Book Review: Paris Letters

Paris Letters Book Cover

I recently read a book by Beth Kephart titled Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir and in it she asks the reader to think about what draws he or she to a particular memoir. I thought about it and here’s what I wrote down:

The memoirs I like to read share a story of inspiration and make me dream and do. The writers are honest and vulnerable which I admire and they make me feel like I’m not alone. Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod fits that description perfectly.

Janice grew tired of her advertising career and decided to start saving money in a major way so that she would have enough to sustain her for a year without working. When she finally quit her job, she went on a trip to Europe that started in Paris and right away she met the love of her life and soon after discovered she could make a living selling her artwork on Etsy in the form of postcards she would write, illustrate, and send to whoever wanted to receive one.

I know there are a lot of travel memoirs out there featuring a woman moving to Paris and finding her true love and a whole new life and I’ve read my fair share of those but I felt that Paris Letters really stood out from the rest because Janice wasn’t just focusing on her new man and adjusting to the Parisian life, she was focusing on small and big changes for herself that promoted a more positive outlook on life and on herself. And those change proved to be inspirational and motivational for myself.

First, she donated, sold, or threw away things in her apartment that she didn’t need. She got rid of the clutter so that when it came to travel she could pack lightly and selling things also contributed to her savings for when she would be unemployed. Before I started reading the book, I myself was cleaning out my room. Why should clothes and shoes that I don’t wear sit in my closet when there are those less fortunate who could really use them? I donated everything and having fewer clothes to choose from made getting ready in the morning a lot less stressful. I’m still in the process of de-cluttering but already having less things makes life more simple.

Next, she bought a copy of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a workbook to help creatives find their path through weekly exercises. Janice was in a creative slump after years spent working at an advertising agency and The Artist’s Way got her into the habit of writing three journal pages a day about anything that came to her mind. After quite some time, her journal pages revealed who she was and what she wanted to do with her life. I had heard about this book for years but never bought a copy of my own until I read Paris Letters. Reading about Janice’s daily writing habit motivated me to actually buy The Artist’s Way and start working on the exercises myself. I’ve always loved writing and who knows what I’ll discover when I’m finished with the exercises.

Cleaning out my room and working through The Artist’s Way are ongoing processes and whenever I procrastinate or feel sluggish towards these activities I think of Janice and how she did and it keeps me going but there were also some significant quotes in the book that I wanted to call out that have stayed with me long after I finished the book.

The first is in the beginning of the book when Janice was visiting the Vatican in Italy and before she had quit her job and started traveling. She decided to go to Confession and instead of her usual rant about how her life wasn’t going how she planned and she wasn’t getting what she wanted and how she wondered why God was doing this to her, all she ended up saying was that she wished she had a good boyfriend and that she’s looked for a long time. Here is what happened next:

        “The priest went on to tell me all the things I didn’t know I needed to hear. He said there was a plan, and if I had what I thought I wanted, there could be problems. He said to trust, to assume my current circumstances were for my benefit. He said to be grateful both for what I had and what I didn’t have. If I didn’t have it, I didn’t need it. He continued, ‘And please, please, please forgive yourself for buying into the belief that something is wrong with you. You are not defective. You didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t have to do anything more. God made you perfect.’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘And he kept you that way.’”

Another influential quote is towards the end of the book and is a summary of Janice’s thoughts about her life since she heard those words from the priest:

      “After that day at the Vatican three years before when I went to confession, I finally got glad about all the dreams that hadn’t come true. I didn’t have a boyfriend. I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have a mortgage. I had nothing holding me down in California, which was the groundwork that made it possible for me to leave and find a life more suited for me in Paris. That priest was right. If I didn’t have it, I didn’t need it. I finally got glad about that instead of just wondering why I didn’t have it yet. It would come in time. But back then, it was just me thinking of my dreams and scribbling them down in my journal.

                I became kinder to myself too. I let myself stay home and paint rather than go out ‘just in case my soul mate was there.’ I started enjoying the process of unraveling my apartment and of not having as many choices in my closet. I walked more. I bought myself flowers. I started this journey by getting rid of clothes, but eventually I slowly peeled off the layers of judgments I had placed upon myself for failing to get married by the ripe old age of thirty-four. For failing to find happiness in my chosen career. For creating a life that wasn’t much fun. I let myself off the hook. I forgave myself for the judgments. The truth is that I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. And at some point, I had the good sense to change my usual self-inflicting, unnecessary, and lame New Year’s resolution from an uncreative ‘lose ten pounds’ to a simple practice of writing in my journal. It was this light change that got the ball rolling.”

I think what the priest said can be applied to so many circumstances in life and not just whether you are single or married, have plenty of kids or no kids at all, or just starting a new job or career or are leaving one altogether. I know that I can be hard on myself or critical of myself and I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way about themselves. It’s not always easy to trust that everything will be okay but I think that the brain just has to be trained to think positively and might need some help from whatever source a person deems necessary. For me, it’s writing on this blog, in my journal, and in Scrivener where I’m writing a book of my own. It’s also a yoga class, cooking new recipes or going out to eat at new restaurants with friends, traveling to a new city or country, or staying at home with my family, especially my adorable nephews. On a daily basis though, my source of help is a really good book like Paris Letters.

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