Hanging Up My French Pen

2011 saw one bright star on the writing horizon. Against all expectations, I was one of the prize-winners in the Literary Correspondence competition organised by the local media library. And no, against all expectations is not supposed to indicate some kind of false modesty. I really was surprised. You see, I live in France, so the competition was in French, not English. True, it was only third prize but I was over the moon. Until…

She was so slight and fragile. When she spoke, you could barely hear what she said. Fortunately, someone dug up a microphone from somewhere, for although only a dozen or so of us had braved the icy wind and snow, listening to her tenuous tones ranked alongside the toughest of the labours of Hercules. How, I began to think, could such a delicate, fleeting presence produce such powerful writing? The question was soon forgotten as every ear in the room honed in on her every word. She held us in thrall for almost two hours.

She? Mercedes Deambrosis, prize-winning French writer, author of several novels, novellas and short-story collections. Wait a minute, did I say French? The name certainly doesn’t sound very French? I couldn’t resist asking the question even though I did suspect I was about to shoot myself in the leg.

“No, I’m not French. My parents were from Spain but I was born and brought up in Portugal.”

“But surely,” I blundered on, “you must have learnt French from an early age?”

“No. I was fourteen when I first came to France and I didn’t understand a word of French.”

I gaped and at last managed to muster up enough sense not to ask any more questions. But the implications were clear. Here was someone who’d been speaking French some 5-10 years less than me, and who was writing far better prose than I could put muster, even in my mother tongue. The conclusion was inevitable. It just wasn’t worth the time and effort to put together texts in French any more. No way would I ever be able to work myself upwards to anything even closely resembling this standard.

Since taking this decision I have gone back on it slightly. I continue to visit the writing group in the local cultural centre and they obviously write in French. I wouldn’t want to miss the affectionate and encouraging atmosphere of the group. But I no longer write stories for competitions or articles for publications in French.

So my question is which of you readers actually write in a language other than English? Is it your mother tongue? If so, how hard do you find trying to express yourself in English? If not, how hard do you find it expressing yourself in another language?


An English teacher currently living with his family in France, language has always been a major preoccupation for Paul. Writing is just an extension of this. He never ceases to be amazed at the way his characters take on life as the words fall into place.

3 Responses to “Hanging Up My French Pen”

  1. Rob Diaz says:

    Back when I was studying (read: using) Spanish, I played around with creative writing in Spanish. I could write research papers and essays in Spanish with little trouble and was told on numerous occasions that I wrote like a native speaker. Note that I never had a conversational-level of expertise with the language. I could understand it, I could read it and I could write it, but I couldn’t speak it to save my life.

    I abandoned writing creatively in Spanish when I realized I was simply writing it in English in my head and translating it to Spanish as I put it to the page. Doing it that way lost all of the nuances of meaning and feeling that comes with the language. I wrote technically accurate translations, but they were devoid of any emotional or lingusitic feel because I wasn’t actually writing “in Spanish”.

    I’ve lost pretty much all of my ability with the language due to 20+ years of not using it at all. I wish I hadn’t lost it and that I had, in fact, kept trying to write creatively in it. I don’t think I would ever write a piece as good as anything by my favorite Spanish-language authors (Rubén Darío is probably my favorite), but I feel like I would have enjoyed the challenge of continuing to improve my ability to manipulate the language.

  2. I used to be functionally bilingual in English and Swahili, but that was lots of years ago. I’ve thought about trying to write some poems in Swahili, but haven’t made the effort yet– though I used Swahili words in a poem a while back.

  3. Matt Robb says:

    Your story makes me recognize just how much of an amazing world we live in. We as humans really can do practically anything we set our minds to!