What I’m Learning About Writing from Paris

by Joe Bunting | 19 comments

Paris has always inspired writers. I've been here for a month, now, and I'm certainly not lacking in new ideas. However, you don't have to go to Paris to get the gift the city has to offer. Here's what I've learned about writing from living in Paris.

My Paris

The Eiffel Tower across the Seine from my walk to the Louvre.


3 Lessons About Writing from Living in Paris

What is it about Paris that so inspires the artists and writers who live here?

This week I walked by the art supply store where Picasso used to buy his paints. Every day, I see the café, Les Deux Magots, where Jake met Brett in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Earlier this month, I paid my respects to the grave of Oscar Wilde. When I walk to the Louvre, I pass by statue of Voltaire (he looks like Willem Defoe's creepy doppelganger).

Of course, Paris teaches thousands of lessons about art and writing to the people who have lived here, and it would be impossible to include them all in a simple blog post. But here are three major lessons that I'm learning from living in Paris.

1. Walk Slowly

In fact do everything slowly.

Eat slowly. Drink slowly. Sip your tiny cups of espresso slowly.

And as you slow down, look around you. People watching is Paris' preferred pastime. You sit in a café looking out to the street and watch the people around you, the people walking by, and, hopefully, the person sitting next to you, gazing into your eyes.

There's nothing better than this slow, watchfulness to stimulate your creativity.

2. The Ordinary Can Be Extraordinary

Somehow, in Paris, ordinary things like going shopping and walking down the street are extraordinary and inspiring. But perhaps Paris just awakens us to the truth, that the ordinary isn't actually ordinary at all.

We often think our lives are boring, that there's nothing unique about us. We think that instead of writing about our own little world we should create fantastic, imaginary places that will entertain our readers. 

There's nothing wrong with fantasy, but I think we sell our lives short when we say our “ordinariness” isn't worthy of our writing. No one is living your life. No one has your stories to tell. Perhaps you just need to starting writing them down?

Of course, if your life really wouldn't make for a very good story, then maybe it's time to live more adventurously.

3. You Need a Cartel

After reading A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir about living and writing in Paris, I realized Hemingway was always asking advice from mentors who were further along than him. Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, these were Hemingway's friends and teachers. Is it any wonder he got so good?

Paris, in the 1920s, was this artistic oasis. All the serious, young, upstart writers and artists were here. They were able to help each other. Their ideas rubbed off on one another. They instructed and learned from each other. If you weren't in Paris in the 1920s, we probably aren't still talking about you today.

This is the power of Cartels, of tribes. They won't make your career for you. You still have to do the work, but it's very hard to be great without them.

In other words, it's not just the city that inspires. It's the people who live in the city.

Paris isn't the melting pot it was in the 1920s. It's wonderful and still inspiring, but it's too expensive to live here for the upstart, young artists to flock to. Where is that place today? I don't really know. Do you? Because I want to go there!

Have you been to Paris? What did you find inspiring about the City of Light?


You don't need Paris to learn how to write like you're in Paris. Go to a crowded place with a your journal or laptop. Spend a few hours people watching, writing about what you see.

Then, polish a few paragraphs of what you've written and post it into the comments section of this post. And if you share your practice, be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Bonne chance!

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. John_Pearce

    Joe, try writing in the Bibliothèque Mazarine (in the Institut de France building, at the end of the bridge with all the locks, the Pont des Arts). The receptionist will direct you upstairs. It’s one of the most charming places in Paris.

    • Joe Bunting

      We live an 8 min walk away from that building John. Great idea. What is the area called that I can ask the receptionist for?

    • John_Pearce

      It’s the Mazarin Library, or Bibliothèque Mazarine, the oldest public library in France, and it’s on the second (American) floor of the Institut de France. Go through the door to the left of the grand staircase and you’ll find a receptionist who will direct you to the bibliothèque, which is to the left and up a pretty set of marble stairs after you enter the first interior courtyard.

      There’s a library receptionist, who will send you to the person who issues library cards (free trial for a few days, then 15 Euros a year). He’ll send you to the desk that assigns seats. You’ll need a couple of passport-type pictures but they’ll take anything and didn’t ask me for them until I got my permanent card.

      I learned about it from Diane Johnson’s book “Into A Paris Quartier.” She visited it almost every day during the writing of “L’Affaire”. I wrote a good deal of “Treasure of Saint-Lazare” and its coming sequel there (although they aren’t the same thing as a Johnson book, alas).

      It is an absolutely beautiful place — high ceilings, book stacks all the way up the walls, ornate wooden cabinetry. Good wifi if a little flaky, and they have power for your laptop if you ask when they assign the seat.

