Standing Up Coetzee

In a fit of absolute laziness, I revive here a post from my Swiss travel blog of 2012 about standing up Coetzee, who really wasn’t expecting me to be there, mostly because I forgot to RSVP the good people at the Zurich writer’s group that had arranged the meet-up. I actually have regrets about this now (see pathetic excuse below), because if there’s a writer who knows a thing or two about setting an atmosphere and leaving a mark on his readers, this is him. I still can’t get some of his imagery out of my head. And so I hate him for that, but I love him for being able to do such a thing.

This post came up fortuitously just as we’re getting ready to head back to both places named in this post – Amsterdam and Switzerland. In keeping with tradition, I am once again just missing a Zurich writer’s workshop by a hair. I always want to go to this workshop, and yet, I always miss it. Why is that? Here is my not-chasing-Coetzee story. Maybe he’s in Europe again, maybe …


I stood up author J.M. Coetzee and now he is ticked. Photo from Reuters. Reuters editors, don’t worry, I am not making money off this photo, but if you want to bill me or send me threatening lawyer note, please write through this blog-site’s contact form.


There are some things I thought I would do while in Europe (go to cool writing workshops) and some things I knew I would not (high-altitude skiing). It turns out my Do list is sliding over on to my Don’t list.

This epiphany has come to me twice, most recently this morning when another Zürich Writers group email popped up in my in-box informing me of a writing workshop in Amsterdam to which it is almost certain I will not go, and a few months earlier when I decided against a 90-minute-train-ride to meet J.M. Coetzee.

That last line would make some of my former editorial colleagues gasp and burn my form in effigy. Passing up a chance to have coffee with Coetzee is about as heretical an act as a professional writer can go, but I have my reasons. Coetzee was drifting through Switzerland at the same time I was in the final throes of writing my novel so the balance scales were Coetzee versus Completion.

In making my choice, I let former university creative writing instructor and author Peter Such be my guide. In class he surveyed we eager, insecure budding authors and said, “What are you doing here?” What followed was a brief lecture on how writers write and doing anything else is a supreme waste of time, including taking his class. You have to love Peter, a fascinating, generous kind of mentor who was raised in one of England’s post-WWII massive orphanages.

I was in the writing homestretch, and if you will forgive my race analogy, there is no moment of more intense focused energy in a race than in the final 100 metres. I worked seven days a week, five-to-10-hours a day at that point and breaking off to see Coetzee would have thrown me clear off the tracks. No good.

So, I did not meet Coetzee, but I did finish my novel. Peter would be proud.

In the meantime, there’s this Amsterdam workshop email for me to consider.

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