François Bon's atelier d'écriture. Archiving the present together

Date de publication: 
17 novembre 2017

François Bon (Luçon 1953) is a man of many trades. He was formed as an engineer and worked for a while in the aerospace industry, both in France and abroad (USSR and India). In 1980, he studied a year of philosophy at Université Paris 8 during which he followed courses by Deleuze and Lyotard. Under the latter’s supervision, he considered pursuing a doctorate on the works of Adorno, but the publication and success of his first novel, Sortie d’usine (1982), diverted him from this path. The novel, published by Jérôme Lindon’s Éditions de Minuit, was inspired by a number of traumatic experiences dating from Bon’s time as an engineer at the factory. It inaugurated Bon’s literary career, in particular, his reception as a member of a new generation of writers with, among others, Pierre Michon, Pierre Bergougnioux, Jean Echenoz, Leslie Kaplan. These writers moved away from the strongly language based texts of the nouveaux romanciers in favour of writing practices that attempted to reconnect with the surrounding world. Like their predecessors, these writers were conscious of the complexity of the language-world relationship, but this did not hinder them in their attempts to represent this same world.

In the 1990’s, Bon embarks on two projects that strongly impact his further trajectory. First, as of 1992, invited by a range of host institutions, Bon facilitates ateliers d’écriture. Originally, these workshops are punctual events, brief encounters with different groups of participants. Over time, Bon engages in longer cycles, which allows him to develop and theorize his methods. Second, in 1997, Bon launches his first personal website (only the 800th French website). This venture into the digital will be followed by other initiatives, notably the creation of the online literary magazine remue.net (2000) and of Bon’s renewed personal website tierslivre.net (2005). In recent years, the latter site has become his dominant platform of output.

In this carnet de recherche, I want to point to the central place of the notions exhaustiveness (tentatives d’épuisement), and present or everyday (le présent/le quotidien) in François Bon’s atelier d’écriture practices. I argue that: Bon strives to be inclusive (or exhaustive) with regard to the audiences he addresses; that he resorts to a variety of media in order to achieve this goal; that he constructs a creative writing methodology that attempts to cover as many aspects of writing as possible; that, ultimately, all of this is strongly connected to an intention to chart (archive/exhaust) the present through writing.

1.

François Bon’s atelier d’écriture addresses a whole range of audiences. First of all, it caters to people in precarious social circumstances. In the nineties, Bon animated workshops for the inhabitants of the desolate town of Lodève, for teenagers in an abandoned neighborhood of Montpellier, at a youth detention center at Gradignan. From these experiences resulted a number of literary texts, such as C’était toute une vie (1995), Phobos, les mal famés (1995) and Prison (1998). In these texts, which are qualified as novels, we encounter a mixture of fiction and reality, of story and statement, of scattered voices that cannot be disentangled. Interestingly, the writing exercises that Bon proposes in his landmark atelier d’écriture handbook Tous les mots sont adultes reappear in these texts, particularly in Prison.

Further, he has facilitated workshops on all levels of education, that is, in primary schools, secondary schools, art schools, on baccalauréat and on university levels (including at the ENS Ulm). With regard to higher education, it is noteworthy that Bon prefers working in departments other than literature departments. He has regularly worked at Sciences Po Paris and treasures particular memories linked to a two-year experience at Université de Sciences Bordeaux 1.

Bon maintains a complicated relationship vis-à-vis French literature departments. On the one hand, these departments have been reticent to welcome him and his ateliers d’écriture. On the other hand, Bon is highly critical of the way the university teaches and studies literature. The division of literary history in genre (poetry, prose, theater) and current (classicism, romanticism, realism), the chronological approach, the construction of the author genius, the strong focus on authors of the past, all contribute, Bon argues, to the view of literature as an artefact of the past. The French university, he signals, pays no attention to literature as a process nor is it able to establish a connection between literature and present times.

This notwithstanding, in recent years, Bon has been active in various literature departments. He has travelled abroad to facilitate workshops for students of literature or création littéraire at Université Catholique de Louvain-la-Neuve, Université de Montréal and Université Laval. As of 2013, Bon has been appointed professor of creative writing at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts Paris-Cergy. This appointment has profoundly influenced his atelier d’écriture practices. Before, he developed relatively short cycles of workshops (up to ten sessions) for diverse audiences that did not necessarily have the ambition to write in the first place. The stake of these ateliers d’écriture consisted in familiarizing people who were at a remove from literature with the mechanisms and possibilities of reading and writing. If these individuals wanted to continue writing, they had to do so on their own. In the arts school the conditions are different. There, Bon caters to an audience that is eager to write and publish or that at least seeks to work with language in an artistic way. This context allows the development of extensive cycles of workshops (one or two years) and leaves space for individual guidance of students. As a result, Bon’s practices now tend towards more elaborate narrative forms and profound engagements with notions like character, dialogue and plot.

