Stepping into the American Library in Paris feels like stepping back in time. Except, only by a few years.
An acquaintance suggested I check out the ALP. She described it as a “little jewel” of a library. In fact, it’s the biggest English library in Europe, with a collection accumulated over the course of almost a century. It is, and always has been, an important cultural hub for American expats in Paris. When it opened its doors in 1920, it served as a place for WWI soldiers to come feel at home. Now, expatriates from everywhere gather there for workshops or bring their kids for story hours and traditional American holiday festivities.
And to me, it felt awfully collegiate.
I went to the ALP for a workshop on overseas freelance reporting, led by journalist James Verini. I’d moved to Paris to get my Master’s in journalism, and was eager to seek inspiration from the same city as Hemingway, de Beauvoir, and Fitzgerald (my personal literary hero). I was curious to see how the workshop would run since for me, “workshop” typically means group editing a piece. This time, I only had my notebook, ready for whatever pearls of wisdom James had to offer.
I entered the library, walked into a conference room by the circulation desk (appropriately lined with shelves of old periodicals), and found myself on the first day of class all over again.
A bunch of strangers sat around a conference table, staring awkwardly at our hands. A few people knew each other and sat together, hunching slightly towards the familiar faces.
Some people were, like me, already journalists or journalism students. Some people, both undergraduate students and people looking to make a career change, were deciding if journalism was a good option for them. We all wanted to hear that we were making the right choice.
James Verini has been a freelance reporter for almost a decade, mostly covering conflicts in the Middle East. He’s currently a research fellow at the ALP, working on a book about ISIS. He knows what he’s doing in the field, but seemed (at least initially) a little uncertain of how to turn all of his experience into teachable bullet points.
James was, if not inspiring, definitely motivating.
“You really have to care about it,” he said, meaning both the job and whatever story you happen to be working on. “This profession is too thankless for you not to care.”
It was not exactly what I wanted to hear, although I can’t say I was surprised by it.
It seemed to all boil down simply to being present.
“Always focus on what it is you see or hear, not what you think you see or hear, not what you think you ought to see or hear,” James insisted. “You have to go and actually see the thing.”
But the one piece of advice that most spoke to me was when James said, “Don’t ever be afraid to go somewhere.”
As I scribbled that in my notebook, it struck me as having a double meaning. James had said it in a literal context: never be afraid to go to a new place to hunt for a story. “There’s a good story in anything,” he assured us. But to me, it also meant never to be afraid to choose a particular a story.
Since getting into journalism, I have always picked topics that are deeply personal, even if it’s not always immediately apparent why. All the reporting I do feeds my sense of self. I use what I learn to help define my own identity. It’s sometimes uncomfortable and hard to put into words, but it’s also helped me grow. I interpreted James’ words to mean that journalism should push you in this way, and that you shouldn’t be scared to push back.
After the workshop was officially over, I ended up staying an extra hour talking with James. He was not only willing but also eager to invest in a person he had just met. The two of us ran through the stacks as he pointed out various essayists he felt I should read — Orwell, Didion, Baldwin. It reminded me of the times I went to my favorite English professor’s office hours. Even though we’d only had a few classes together by that point, my professor was happy to talk, offering book suggestions and life advice. Similarly, James gave me tips on pitching my work to editors, and before I left the library, he checked out a collection of Orwell’s essays for me.
I finally left the library and strolled home, basking in the setting sunlight. The ALP was an uncanny reminder of where I came from, but I think it’s also a good window into how far I can go.