Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Perfectionist and La Belle Vie

My guest today is Rebecca Ramsey, author of French By Heart, a slice of life book about her experiences living in France. She shares some thoughts on being a perfectionist and it's impact on her life and her love of writing.

I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!

Sia, you were so kind to invite me for coffee, and here I am, showing up out of breath and behind schedule! To beg your forgiveness I’ve brought you a little bouquet of dandelions I snatched out of my yard and a box of Pims from my cupboard. It’s my favorite French cookie, sort of like a vanilla wafer topped with raspberry and dipped in chocolate. I hope you’re not allergic.

I write memoir, which means I’m an expert on embarrassing myself in public. Let me tell you, living in France was the perfect training. During my first days (years?) I stumbled through my life, speaking like a caveman. “What time bus come?” “Bill late. I sorry. No turn off water please.” I arrived in France as a perfectionist and left four years later, remarkably comfortable with my own slackness. This was just what my writing needed.

As a young girl I’d wanted desperately to write. I entered contests and won a few prizes, but could I make writing my life? It was too painful. I wrote marvelously in my mind, but something always happened on the way to the page. I’d psyche myself up with Simon and Garfunkel, (the records were old even then—I’m not that ancient) write a page or two, and throw myself on the floor in despair. My poor mother.

I decided to major in Biochemistry instead.

After graduation I spent my days in the lab, writing poetry in my mind. It was a sad little life. I’d jot out elegant descriptions of crystalline precipitates that no one would ever read, and I’d agonize over the mice I killed. Wasn’t there more to life? I finally quit to teach chemistry to high school students. We’d work on stoichiometry and titrate acids with bases, but I also made them write poetry and work on their observational skills. “But this isn’t English class!” the students would protest.
Thank goodness France saved us all.

In France I couldn’t be perfect, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how many hours I spent with Fabien, my handsome tutor. I had three kids to tend to, so I couldn’t hide in my house. The world would have to see me just as I was, an American idiot. And you know what? They didn’t care that I couldn’t speak perfectly! In fact, they seemed excited that I tried to speak at all. Old men would stop traffic for me and total strangers would offer me their help. They’d even invite me over for coffee and tell me how much I was improving!

Everywhere I turned in France, people were taking time to do what they loved. Why couldn’t I? My neighbor Alain spent his two hour lunch break playing his trumpet, Madame Charbonnier hid behind her hedges, reading stacks of trashy books, and Madame Fouriaux doted on a rose garden that filled my house with perfume. I started writing again, and this time I was kinder to myself. I put away my red pen and wrote page after page, never looking back. Okay, so that’s not true. I looked back a little. Old habits are hard to break. But now that I was more comfortable with my own mistakes, I let myself make them. I refused to quit.

I should admit to you that I had an unfair advantage, a little extra motivation in Madame Mallet, the strange old lady who spied on us from behind her lace curtain and called her nephew Le Spermatazoide, on account of the fact that he was conceived through artificial insemination. I’m telling you, anyone living across the street from Madame Mallet would have to write a book. My husband recently visited her on a business trip and told her about French by Heart. She looked at him coyly and said, “It’s about me, isn’t it?”

So friends, if you struggle with perfectionism, I wish you much humiliation! And your very own Madame Mallet!

After four years of la belle vie in Clermont-Ferrand, France, Rebecca Ramsey and her family are now settled back home in Greer, South Carolina. Between chauffeuring her children, observing her southern life, and keeping an eye out for French pastries, she writes every spare moment she can.
You can visit Rebbeca at her blog and website.
Rebecca's Blog: Wonders Never Cease, at
Rebecca's Website:


~Sia McKye~ said...

Rebecca, merci des biscuits et des pâtisseries français.


I'm sure glad you could make it.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

De rien!
Je suis heureux d'etre ici!

You must teach me how to put in the accents.
And please excuse my French if it's off. That side of my brain is dusty.

Adina Pelle said...

I lived in Paris 20 some years ago and it was the best of times !
It was such a pleasure to read this article because all the memories returned !
Ille de la cite and chocolate croissants never leave your thoughts:)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Of Course, anything chocolate captures my attention, Adina. lol! Let's just say me and chocolate have been very close this past week.

Thanks for stopping by.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Miam, miam, as the French say. Pain au chocolat is so, so good! Nice to meet you, Adina.

jrafferty said...