Finally, Bon hosts trainings for aspiring facilitators of ateliers d’écriture, often teachers but other professionals as well. In addition, he has regularly provided workshops for actors.

Clearly, François Bon’s take on ateliers d’écriture is inclusive. What is more, rather than targeting audiences that have access to literature, he prefers working with groups for whom (creative) writing plays no role in their everyday lives. This can mean facilitating workshops at detention centers, but equally at science faculties. What is fundamentally at stake, for Bon, is the degree in which contemporary literature manages to render or exhaust the manifold aspects and perceptions of the world today. He argues that the current literary production in French is much too homogeneous, not only in its forms but also in the things and views it represents. To be meaningful, literature must nourish itself with as much perspectives as possible. In particular, it should include those voices that bear witness to the hardships of present times or that are informed by new forms of knowledge. Only when it enters in dialogue with the present, is it possible for literature to be relevant. Inspired by a phrase of playwright Valère Novarina, Bon writes:

Pour évoluer, se soumettre à ses bonds et sauts, la littérature doit constamment écouter le monde. Les ateliers, pour nous, c’est un peu une écluse avec les forces vives du monde, là où des êtres rendent compte de leur propre intensité. On injecte dans l’inventaire de la langue et des mots des cailloux qui ne lui appartiennent pas d’avance, mais dont elle a besoin en permanence pour répondre à ce qu’on exige d’elle. C’est notre défi. (Apprendre l’invention, p. 20).

Noticeably, in spite of this call for inclusiveness, Bon does not work much (at least as far as he recounts) with certain groups that are explicitly targeted by many other atelier d’écriture facilitators and creative writing handbooks. In particular, he caters less to middle aged or older individuals. This is striking since sociological studies (noticably Claude Poliak’s Aux Frontières du champ littéraire) show that these individuals constitute an important portion of the group that pursues the dream of authorship today.

2.

To engage a broad audience, Bon develops his ateliers d’écriture through different channels or media. He facilitates live workshops, has written two books with writing exercises (Tous les mots sont adultes (2000) and the pseudonymous Les Outils du roman (2015)), and organizes online workshops on his personal website tierslivre.net. The latter, which started in 2013, are devoted to a specific theme (web-writing, space, fantasy, characters) and run for a number of weeks. In this period, Bon gives about eight writing assignments in separate blogposts. The participants can complete the exercises and send their texts back to Bon who will post them on his website. The first online workshops were mostly conveyed through text. Each blogpost contained an image and a written (and usually lengthy) assignment. The participants’ texts were assembled underneath the proposed exercise in the same blog entry. The space for commentaries was limited. From a media point of view, the most recent ateliers en ligne have grown more complex. Bon still presents us with an image and a written assignment, but he adds a video to the entries. The video and the text, he stresses, should not be considered as doubles, but as complementary tools. For instance, in the video he elaborates details of the exercise which the written exposition had only fleetingly addressed. Additionally, for each thematic cycle, Bon creates a closed Facebook page were participants can discuss issues they encounter while writing or submitted texts. The latter are now collected in a separate entry on tierslivre.net, hence obtaining a more autonomous status with respect to the writing exercise that has generated them.

Bon’s use of multiple media is not only important with respect to the individual writer searching for inspiration, but also to the atelier d’écriture facilitator looking for techniques. In contrast to other creative writing teachers, Bon does not refrain from making public his creative writing practices. These can readily be used by other facilitators to animate their own workshops. In this way, Bon’s sharing (through books and tierslivre.net) amplifies his efforts to include as many voices as possible in contemporary literature.

3.

Zooming in on Bon’s writing exercises, we find that they present des tentatives d’épuisement as well, particularly in two ways. First, Bon seeks to point out, theorize and transform into exercises as many elements as possible of the writer’s craft. This is an attempt to exhaust the craft of writing. Second, many assignments propose to exhaust, archive, investigate, describe the everyday world.

