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May 2015 • Online Edition

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Worden Revels In All Things French, At Home And Abroad | Print |  E-mail

by Susan Dugan

For writer and public relations business owner Darla Worden, growing up in rural Wyoming surprisingly triggered a lifelong passion for Ernest Hemingway and all things Parisian.

DARLA WORDEN'S LOVE FOR THE WRITINGS OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY brought her from the windy plains of Wyoming to the magical haunts of Hemingway’s Paris. Her fascination with the legendary author has a visit to Africa begging for top spot on her itinerary of future travels.

“Sheridan, Wyoming, was a pretty wild place,” she says. “In high school we would drive out to this little town called Big Horn and get served at the Last Chance Saloon, which at that time had six bar stools. There was a picture of Ernest Hemingway on the wall which I thought was so cool. I found a quote where he said his favorite countries were Africa and Wyoming. It turned out he had spent a lot of time in Wyoming at a dude ranch outside Big Horn, and even written a short story called Wine of Wyoming. It piqued my interest and I started reading him.”

An avid writer since elementary school later encouraged by a high school English teacher, Worden continued immersing herself in Hemingway’s work while attending the University of Colorado at Denver and, later, Colorado Springs. “In college I started a little two-person fan club with my friend, Joe, who also loved Hemingway. We would exchange books and go to the pub and talk about writing. I remember taking a feminist literature class where the professor was this great woman from Notre Dame and she was berating Hemingway for being such a sexist pig. It was not popular, but I had to stand up for the writing, if not for the man. He was a sexist, but I could really relate to his writing.”

Right after college, Worden visited Paris for the first time to retrace the Hemingway haunts described in his memoir, A Movable Feast. Captivated, she continued perusing his writing back in Denver, where she worked at the Denver Post. “At the Post, my friend Paul was also a Hemingway fanatic and we would have these great discussions, goof off when our boss wasn’t there, and enter the bad Hemingway writing contests. The connection with Hemingway has continued for me ever since.”

In 1988, Worden became publisher of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles for the next several years, and then worked briefly in magazine mergers and acquisitions and public relations before launching her own firm, Worden PR, in 1996. She later divorced and moved with her daughter back to Big Horn, Wyoming, dividing her business and time between Jackson and Denver.

In February 2008, she received a life-changing call from a client. “The economy was falling apart and they represented a third of our business. They had told us not to worry, but now they said they were closing all their businesses. I got off the phone feeling so depressed and scared. I knew no one was going to be hiring PR firms. I went on my Delta frequent flyer account and had enough miles to purchase a ticket to Paris. I went there a few months later, and revisited all the same Hemingway spots.”

The trip proved cathartic. “I really love that period of time. There were a lot of things I related to that made me hopeful. He got there in 1921, at the start of modernism, and met all these people who helped launch his writing career. The stars were all aligned for him, and his story made me feel it could still happen for me too.”

She spent a month there taking French classes and living like a Parisian. “In total denial, really,” she says. “Everything in the U.S. was falling apart. I had to lay some people off and I didn’t know what would happen when I came back, but somehow the minute I came to Paris – I felt totally comfortable and comforted.” Showing a visiting friend’s daughter around the Left Bank planted the seed for a new business. “She suggested I develop a writers retreat in Paris, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Researching the idea, Worden found another boot camp-style program that brought writers to Paris for a week to finish a manuscript. But she envisioned an inspirational getaway, using the city itself as a writing classroom. “I wanted to offer prompts and sit right where Hemingway was sitting in the Luxembourg Gardens. I wanted to take people to all these places he went and see how it affected their writing.” She built a website for the newly minted Left Bank Writers Retreat, sent out a news release, and that first year – despite the rocky economy – filled two weeklong summer sessions. “Since then I learned it was just too exhausting to play tour guide for two sessions so now I’m down to offering one every summer, attended primarily by Americans, although we’ve had writers from Munich, Dublin, and Paris.”

The retreat allows Worden to spend additional time in her favorite city each summer. “I love being in a city where you can walk everywhere. I love practicing my French and going to flea markets and looking at old French furniture, getting obsessed with the table linens, the old silverware, and walking down the street and finding this little secret park with a bench and a statue. It’s almost like a time warp, maybe because it’s so old there compared with here in the west. I went on a tour of the original wall around Paris. One of the few remaining sections is right near Hemingway’s apartment. It was mind-boggling.”

Learning to slow down has been an added bonus. “It doesn’t take long to figure out that lunch is going to take two hours and that’s probably fast. You just have to surrender to that and once you do, it’s kind of fun, allowing things to be just the way they are. If you’re not in that pushy American mode, you’ll find the French are very nice, have great conversations and learn to appreciate their enjoyment of life.”

The experience has prompted a deeper exploration of and appreciation for Denver’s French-oriented businesses. “I really am a fiend for all things French and I get so excited to discover places like La Belle Rosette, the tiny café across from Lincoln Elementary that has delicious food and my favorite lavender lemonade, and Vert, a great spot for lunch that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a Paris bistro. There’s Katherine’s Bakery, Le Central, great French wines available in Denver, and places like Bistro Vendôme where the moules frites are as delicious as anything I’ve eaten in Paris.”

Worden, who earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in 2006, is also writing a biographical book on Hemingway, in the creative nonfiction genre. “I got my MFA in creative nonfiction but I think it is only since I’ve been working on this book that I really understand what that term means, and it’s so much fun! Finding quotes where people actually say something is the hardest part, because you can’t make it up. You have to go through all this biographical material to find quotes that advance your story. And I can relate my experience of Paris to it. If I have him walking down the street, I can describe what he smells, because I’ve been there and smelled it.”

She hopes the Hemingway book will provide a fresh take on the writer’s work and life. “I have probably fifty books on Hemingway, and I don’t have a single one written by a woman. And there are a lot of discrepancies. I started thinking about how he became this great writer, and the story started writing itself. Because from the minute he arrived in Paris he was forming himself into a character in the story of his life, from Ernie Hemingway, the journalist, to Ernest Hemingway, the author. Yes, it’s an obsession and just talking about it makes me want to start digging in these books and writing. It’s like mining information about him: it’s all there but it’s never been told this way.”

Meanwhile, Worden PR – specializing in travel, art, and architecture – is bouncing back, and Worden is teaching Left Bank Writers-oriented classes at the University of Denver and other venues around town, in addition to the now-annual retreats. What’s next? “Well, Hemingway said Africa and Wyoming were his two favorite countries so I guess Africa would be a great next destination – wouldn’t it be fun to write a book set in Wyoming, Africa, and Paris? And Wyoming is still one of my favorite countries,” she adds, laughing. “And it is definitely a country.”

(Editor’s note: For details on the Left Bank Writers Retreat, visit leftbankwriters.com.)
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