22,517 words

written by Laura McCune-Poplin

I arrived in France with 60 pages of an awkward first draft, which felt like pulling teeth to write. Because I didn’t know my character yet. Because I didn’t understand her world. Because I felt harassed and overwhelmed by my real life. Although I typically shun a self-centered approach to the universe, I’ve become convinced there are forces out there determined to see me fail as a writer, forces which hurl obstacles at me every time I sit down at the computer. Even soft and furry ones like my cat, who normally shuns physical affection, but who magically appears on my keyboard while I’m trying to take advantage of the 45 minutes bought by my husband taking my son on a scoot and skate expedition, which took endless energy and at least 45 minutes to make happen (sunscreen? shoes? helmets?) but which lasted only 15 minutes anyway because someone who refused to use the bathroom before he left the house now has an immediate and life-threatening need to do so.

Writing at home means writing in spurts and starts, which means I can make progress on a manuscript (words do add up) but not in significant doses. And I mean that in multiple senses of the word. I never got to know my main character simply because I couldn’t spend time with her. I never got a sense of what 1915 Boston really smelled like, or how I would feel waking up in a darkened alley behind the newsboys club on Tremont St. because I couldn’t spend the mental energy required to imagine it. Mental energy that gets spent on necessary but constant and tedious concerns like making sure we don’t run out of bananas, which seem to turn brown after 10 minutes on the shelf.

But I’ve learned, the deliciously easy way (and I use the word delicious very deliberately, since every bite of every meal at L’Atelier was among the best I’ve ever eaten) that those evil forces keeping me from my writerly dreams don’t have international passports. In France, I was able to write every morning. Uninterrupted, except by me climbing spiral stairs to get a cup of tea in a room full of books and windows overlooking roses growing on rock walls. In France, I learned to see Boston clearly. I made discoveries about plot and character that still surprise me. I became so involved in my character’s life that I cried when she lost her first friend, and I realized her biggest fear wasn’t being seen for who she was, it was not being seen at all.

The 22,517 words I wrote at L’Atelier are some of the best I’ve ever written, not because they don’t need revision (they do) or because I’m such an amazing writer (I’m not) but because they were written with my undivided attention, my whole self. While in France I found the momentum and the depth I needed to keep going. To complete my first draft amid a summer of no childcare and multiple distractions. Now when I write in spurts and starts I can do so with integrity, because I was able to devote a week’s worth of energy to my story’s creation.

And words really do add up. My rough draft, completed today, clocks in at a healthy 67,068.