Whereas Bon maintains that the act of writing is always an unpredictable leap into the unknown, he equally argues that the writer’s craft can and should be analyzed and deconstructed into its constitutive elements. As a facilitator of writing workshops, he attempts to lay bare, one after the other, the various domains of writing. These include the treatment of space, time, objects, images, language, mental states, dreams and memory. Since his appointment at the arts school in Cergy, he has added categories such as narrative structure, dialogue and character. For each of these domains, Bon offers multiple approaches. Each writing exercise proposes one way to tackle one of these domains. Importantly, each exercise takes its cue from a particular stimulus text. The latter serves as a mediation between the facilitator attempting to convey an assignment and the participants. It is a concrete realization of a possible way of writing and, at best, spurs the participants’ hunger to write. To give two examples: a domain on which Bon has worked a lot is space. However, there are many ways to treat space through writing. Bon shows how Georges Perec tackles the issue in Espèces d’éspaces, how Julien Gracq works with it in Les Eaux étroites, how Leslie Kaplan approaches it in Le Livre des ciels, and how Blaise Cendrar’s Prose du Transsibérien treats it. From each of these stimulus-texts he derives creative constraints that form a writing exercise. If he feels it is necessary, Bon will add extra constraints of his own. Another domain is that of the object. Here, Bon puts into play texts by Francis Ponge, Jean-Louis Trassard, Régine Detambel. Again the creative constraints put forth in the writing exercises are derived from these authors’ texts.

At different occasions, Bon calls on his fellow-facilitators to make public their atelier d’écriture methods. He signals that it is crucial to classify and theorize the domains of the writer’s craft, as well as to construct an archive with all the stimulus-texts that facilitators use. In France, he observes, there is a deficit (un retard en théorie) with regard to the theorization of creative writing techniques. In the past, writers such as Flaubert, James, Rilke, Kafka, Benjamin, Blanchot, Gracq have made important contributions. More recently, one can think of Sarraute, Deleuze, Perec and Bernard-Marie Koltès. At the university, academics often study literature with other theoretical agenda’s in the back of their mind, thereby neglecting the notion that texts and oeuvres are the result of a creative process that resonates with the surrounding world. Today, Bon finds, things have changed drastically. We are faced with new (urban) spaces, new ways in which images and words circulate and new digital media. It is up to us to create literary forms that testify to these major changes, to theorize what is at stake, and to establish an archive of literary texts that can facilitate this endeavor. Bon states:

Nous avons, dans notre quotidien d’auteur au travail, le difficile parcours qu’est la constitution d’un livre, à affronter des fragments de réel qui ne contiennent ou ne produisent pas d’eux-mêmes leur représentation, situation sans doute dont le seul grand précédent remonte à avant la période classique, remonte à Rabelais. Nous avons à les organiser et les assembler dans des relations qui n’ont pas de réceptacle esthétique constitué, du moins qui ne valent pas si elles ne déplacent pas l’inventaire des formes constituées, et ce mouvement même d’assemblage et de composition est la première affirmation littéraire, ou esthétique, de ce que nous avons à affronter. (Apprendre l’invention, pp. 232-233)

4.

In Bon’s most recent series of online workshops, titled Atelier été 2017. Et si je vous dis “personnages”, we find intriguing instances of his efforts to archive the present together. As the title suggests, all eight exercises propose to explore the domain of characters. Further, they are all derived from specific stimulus texts, ranging from Édouard Levé’s Journal, Jane Sautière’s Stations, Laurent Mauvigner's Ce que j’appelle oubli, Antonin Artaud’s Dix-huite secondes to Pierre Michon’s Vie de Joseph Roulin. Each exercise is presented through video and text in a separate blogpost on tierslivre.net and, once the participants have submitted their texts, Bon creates another entry to collect all the submissions. Moreover, Bon puts into place a Facebook page to facilitate discussions, which currently counts 164 members.

