Creative Writing

“I Need to Get this Down”: Writing in Paris with Wilbert Turner III

For centuries, Paris has inspired writers from Voltaire to James Baldwin. The Paris Writing Intensive, a collaboration between the New School’s Creative Writing Program and Parsons Paris, is bringing writers of all ages and backgrounds to its storied arrondissements. 

Wilbert Turner III, or Wil (just one “l”) as his friends call him, was part of the inaugural summer 2023 cohort. Originally from Philadelphia, Wil lives in Brooklyn and co-hosts the long-running Sunday Salon NYC reading series. He’s also an alum of the New School’s Creative Writing Program (MFA ‘21) and has written screenplays, poems, and fiction, though currently he’s hard at work on a novel. We sat down with Wil to learn what it was like to develop his work in a city with a present as rich and complex as its past. 

Wil, what about the program first caught your interest?  

I didn’t come from a family that does a lot of international travel…I knew that there would be professors who would take care of me, and that from my experience, anyone I’ve met through the New School has been really kind, they look out for you. It would be a safe, controlled environment but one that would give me a lot of independence to see what I needed to see and explore the city in my own unique way. 

Was there something about Paris or the program specifically that you felt would impact you as a writer?

Paris has a deep and rich history as a writer’s city. James Baldwin obviously lived there for many, many years; Hemingway lived there for several years and wrote a memoir about it. The Fitzgeralds were over there. So, I think that history called to me in a lot of ways. And also, because we had… a lot of free time in between the workshops. I thought that it would be good for in-class settings, but also a good opportunity to just be in a new place that could inspire me with new people that were creative. 

In Paris, do you feel that you got to go beyond the tourist experience, got a sense of what it might be like to live there?

Oh yeah… Parisians in my mind, as long as you approach them with a certain amount of politeness, they’re very nice and very kind and very open. So, I felt like I could live there. It’s probably my second favorite city after this experience in the world. Only after New York. I felt very accepted. You don’t feel that everywhere. It’s rare to feel that anywhere. That was the biggest shock: that I could feel so at home in such a short period of time. Most of them thought that I was French, they’d get like four or five sentences in before noticing my blank stare. But sometimes I’d let them go on just pretending I was a taciturn, small Frenchman….
I [stayed] in the first arrondissement, I think there are 20 of them in all of Paris, and I think I saw eleven. We had these seminar classes through the program which were mostly centered around Jewish, Asian, and Arab communities. We were given several walking tours and if we wanted to stay in those neighborhoods and understand the culture as much as we could, the opportunity was there for us, at least for me, every single time.

What was your writing schedule while you were there? 

We had a workshop every day… and on certain days we had seminars and on certain days we had the afternoon free. It wasn’t a lot of hours-long, dedicated writing sessions. It was a lot of small bursts of: “oh I need to get this down, this was an extraordinarily pivotal moment, let me put that down so I can remember the context.” 

That’s incredible, to feel like something is extraordinary or has been fundamentally changed. Can you talk more about that?

Oh yeah, definitely. Fundamentally changed is pretty accurate. I mean, I’d even go so far as to say my praxis [is changed]. I’ve been inspired this year, but I feel very rejuvenated having come back from Paris. … You meet a lot of non-Parisians there; it just kind of widened my lens for how I could begin to look at things because everyone is coming from different contexts that I might not have considered before. I think that makes me a better writer because now I can consider different POVs. 

Given you only had about a week, did you feel the compressed timeline was a benefit or a challenge to your writing?

The short format was great because the only pressure you had was the pressure you put on yourself. You don’t have the pressure of going to work and dealing with the usual day to day family things. You’re here to write, you’re here to hopefully absorb a portion of the culture and the context and take that forward with you to set the world on fire. In a longer context it can be very easy to get meandering or complacent. With this, you’re here for a purpose, let’s get to the purpose, but let’s also have fun. You really get a chance to dive deep into the work and what it might mean to every person. Everyone was bought-in and locked-in in a really beautiful way. 

Was there a specific moment that will really stick with you?

When we had the student reading which was on our next to last day in Paris, it was great because at the beginning almost nobody said they were going to read, and by the time it got to the reading I think almost half of us read, so that was really beautiful. People who had never been in a workshop, and never read their work out loud got a chance to.

I feel like it was all very mutually inspirational for us, both from a “here’s how you can better your art” lens, but also, it’s good to feel that element of community. That’s the moment that will stand out to me. Just about all of the people of color in the program wound up reading, several of whom would not have said they were “writers” previously, and I feel like a lot of people who may have said that, came out of the program no longer feeling that way. I think the reading was a cherry on top: we’ve sealed this, you can be a writer, you can be any sort of artist that you want to be.

What advice would you give to someone joining this program in the future?

As much as you can go off on your own, as long as you feel safe.

What was the mentor/mentee relationship like?

I had Helen Schulman; I’d worked with her once before when I was in the grad program for Creative writing. Coming out of it I feel like we really did connect. She was, one, very encouraging of my own work, but also of me and everyone else to speak up in class. Even outside class I felt that she was looking out for both me and for people who weren’t even in her workshop.

What are your most memorable Paris moments? A great meal? An amazing view? 

We went to this place that has apparently been owned by the same French family for 50 years. We had a great waiter named Greg, 20 years old, very French, and was just like “I think you should try the rabbit pate” and I said “okay, I’ll take your advice” and he was right. I had some great escargot, and I had some great ribs, but that rabbit pate. Devastating.

I don’t think I got within a thousand feet of the Eiffel tower. But the first time I did see the Eiffel tower sort of in full…it was like three p.m. on Friday, so five days in, and it was by coincidence. I was going to a book fair right by the tower and so I just happened to look up. It was like “oh wow, look at that, that’s pretty magnificent.” 

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