I want to write the novel that ties up all the ends that have ever been loose. The story that makes my own trajectory clear, that gives meaning to the years I’ve sat around anxious, lethargic, waiting for answers—that affirms, declares me a human being, materialises the most scattered parts of my idea-centric mind into something you can hold and love and know. But I don’t know what free indirect discourse is, so I’m taking a short story writing class. Over the course of a semester, the class asks its students to write a single sto- ry and revise it twice. It is taught by a Pulitzer-Prize winner who mumbles his guidance. Under ruffling leaves and the heat of the sun, the wind drowns out his words: “There will always be a gap between the greatness we can imag- ine and the approximation we can write down. This is only the beginning.”

This column is about the process of writing my story: the false starts, the revisions, the manufactured ends. This essay is about how language got in the way.

The French language belongs to intellect. It is a tool for thought. It is Beauvoir’s, Sartre’s, Camus’s, Voltaire’s: used to rearrange the world, to work out who we are, why we’re here; when the struggle ends, where it begins, and how, how did I end up tainting this? The French language is not for the menial. It does not belong to me. I’ve been taking Elementary French for the last three months, which is to say that I’ve been feeling bad about myself in a second language. In the semester I was supposed to dedicate myself to ideas, to writing, to my story, my damn short story, I’m learning how to introduce myself in a language I’m bitter to have met. I’m tired. I’m angry. I want to tear the pages out of my textbook and watch the simple sentences rain down on me, but I’m implicated—the class is on my transcript; my pride is on the line—I have to speak French every goddamn day and the only language I have to express my frustration is: c’est terrible. 

I came into the class like a bull raised on Parisian grass: pretentious, loud, thrashing around to stake my claim. I’d taken a year of French as a child, and then two more in early high school. I knew how to introduce myself, and pronounced each syllable of en-chan-té like I was parodying the language. Two weeks in, my professor gave me a pamphlet for the French Certificate. He chuckled as I read it. He is the kind of man who talks as he laughs and laughs as he talks to the point where the laughter is all he wants to say, and I felt those sounds were his way of saying that he believed in me. 

I put in the work. I spent hours every afternoon tackling quizlets and building a foundation. I flew through greetings, colors, professions, and meals, but when we circled back to introducing ourselves, and my name is became I am from and I am from became I am going, I became tired and felt like I was going to die. I’ve never been one for schedule. I struggle with maintaining a practice. I like the new, the ever-expanding, so when I realized that it would be years before I landed upon a thought in French that I was yet to have in English, I decided to put the language away.

My progress stagnated. My passion waned. After a month of lessons, when people asked why I was taking French, all I could say was, “Je ne sais pas.” 

I was bitter. I told myself that intelligence had nothing to do with rote learning, but each time someone in class said a word I didn’t know, I felt jealous, inferior, further from French than I’d ever been. I used writing as an excuse for not focusing on French. I used French as an excuse for doing less writing. I sat in my room cursing all French culture: Antoinette’s frivolity and the radicalism that contended against it. I didn’t have my cake. I couldn’t eat it too.

Three days before our midterm, a friend sent me a four-hundred-word Quizlet. Lying in bed each night, I opened it and stared without flipping a single flashcard. 

Our exams happen on the ground floor of an economics department building: a glass dome where no one feels like they’re wasting their life. On four hours of sleep—not because I was up studying, but because I was kept awake by the shame of not—I sat down at a computer and completed the soundcheck. As always, the exam’s first section involved an oral response. A cheery French voice asks you a multiple-part question. You’re supposed to be given two turns to listen, thirty seconds to think, and one shot to tape your answer. But when the high pitched voice swung up even higher, punctuating its question with a little twirl, the computer refused to play the recording again. I whipped around, signaling over my professor, and tried to stake my claim. 

“Monsieur,” I said, “la question– la– the question only played once.” 

Again, his laugh. “Yes,” he said. 

“It’s supposed to play twice.” 

“No,” he said. 

“But it says here,” I said pointing at the screen, “it says here it’s supposed to play twice.” 

Already receding, speaking through a snigger, my professor said, “Alright. The question is about the events of your life. It wants to know what you have done with your past.” 

I turned back around to a flashing red microphone icon on my screen and fifteen seconds left to record. Trying to push the words through my brain, I cursed quite involuntarily into my headphones’ mouthpiece. J’ai (I have)… J’ai (I have) I said…the icon went gray. 

