogs, Rameses and Buster, attempting to reclaim his side of the bed.
Featured header image (with pastel filter): Pleasing Papa: Stein, Hemingway, & Toklas by Hilary Harkness