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Does Paris Still Inspire Creativity?

A guest post (with photos and illustrations) by Secrets of Paris friend and creativity coach Cynthia Morris of Original Impulse

Paris has always been a place where creative people come from around the world come to flourish. Renoir, Anais Nin, Gertrude Stein, Brassai, Picasso, Henry Miller….the list of creative luminaries whose work was positively influenced by Paris is long.  

It’s easy to make the imaginative leap where you become a creative genius in Paris, too. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris shows that the City of Light still sparks hope for the creative person. But does it deliver beyond the clichés? Does Paris actually make us better writers and artists?

For me and many others who claim Paris as part of their creative lineage, it does. But not in the way you may think. It’s not all roses and champagne. 

My Paris

Paris grabbed my heart when I was a high school French student. After seeing a brochure for studying abroad, I saved my money and skipped graduation. After three weeks in France, I was smitten. Like many a character in a classic French novel, I was the young naif who became certain that Paris was where I would thrive. 

After I graduated from university with a French degree, I became obsessed with American bookseller Sylvia Beach, founder of Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I dedicated many hours  over many years immersed in the research of her world so I could write my historical novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach

Annual research trips to Paris fanned the flames of my love. As I grew into a woman, my creativity bloomed and my style and creative sensibilities were directly affected by Paris.  

The illustrated journals I made during each visit inspired others, which led me to design and lead creativity workshops in Paris. Using the journal helped me understand what, exactly, made Paris such an influence on my creativity.

Why Paris inspires my creativity

Here’s why Paris, more than any other city I’ve been to, delivers: 

  • wide sidewalks that give a bit more space than many other cities
  • pockets of green that offer quiet places to rest and reflect
  • plenty of civic areas with benches where all kinds of people gather
  • cafe culture that allows lingering without purpose
  • free beauty everywhere – shop windows, architecture, people  
  • attention to design in every detail 
  • walkability allows a direct engagement with the city
  • rich cultural history sparks a sense of both tradition and possibility

I could go on, and you can probably add your own things to this list. 

In this environment devoted to beauty and order, you’re forced to slow down. Every turn offers surprise and possible delight. Fuel yourself with delicious food and drinks and you’ve got a heady cocktail to stimulate your creative dreams. 

Down but not out in Paris

Dreams are one thing, making art or writing a novel is another thing. Over the years, the shiny glow of Paris began to develop a darker patina. I saw the rough edges. I experienced the rude waiter in the bistro and the scam artist on the street. I felt the loneliness of a Parisian Sunday when the café closes early and there’s no family to go home to. Every trip had its wildly glorious moments of inspiration, and every trip had its shit story, too. 

My novel is a historical novel, so I spent a lot of time occupying pre-war Paris in my mind. Wandering a side street, I’d squint and try to imagine the scene with more soot, more grit. Poverty, war and pollution exerted an influence on every artist and writer who passed through. 

The grit and the grim exist alongside the glamour and elegance. But all good stories must have their edge. It’s the drama that makes our stories better. The times I’ve been lonely, lost and scared in Paris all influenced my character’s experience in my novel. No edge, no depth. 

You have to go there and face the gray. You have to get soaked by the drizzle. You have to get jostled by the crowds that pulse through the metro stations and along the boulevards. It’s inevitable that you will get dirty, get lost and get discouraged. 

But every nasty Paris experience informed my novel, where my characters have to respond to their own difficult Parisian moments.

Live the dream, shed the fantasy

In order to create great – or even good – art, the dark side has to be there. No story can exist without conflict. It’s not just the delightful and breathtaking that inspire our creativity. The dark and despairing contribute too. 

It’s fun to revel in the fantasy. It’s even more potent to experience the gritty reality, turning both our wonderful and awful experiences into art.

Contest and Online Class
How has Paris influenced your life and art?

Share in the comments below your how Paris inspires your creativity in 200 characters or less (we’re more generous than Twitter) before March 12th, when Cynthia will choose one randomly to win a signed copy of her historic novel, Chasing Sylvia Beach. NoteIf you’re in North America it will be shipped by Cynthia; if you’re in Europe it will be shipped by Heather from Secrets of Paris HQ. (If you’re somewhere else, we’ll flip a coin.)

If you’ve been dying to get your own Paris experiences down in writing, join Cynthia’s online class, Write Your Paris Stories, beginning March 12th. Fun and lively, this class is designed for beginner and advanced writers seeking guidance, support and focus to complete a story alongside fellow Paris writers. Learn more about it here: Write Your Paris Stories Online Class

Paris Stories invitation from Cynthia Morris on Vimeo.