Rebecca, France is one of my favorite places, bien sur. How wonderful that your French neighbors taught you that valuable life lesson about doing what you love and not worrying about perfection. I will need to look for your book.

James Rafferty

McMama said...

Ha, Rebecca - your comment about being an expert at embarrassing yourself has given me food for thought. Maybe fiction isn't my field, after all? Maybe I should be writing a memoir?

I enjoyed your article very much. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.


Vivian A said...

Chocolate croissants with cafe au lait is my breakfast in Paris. My French resembles your caveman rendition, so I'll spare you. I read much better than I speak or write, in French. Of course, I do all of them in English. :)

Memoirs require advanced skills in public humiliation, hmmm...I can do that! Madame Mallet sounds utterly perfect, a most unexpected muse.

Rebecca, congratulations and I hope the South brings you as much viable material as France. Additionally, may your sales go well. Bon chance!

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Thank you, James! It was a lesson I needed desperately to learn. I was so lucky to learn it in France!

Cathy, it's nice to meet you too. Try your hand at memoir. You might really enjoy it. Another good one to read? Give Zippy a look-see. I loved it.

Vivian A, thank you! Madame Mallet was a perfect muse, though she drove me absolutely crazy at times.

Judi Fennell said...

I HAVE to read about Mme Mallet! She sounds like she's right up my alley! (ooh, I made a rhyme).

I lived just across the (Pyrennes) border from you, Rebecca. Never made it to France as I was having such a blast investigating all of Spain, but I hope to get the chance someday.


Rebecca Ramsey said...

Very cool, Judi! I'd love to hear about your time in Spain. We visited Barcelona once and it was gorgeous. I love all that Gaudi architecture.

Sheila Deeth said...

Oh, this was fun! I could learn to like memoir written like this.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Hi Sheila. Nice to meet you.

Jill Lynn said...

The closest I've come to your French experience, Rebecca, is eating a chocolate croissant in "France" at Disney World's Epcot Center. I know about humiliation, though :-)

Sia, be safe!

Kat Sheridan said...

Ah, what a timely article! Rebecca, I'm just about to depart for my first trip to Paris, and you've made me long for it even more! I hope to gain your flair for slacking off! Your book sounds marvelous, and I'm sure the southern life will give you even more fodder for writing! Sia, as always, you have the best guests!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jill, So far so good. We'll see what tonight brings.

Kat, I was thinking you'd enjoy this one with your Paris trip coming up.

I was thinking how Rebecca described her French tutor, lol! Fabien? I wonder how much teasing he got with his name being so close to Fabio?

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Sia, I must say that I did think of the bodice buster a few times as I sat next to him. He was a pint sized version, with the same long hair. Oh, and he always wore a shirt.

Hi Jill, the Epcot France has fine food too. Maybe it's not cool to say that, but I thought it was remarkably good.

Kat, I'm jealous! Bon voyage!

aries18 said...

Rebecca, a lovely posting! I've never been to France, can't speak French but now I really want to go there. To live somewhere where they encourage your efforts instead of criticize? Wonderful. I'm glad you've continued your writing and are enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Sia, thanks for bringing us such an inspirational guest. Hope the storms are passing you by this time.


~Sia McKye~ said...

It's my pleasure, Wanda. I have to admit, I love the whole premise of this book. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Rebecca makes a good point, though, sometimes we let our need to be perfect choke our creativity and our voice. Allowing that can cause frustration and despair. I love the positive message of her article though.

Helen Ginger said...

Loved the post, Rebecca. You don't have to speak French to know "Le Spermatazoide." That was so funny. That would be a woman you'd want to know and write about. I would say something in French, but my two years in college have long since faded. Last time we were in France, though, I was able to read train signs and a few things. Au Revoir (probably not spelled correctly).

Straight From Hel

Rebecca Ramsey said...

Aries and Helen, thank you for your kind comments. Best of luck with your own writing!

Sia, thanks so much for inviting me to host. I really enjoyed it!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Becky, it was my pleasure, I assure you.

Much success for the future. Looking forward to seeing what you have out next.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Thank you to all who stopped by. I enjoyed your comments and observations. :-)

Other Lisa said...

Now, how did I miss this post?! Congratulations on your book and conquering the demons of perfectionism, Rebecca!