      If you need any help with French phrases to get you through the gatekeepers let me know. I don’t remember hearing any English there.

      Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblioth%C3%A8que_Mazarine

  2. Adelaide Shaw

    I was on my own for the day. Children in school until the bus brought them home at 4:30. I had arranged for them to stay with a neighbor until I rode home with my husband after he left the office.
    I took the train from our village into Geneva. I loved walking the streets by myself, wandering where I wanted to wander, stopping to browse at a shop window without children or husband getting impatient. All was an adventure; even getting a little lost was an adventure. It forced me to use my poor French, which always got either a smile of encouragement or a disgusted shake of the head and a reply in English.

    The best part of the afternoon was to sit outside at a café if weather permitted or inside by a window and sip a glass of wine. In the US I would never have gone into a bar to have a drink alone, but in a European café it is expected and accepted.

    Today I choose a café on the quai overlooking the river. Once settled with my drink and my cigarette lighted the game begins. The name of the game is People Watching–those in the café and those passing by. Who are they? What do they do? Where are they going? I have a book to read, but prefer playing the game. I also have a notebook
    and write haiku or jot down bits and pieces of thoughts to expand upon later. A bee explores the rim of my glass. Birds chirp at me from a plane tree. Others fly down looking for crumbs under the tables. Gulls from the river swoop over the cafes along the quai scaring away the smaller birds. A German Sheppard lets me pet him as his owner sips a coffee at the table next to me.

    I don’t need company, although having my husband there with me would have been pleasant. Geneva is a Disney world for a transplanted American. Every turn, every corner, every lamp post, every new plant I see, every stone building or church spire is a source of inspiration for my poems and my letters home. Even years later, the
    remembered scenes come back to me and still provide a source of inspiration.


    • Joe Bunting

      So fun, Adelaide. Great game! I really enjoyed this.

    • Adelaide Shaw

      Thanks, Joe. There is nothing in the US which is like the European cafe, is there?

    • Mystique Nguyen

      I love your story. Wish I could write. I’m Vietnamese raised in VN and moved to US at the age of 18. English is still hard for me to write. Vietnamese is even worse because I have not written in the language for 30 years. Most of my thought is in English. Reading your post truly inspires me to write. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, which I’m sure many of us having similar.

      Please let me know any other books , published articles that you have. I would love to read and to learn your writing. You writing is simple, short and very inspiring …
      Happy new year! #####

  3. George McNeese

    I’ve never been to Paris, and probably never will in my lifetime. But, thank you for sharing these lessons. I need to slow down every once in a while. In my line of work (i. e. retail), I’m always in a rush on my lunch break. I only have an hour to eat and rest, which usually means play games on my iPhone or get caught up on Facebook and Twitter. I need to take the time to slow down and really enjoy the breaks, enjoy dinner with family. My wife tells me that I drink my apple ciders too fast, that I need to take in the flavors. Lately, I’ve been trying to do just that.

  4. Chloee

    I sat on the chair at the table in the little corner of the café sipping out of my cup the whip cream melting on my lips. The hustle and bustle on the little place detracted me from my writing. The smooth lines of letters on the blank page never flowed but instead were crumbled up pages littering my table. I tried to get up yet the intoxicating smells made me stay.

    The setting sun cast shadows outside making it toy with my imagination. My eyes darted outside till I came upon a old man. I stared at the old man with a head full of grey hair and old wrinkled skin yet bright eyes full of amusement sitting outside at his table the brisk fall breeze blew yet he seemed warm and cozy in his t shirt. He sat reading a newspaper and sipping a latte. He turned to look and revealed a scar across his right cheek. I gazed at it thoughtfully.

    How did he get it? Was it from a battle where he bravely fought facing the cruel enemy trying to fight as he watched his kind fall.

    I sat there slowly writing without being fully aware I was. I got up carrying everything and sat down at his table.

    “Excuse me sir how did you get your scar”. I asked. He smiled. “I fell down a well when I wad a little boy”.

    Well it wasn’t the brave battle I hoped it was. “Do you mind telling me the story?” I grabbed my pencil.

  5. George McNeese

    Second, you’re right about the ordinary being extraordinary. Again, working in retail, I go through the motions of cleaning and talking to customers about products and services. However, I do talk to some interesting people with some fascinating stories. I need to take the time and really listen. Of course, a little adventure wouldn’t hurt.

    Finally, I like the idea of a cartel. Finding people with the same passion and drive for writing. It’s a challenge for me to meet up with real people, not just conversing with them through social media, although it’s been helpful. I don’t have a blog where I can post my work, so it’s difficult to have people offer constructive criticism. Also, my focus is on short stories for the time being, not novels. I’m sure the same principles apply, just on a more intense level. Still, I like the idea of cartels, and I’m searching for one where I live.