I want to draw attention to one exercise in particular. The first proposition in the series is titled Onze fois trois trente-trois and is derived from a fragment in Journal, Edouard Levé’s highly idiosyncratic take on the newspaper format, including a reproduction of the division in sections like international news, economy, society, fait divers and culture. In the section on culture, Levé summarizes a series of existing films without revealing their titles. For instance: “Un homme et une femme se retrouvent une fois par semaine pour faire l’amour. Ils ne se parlent pas et excluent toute tendresse. Mais peu à peu l’homme cherche à en savoir plus sur sa partenaire,” or, “Un policier à la retraite s’acharne à enquêter sur une affaire classée : le viol et le meurtre d’une fillette. Il est prêt à sacrifier sa vie, son argent, voir sa raison, pour démasquer le coupable.” These summaries furnish the starting point for the online writing workshop. Bon proposes that each participant comes up with eleven characters (in a later blog entry he explains that this number references Michon’s Les Onze). These should be written, one after the other, in three lines at most. The descriptions should allude to the character’s past and, Bon emphasizes, future. The latter, however, should not be present yet: “Ce que vous écrivez du non-advenu.” Further, Bon suggests to pay particular attention to relation between the characters’ interior states and their visual perception: “La relation du dedans, le corps, le mental, l’histoire tue, au dehors: le contexte, ce que le personnage voit.” For finding inspiration, he points to a number of possibilities: mentally tracking the people one has observed in the last two weeks; evoking the inhabitants of a more distant past; exploring a theme such as “ceux qui attendent, ceux qui rêvent, ceux qu’on n’a pas réussi à connaître comme il le fallait”; describing the passengers on the morning bus. Finally, Bon stresses the importance of constructing eleven characters. He explains that this elevated number forces the participants to go beyond the realm of easy and spontaneous invention towards more unknown creative territories. In other words, Bon proposes to exhaust the imagination so as to better create.

In the blog-entry with the participants’ submissions, we currently count 1036 three line characters created by 95 individual authors. Ten days after he launched the exercise, Bon already wrote:

Une sorte de joie physique à avoir vu se développer l’atelier précédent. Le défi, pour moi, c’est en quoi l’immédiate publication web change la narration et l’écriture, en quoi l’interaction devient aussi genèse narrative. En à peine 10 jours, nous voilà avec 30 contributeurs, la page 1500 fois visitée, et ce matin 595 personnages ébauchés en 3 phrases. Il se crée un monde.

It is true that this atelier d’écriture, thanks to its use of media, has quickly generated a fascinating world of its own. As readers, we cross paths with the characters at a high pace. There is no overarching storyline, no beginning nor end. Reading this is like walking in a big city. Every character we come across has a temporal existence, a spatial context, a set of perceptions. Some are more enigmatic than others. Some strike us more than others. Due to the brevity of the three line encounter, we only capture a slice of their being. We are left to imagine the rest of their tale ourselves. As a whole, the blogpost presents an impressive collective effort to exhaust not only the domain of character, but also, mediated by these fictional beings, contemporary spaces, objects, occupations, desires, dreams and fears. In conclusion, I present some inhabitants of this universe:

1. Le policier porte son gilet pare-balles puisque ce sont eux les cibles uniformisées. Il me sourit, son fusil automatique l’encombre quand il me fouille. Le soir, chez lui, il rejoint la liberté en pyjama bordeaux et le whisky écossais.

4. Dans le lit, c’est la furie. Au ciel de lit, les anges sourient. Les amants se succèdent chez elle mais elle n’est jamais rassasiée. Fumer après l’amour n’est pas prudent : les pompiers ont retrouvé son corps carbonisé après l’incendie de son appartement, rue des Saints-Pères.

8. Ce type joue de la guitare à un carrefour du métro. Tout ça sonne bien et il possède uniquement des blues et des chansons de Bob Dylan à son répertoire. Quand il a fini de stationner pendant une heure, il rejoint alors incognito son bureau de « trader » à la Société générale.

17. Le fils danse dans un musée. Tous les jours, pendant un mois, une performance où on peut s’asseoir ou bien ne faire que passer. Sa mère, un peu à l’écart, est très fière.

20. La jeune fille en ERASMUS vient dans des espaces de co-working, sa tablette sous le bras. En essayant de pas trop penser à sa mère, la table minuscule dans la cuisine, en Ukraine, où elles doivent se serrer. (Hier, elle a déchiré son billet retour.)

25. Margaux est créative, la trentaine auto-entrepreneuse déjà bien avancée, un mari et trois filles, une maison dont ils sont propriétaires. Mange bio, communique sans violence, lutte contre le travail des enfants et vend très cher ses lingettes démaquillantes réutilisables et ses trousses simplissimes, regarde avec arrogance la génération de ses parents qui n’a rien compris.

29. Sébastien vit du RSA dans l’ancienne ferme de son grand-oncle. Après une vie de salarié, un divorce, des enfants, des histoires de famille, il découvre avec bonheur une vie sobre au milieu de la nature et s’y sent parfaitement heureux. Il chasse, fait son jardin, élève des poules et parle avec son chien et ses chats.