The first draft of my short story ended up being about a Jehovah’s Witness who, while rattling along London’s Northern line, between chance encounters and unending consumption, reflects on how he came to religion and why he came to be. In his feedback, my fiction professor wrote that it felt less like a story and more of a rant and a riff, “which is what it wants to be.” Even when I’m not writing about a pseudo-religious man on a train, I want my stories to remain vehicles for thought; spaces that I can sit in until ideas walk through the door.

My frustration with French is that it’s stopped me from thinking. I spent all that time trying to build a vocabulary, and, still, it amounted to nothing. I have no history in the French language. When asked what I’d done with my past, I truly believed that there was no answer: that I was thrown into the world without the ability to say that I have lived a life of value. 

In English, I have packed my life into boxes and moved across the world, twice. In French, I have. In English, I have known love, great and small, and heartbreak, always great. In French, I have. 

My professor gave me back my midterm with a frown on his face: “We have a problem, don’t we,” he said as I flipped through my failure. He had no idea. 

A problem suggests a solution, and I believed one might be found in analysis. I wanted to measure the gulf between my proficiency in both languages, to find out how far the tightrope I had to walk extended. I remembered that over the summer I’d taken an (English) vocabulary test that told me I knew 23000 words and had the vocabulary of a successful 30-year-old American businessperson. When I told my father, who’s terrified of having a writer for a son, he smiled and went, “here’s hoping.” 

Thinking that it’d be impossible to replicate the programming of the test, I decided to manually catalog my vocabulary. Beginning with single-letter words and working my way up, I wrote down what I knew in the two languages I claimed to speak. 

a and i in English 

a and à and y in French. 

I got as far as bus (le bus) and decided to call it a day. 

When I do have time to sit down and write my story, what I’ve realized is that language is an uncontainable thing. I’m never going to write down the 23000 words I supposedly know, and yet they’re the whispers that lead me through the dark. On a primary level that means that the rhythm of a passage drives me to plot points I’d be unable to imagine myself, that the first draft of my story ended with an exorcism because I was writing about a proselytizer caught amongst a dance troupe and the final move in the dance routine felt like it had to be the taming of the devil. But beneath that it means that anything I’m able to conceive of—the pillars of my selfhood and world—rests upon the foundation of the words, and only the words, that I have been given. All I know is all that I can speak to, and, excuse my French but, fuck, that’s terrifying. 

In a quiz between my French midterm and final I had to write about my favorite day of the week. I wanted to say that I liked Sundays because they were when I could rest, but I could only remember rest as a noun. So I pulled the scraps of my vocabulary together, and out came: I like Sundays because it is the day I can see the world for what it is. A sentence I’d never write in English, one that I was forced into by a lack of French vocabulary, and yet a string of words that sends a tiny chill down my spine, one that I don’t have the words to explain. 

For two days after the quiz I told everyone I saw that learning a foreign language was one of the most worthwhile things a person, particularly a writer, could do. I said that the constraints would guide you to sentences that you could only dream of, and the history would introduce you to customs that opened up your world. I mentioned that in the skits we prepared for class, two scene partners held each other’s hands as they marveled at how beautiful the Swiss Alps were in May, how beautiful in May, how beautiful in May, over and over again. I said that wasn’t something you saw in English.

On Thursday my professor assigned an hour’s worth of homework. 

On Friday I emailed my dean asking to drop French.

He told me that I’d have to take another language. 


“It’d be just as hard.” 


“That, too, Eli.” 

I clasped my hands together, begging for mercy. I wanted him to know that I was a fast learner. 

That evening, I sat around anxiously waiting for a follow-up email from my dean. My phone buzzed, and I picked it up, only to realise that it was a message from my father. He’d sent me an essay by Jhumpa Lahiri. I texted back that I’d read it already. I can be cruel. The essay was about Lahiri’s struggle to find a language that was entirely her own. She was raised in Bengali and schooled in English; she taught herself Italian as a means of escape. I doubt I’ll ever be free from English. I have neither the talent nor the patience to bring a new language into my life. I run circles around the one I do know and it runs circles around me; it constricts my way of thinking in ways I’ll never know. I’m writing a short story about religion because I’m concerned with religious ideas but I’m concerned with religious ideas because the language I think in grew out of them. I was raised in a language that has a thousand different ways to say want, desire, wish, demand; a language that was used to pray before it was used to pillage. Good Lord. 

Lahiri wrote her essay in Italian then translated it back to English. No one escapes their words.