There’s the story you want to write, and then there’s the story that appears on the page when you start writing. The one that appears is always the one to go with, because it’s the richer, truer tale stewing in your subconscious.
A seasoned writer gave me this advice years ago when I was first starting out. Little did I know the advice was actually a prophecy, because I never intended to write Failing Paris.
I was a young journalist very much under the influence of Latino authors like Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya, as well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels of magical realism. In a writing workshop I was toiling over what I thought would be a series of funny, quirky and uplifting short stories set around a mythical northern New Mexico town with talking dogs, dyslexic brujas, and other oddities that nobody in my workshop seemed to have the slightest interest in.
Then one day, one of the other writers in my group brought in a piece set in Paris. Her story was saturated with stilted French, clichéd Eiffel Tower images and a fawning, flat idealization of French life that sparked a firestorm of emotion within me.
“This isn’t how it is in Paris,” I sniffed when it came my turn to critique.
“Well how is it then, Sam?” demanded the writer, singed by my dismissive attitude.
I couldn’t answer her in that moment because the France I knew, with all of its contradictions, couldn't be summed up so easily.
Ever since I was a child trying to read the labels on my grandmother’s perfume bottles, I had been in love with all things French—the literature, the cinema, the haute couture I knew only through the pages of Vogue magazine. I later lived in the fabled City of Lights in my early 20s. It was beautifully breathtaking and civilized yes, but I also encountered racism and sexism, stupidity and cruelty on the streets of Paris just like in the rest of the world. That is to say, life there was so much more complex, nuanced and ultimately richer than I ever imagined in my cotton-candy dreams.
I returned home from that writing workshop still burning with the need to answer her. I wanted to render a story about France that was as nuanced and profound as my experience of it. I wrote for hours, feverishly, producing page after page. I spent years redrafting and writing more, but the first line I wrote is still the first line of the book: "This is how it is."
Samantha Dunn is also the author of two memoirs, and her work is widely anthologized.