    In spite of the challenges I have, I love writing and nothing can take that away from me. I hope to become as famous as Hemingway, or Patterson, or Roth. Until that time comes, I’ll keep writing and keep getting better.

    • Adelaide Shaw

      Hi George,
      Good luck and keep writing and paying attention to details. When i began writing fiction, short stories at first, I, too, hoped to become known, although I kept telling myself I was writing for the love of writing. Twenty-seven years later i write because I love writing. I have not become famous, although a few editors of small litererary journals would recognize my name having published some of my stories, the general public doesn’t know who I am.
      Thank you for wanting to follow me on Disqus. You can find more of my writings on my two blogs, http://www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com and http://www.adelaidewritewritewrite.blogspot.com

    • Joe Bunting

      I think finding people with the same passion is hard for everyone no matter where you live. I did eventually find a “cartel” in Paris and when I asked them what made it work, they told me it was because whether they liked each other’s work or not they had to commit because they were the only community they had in a French speaking city. In other words, it’s hard to find our cartel because it’s hard to commit.

      Thanks for your comment George.

  6. Jackie

    I love your advice about slowing down, connecting to our surroundings and experiences in a new way. Also, I resonated with discussion about the power of having a tribe. A lesson for me is to slow down enough to meet people, to truly listen and to trust the guides that present themselves on our journeys.

    • Joe Bunting

      I like that, trust the guides as they present themselves. I suppose that means you have to be looking out for the guides while you’re going.

  7. Dawn Atkin

    It wasn’t the 20’s, but it was the 80’s. I was young, naive and free, traveling on a shoe-string, counting my Francs, and uncrumpling my clothes from a crowded back-pack. Each day I’d take a walk along the Left Bank, marvel at chalk drawings and artists cluttered together with make shift easels and paint pallets smeared with the dried up oils and acrylics of past efforts and creativity.

    Crooked and cracked pavers would jut beneath my feet, tripping me into attention, begging my concentration. Fresh dog pooh sat silently steaming in the Parisienne sun and litter from tourists fluttered in the wind and along the gutters searching for a place to rest.

    I queued at the Eiffel tour for one hour, my sandalled feet were sore, the bustle of the rude crowds took sour bites into my Eiffel aspirations. I retreated to a stone wall and seethed in the arrogance of the passing locals as they walked their professionally clipped poodles and clicked their stilettos in proud and snooty steps between the dark and beckoning paver cracks.

    I ate pan, French sticks, and patisserie delights untill my tummy turned hard and my motivation to explore waned into carbohydrate overload.

    It got hot. I was a traveller ill prepared for a long day with out accommodation, sun hat or parasol. I took refuge in the spouting fountains of Trocaderos and viewed the tower from afar in a haze of summer light and carbon emission.

    I wandered around the Louvre for three whole days and still didn’t see enough. To much wonder to breathe in in one lifetime. I sat in the creaking leather viewing lounges just to catch myself from falling. A cacophony of foreign European tongues echoed around the hall. I felt like an alien, a culturally inept visitor from an undeveloped antipodean other land.

    Along the Champs-Élysées traffic jostled for a patch of sticky summer tarmac and the short shadow of the Arc de Triomphe. Across the bridges decorated with pillars and sculptures of mammoth and mythic beautiful characters models draped long limbs and unwearable fashions in to beautiful poses for fashion magazines. I felt inadequate in my flimsy travelling, try-hard hippy cottons.

    I was too young. Paris confronted me with expense, incredible cultural iconography, and filth.

    It seems a shame that so many years later my grandest memory is steaming dog pooh and French arrogance.

    • Dawn Atkin

      Whoops, a couple of typos and missing commas. Sorry for my tardiness. I can’t seem to edit when on my iPad. It seems I need to heed Joe’s advice and slooooooww down.
      Cheers Dawn 😉

  8. Amy Paulussen

    You had me till number 3. There are a wealth of writing communities in Paris. Stacks of poets meet every week at Paris Lit Up, and Spoken word Paris, and there are several drop-in writing workshops – in English. You don’t have to look far for a cartel in this town. I would have to run it by the others, but I’m in a private group and we meet next Sunday, if you’re interested.

    • Joe Bunting

      Good call, Amy. I honestly hadn’t seen many writers in Paris but earlier this week when I went to Spoken Word Paris. I thought it was an amazing community. You win!

  9. Andalee M

    Thanks for the article! Really enjoyed it. I love this piece. I’m developing a line of author mugs and making them available. I’ve been seeking out Hemingway communities to share the Hemingway mug with. Here is a link:


    I’ll share this article!



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