The CREATIVE SWITCH: Thoughts on Speaking French and Writing Stories

IMG_0641This week I overheard a man speaking English with a decidedly French accent, so in a burst of boldness, I asked (in French) if he was French. “Oui…” he answered, clearly caught off guard by my keen detective skills.  A lovely conversation ensued, completely in French. It turns out he and his family live in town.  He was surprised to discover that there’s a vibrant French community in our area and eager to learn how he and his wife could get involved.

A little back story might be helpful. I spent most of my elementary school years living in Paris.  I spoke French every day, played in French (and English too), watched tv in French, sang songs in French, and was soaked in the culture by eager parents who took us to museums, parcs, chateaux, etc. just about every weekend.

When I returned to the U.S. at age twelve, I was a bona fide Francophile. Through out high school and college, I worked hard to maintain fluency, taking every French language and literature class I could. I also listened to French music almost every night. (How many American girls in the 80’s do you think could sing along to the wonderful lyrics of Jacques Brel, the great Belgian singer? Not many, probably. But I did!)

This love for the French language and people continues.  Indeed, the instant I suspect someone might be a native speaker, a switch goes off in my brain and suddenly I’m speaking and thinking in French. Interestingly, my French-speaking self isn’t as shy as my English-speaking self.  She’s quite funny and very inquisitive and not afraid to just “wing it” conversation-wise.  I’ve also discovered that quickly switching between my two language selfs is very difficult.  So, if you happen to interact with me once my brain has switched to French, I will most answer you in French without realizing it, and even if you don’t speak it.

I’m like this when I write too. Once I’m engaged in a project, a switch goes off in my brain.  I think, breathe, even speak the story, as my kids will attest.  Here’s a typical scenario: We are sitting in the living room.  My daughter is drawing, my son is reading (or fiddling with with some high-tech device) and I’m writing.  Suddenly, my son interrupts, “Ahem, Mom, you’re doing it again.” Sure enough, I’m speaking aloud a poem-in-progress, or reciting some new dialogue. Worse yet, according my kids, sometimes I audibly wrestle with words and phrases while out walking the dog.  It’s not just speaking my thoughts that embarrasses my children.  Sometimes I tap my thoughts, drumming the beat of my rhyming works using spatulas (if I’m cooking) or fingers, or sticks, or whatever is convenient.

That’s transformative power of French and writing! Am I alone in this, or do you, too, have a creative switch in your brain that transports you into a magical writing mode?

14 thoughts on “The CREATIVE SWITCH: Thoughts on Speaking French and Writing Stories

  1. Mom definitely talks and reads out loud – to and about her stories and only in front of her computer. It’s like she’s Skyping with her characters. Luckily, she only does it during her writing time. The rest of the day it stays inside her head. Thank goodness!

    Love and licks,

  2. I envy your French fluency. I took years of it in high school and college, but my skills are mediocre reading, at best. Not enough practice with native speakers. It’s interesting that you have a French personality aside from your English speaking one. 🙂

  3. I suppose your switch to a bold personality is one of necessity if you are to practice your French when you have the chance. I wonder if it takes you back a little to your playtime-schoolgirl days so that your personality/curiosity somewhat morphs into that of your child self. It’s like you’ve captured your youth in a French bottle, to be dispersed with the pull of a cork. (Send me a bottle!)

  4. I can’t do French, but I’ve got the writing switch 🙂 My kids will tell you I frequently bore them by suddenly changing the subject mid-conversation to something I’m wrestling with in my writing. “Do you think it would work if…???” out of the middle of nowhere 🙂

  5. Ha! Something else we have in common… Not so much the Francophilia, as having spent time at that age in Paris.
    And also that other thing- the different languages and their personalities. My first language (Hebrew) et moi are indeed distinct from American me.
    I have no idea if I use those other personalities while writing, but I’m sure I do talk to myself plenty.

  6. Laura, if I knew you spoke French, I had forgotten it! My first language is French, surprise, surprise with a name like Gisele LeBlanc, ay? lol But our dialect if very different from Parisian French, or Quebec French, or even the French that is spoken further North of the province. Ours is a mix of English and French, and Acadian.

    I don’t enjoy reading or writing in French because it’s so different than the French I speak. Acadian vocabulary is so odd, too…here’s a link to a few words:

    I typically use the words “brailler” and “zire,” too, instead of “pleure” and “dégeulasse.” There’s an Acadian dictionary…oh my gosh, when we go through it, we laugh until we almost cry.

    There are many French words that I have to think of what they are–the English word comes automatically. For example “dans la backyard,” I’d have to think a few seconds for the French word for “backyard.” We’d never say “la tondeuse,” for us, it’s “le lawnmower.” lol We switch from French to English seamlessly–sometimes in mid-sentence, or just for one word.

    If I’m speaking to someone who is from Quebec or further North, for example, I have to force myself to speak correct French–I often have to search for words. I was also reading in English before I was reading in French, same as my son. I also usually never listen to French music or TV.

    Some people are very proud to be Acadian French–we celebrate this on August 15th–but I am one of those who tends to be prouder that she is just Canadian and bilingual…and that’s probably way more than you wanted to know about my crazy native language. LOL!

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