Writing Mistakes (in Paris)

Revising the Sophie manuscript has brought up some of my many memories of Paris.

When I was about 18 years old, I spent the summer in Paris, working at a software company in the 8th arrondissement.  I lived in a dorm room at the American House of the Cité Universitaire in the 14th arrondissement.  Every morning I would take the RER B train into the middle of Paris and change to the metro to get to work.  Every evening I would take the bus home with my new friend Mireille.

She was the bookkeeper at the software company.  The boss didn’t know what else to do with me, so he decided I would work with Mireille, who was three years older than me and didn’t speak English.  Because of her I not only became fluent by the middle of the summer, but she made me add up long columns of numbers on an adding machine while saying each number out loud in French.  I’m awesome with French numbers.

Mireille also taught me many “rude” phrases.  She told her mother she taught me those words so I would understand them if anyone said them to me.  She didn’t want me smiling at a guy who told me to f*** off.

It was actually my reading that led to the lessons in French slang.  I raided my uncle’s bookshelves and picked out all kinds of books in French – mostly not by French authors.  For example, I read Agatha Christie and Hemingway translations.  For Whom the Bell Tolls was quite challenging.  And many words I read I couldn’t find in my French-English dictionary.  So I’d bring them to Mireille.  Who would laugh.  Then she’d explain.

She would also laugh anytime I made a mistake.  Like if I used the wrong French word for hair (there are different words for the hair on your head – cheveux – and the hair on your body – poils).  She would laugh hysterically, and I would get upset.  Once she wiped the tears from her eyes, she would tell me what I said wrong.

“Why can’t you just correct my mistake without making fun of me?” I asked her.

“Well, you’ll never make that mistake again, will you?” she replied, still laughing. 

She had a point.  And she was right.

I don’t plan to parent that way, and I don’t laugh at my critique partners, but there is value in that technique.  Mistakes that have embarrassed me stick in my head and will never happen again.

Just like life in general and learning a foreign language, writing is a learning process.  I’ve made mistakes – querying a manuscript too soon, not getting enough distance from a manuscript before revising, among others – and I’ve learned from my rejections, however painful.

And I will never ever tell someone on the Paris metro that I like her poils.

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2 Comments

Filed under The rest of my life, writing

2 responses to “Writing Mistakes (in Paris)

  1. Elizabeth

    I really enjoyed this post! Good point about the embarrassing mistakes (poils, indeed!) that stick with you. I had one of those when I ordered quarante pain au chocolate from a street vendor; at first, I wondered why he was giving me an evil grin as he bagged my croissants. When he got to ten of them I realized my mistake- “non! non! quatre! quatre!” I bought all ten, though, and ate them morning noon and night for two days. Heaven!

    I spent a summer at the American dorm at Cité Universitaire too! My French was beyond laughable. Whenever I tried to practice speaking, the French would sigh and slip into English for me. Hence, no fluency. I needed a Mireille!

    • vtremp

      How did our living quarters in common never come up before? Funny. Thanks for sharing your language mistake. At least yours got you loads of yummy pastries – with chocolate! I just got humiliating laughter. Despite Mireille’s help, and the fact I started speaking French so young and therefore have a pretty decent accent, every now and then I’d encounter a salesperson who insisted on speaking to me in English. I usually fought it, just to be annoying.

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