16 Comments

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  • Shannon, I love your note. Your story is touching and I can see it as a movie. I can see how vividly Paris lights up your days. What a powerful place, this City of Light, that can cast a brightness that far. I love how you describe your love 'encapsulated in Paris'. It's almost like a secret looking glass that you get to look through and experience Paris with joy. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  • Sarah, Thank you for your beautiful comment. I, too, love how Paris invites a spaciousness. And in those places where we pause – the Jardin Luxembourg, the café terrace, we find more of ourselves. For me, travel is like a personal growth boot camp. I bump up against my limitations, I have to make more choices, and I do become a better person for it. The upside is that I get to have these 'growth opportunities' in splendorous surroundings. :)If you're a writer, those lonely moments become the grit of your work. It's not all sunshine and croissants.

  • Jackie, I agree – that joie de vivre and license to indulge is one of the things I love about Paris. There seem to be treats everywhere. The visual feast alone is enough to spark stories, as you mentioned. Then you start tasting and listening…I feel that Paris unlocked my appreciation of the sensual pleasures of life. Paris does extend an invitation, one that I am happy to accept. 🙂

  • Joan, I love Parisian style too. People watching in Paris is one of life's great pleasures. I don't agree with you that Parisians are living life on their own terms. I think of Paris culture as very terms-driven regarding class and profession. While there are definitely people innovating there, I think of Parisians as more 'reglé'.

  • Paris is true. It is brick and bread and shots of espresso. It is ornate and doorways and relationship. I have spent the past few years getting to know the city from my home in Tucson. House-bound because of an illness, my hope became the promise of Paris. The family of Paris. The disdain and regality of its people and sights. I still have hope because I am so drawn to this love encapsulated in my Paris.

  • One of Paris’ greatest inspirations is Parisians! With their fearless sense of style and determination to live life on their own terms, Parisians inspire me to follow my own path. Vive la différence!

  • Paris inspires my creativity because her enigmatic ways make me slow down, so I have ample time to be engulfed by the random beauty of limestone facades and intricate shop window displays and of burnt orange chimney pots on slate roofs against a cerulean sky while I go about my daily life.And then because we’re living in one of the densest cities in Europe, you meet others equally captivated and their stories inspire me.On the flip side, the loneliness–or rather, the solitude–that comes with being a stranger in a strange land gives me the space to explore feelings and ponder that I did not have when surrounded by friends and family and work schedule.

  • Paris inspires not only my creativity but also my zest for life. Where else can you go and see so much grandeur within a leisurely walk ? Everything I look at in Paris presents an invitation to explore stories, art, and just be happy. I see patterns in the streets, doorways, and buildings that I need to recreate in an art design. Dialog overheard in a café can lead to writing a great backstory. The history, language, and people make Paris a great place to unleash anyone’s creative spirit.

  • Steven, I love that story. I love how you overcame physical barriers and enjoyed it all anyway. And that Louise pushed you out of your comfort zone, too. I hope you plan to return, and not just hope. You'll make it happen, I know!

  • Mari, It's great to hear how literature lured you into a love affair with Paris! I can't wait to check out your novel. Thanks for sharing your Paris love with us!

  • Sue, I love what you shared here – how even a cold, rainy Paris can help make a painful situation better. That's a pretty powerful place! I hope you write that story and other Paris stories!

  • In 2003, the day the US bombed Iraq. My disabled lady friend "Louise" and I landed in Paris together for the first time. Louise (who actually had won a date with and was sung her name song by Maurice Chevalier when she a child) had been there before and begged me to take her again. Pushing a wheelchair over cobblestone streets isn't easy and many of the old buildings are not accessible, but the love we felt, both for the people, the history and each other made it easy for us to be temporarily French. We both loved sitting outdoors, sipping coffee on the street and she even talked me into eating escargot at one of the restaurants in the Latin Quarter. Though many French and Americans disagreed about the politics of the war, the French people were very kind to us, and often told us they loved Americans. While we were there I shot lots of photos which I am very proud of and are on my site, We loved Paris and France so much we returned in 2005 with our friend Cathy, and now I'm hopping to return again if not this year maybe next.

  • My love of Paris from an early age resulted in a trip to Paris in 2005 and to my reading every French author I could get my hands on. At that time I also fell in love with Marcel Proust and In Search of Lost Time. Those two loves combined and resulted in my first novel, Parisian by Heart. The novel time-jumps from the present to the Belle Epoch but remains centered in Paris, my spiritual home, although I live in the USA. Paris continues to inspire me and will, I imagine, to the end of my life. Which, of course, I would live out in Paris, if I could!Thank you for this post and for sharing your experience.Mari

  • Paris has a special place in my heart. I first saw Paris on a cold rainy day in December with my soon to be X husband. The beauty and exuberance of Paris helped soften the painful decision. We both deserved better. In Paris that became obvious to both of us. I'm looking forward to reading about your Paris.

  • Paris always inspires me! I already own 'Chasing Sylvia Beach' but wanted to post a comment of support for this great post and give-away. Paris, books, and a great story — thank you both and good luck with the contest and Cynthia with the online course.Cheers from a fan.