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Expats in Switzerland ‘I am American. I write from my American soul’

Susan Tiberghien

Susan Tiberghien says life in Switzerland was difficult at first

(Jeannie Wurz)

Susan Tiberghien came late to writing, but she’s made up for lost time. The founder of the Geneva Writers’ Group (GWG) is the author of several books and despite living most of her life in Europe, says she is still very much an American writer. 

I came to Europe to do graduate work in Contemporary Literature. I was 21, just out of university, with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and Literature and a minor in French. I had studied French for three years in high school and four years at college, but when I arrived at Grenoble University in the French Alps, I realized that I couldn’t make myself understood, nor could I understand. 

For the first two months I learned more French in intensive classes. And as it happens, suddenly I was able to take notes at lectures in French instead of English! It just switched.  

Susan Tiberghien will be retiring in 2018, as the Geneva Writers’ Groupexternal link celebrates its 25th anniversary. Her story is the sixth in our series on US expats in Switzerland. 

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Family life in two languages 

I stayed in Europe for a Frenchman. Pierre-Yves was finishing engineering school at Grenoble, and we were married in ‘58. It was during the Algerian war. He did 2 ½ years of military service, and we lived in southern France at an airbase. Then his first job took us to the European Union in Brussels – Euratom, it was called at the time. The European Atomic Energy Community. 

After four years in Brussels we went to Italy, then to the US, where Pierre got an MBA from MIT. A computer company was opening its headquarters in Geneva, so he came here as finance manager, and I followed with our five children. 

In the beginning, life in Switzerland was difficult. We had spent four years in Italy, where children are princesses and princes. We arrived in Geneva, where children were expected to be quiet and obey. We were in an apartment on the fifth floor, and to get into a small elevator with groceries and five children – I couldn’t do it! So after two years we found a house, and because we now had more room, we adopted a two-year-old boy from Vietnam. 

Our son had only heard Vietnamese until then, so we stopped mixing English and French at home and spoke only French. Pierre and I had met in French. And it turned out that Geneva was the right place for a bicultural marriage. When I was living in France, I criticized everything and blamed my husband, and when we were in America he blamed me. Switzerland was neutral. 

Eventually I realized that there was so much in Switzerland that I appreciated. Not only the beauty of the country, but its integrity. And its place in the history of the world. 

Reaching out to the writing community 

After bringing up the children I had time to return to my first love, writing. In 1984 I went to my first writers’ workshop. It was my birthday present to myself when I turned 50. I came back so excited about writing that I joined a writers’ group at the American Women’s Club of Genevaexternal link. When I went back to writing, the stories just poured out. I had to start reading a lot of English to get my language back, and gradually I rediscovered my mother tongue. 

Susan Tiberghien at her dining table

Susan Tiberghien hosted 25 years of Geneva Writers’ Group committee meetings in her home

(Jeannie Wurz)

Before long I was leading the writing workshop at the women’s club. The group’s first collection of writing, Offshoots, came out in ’89. This led to an invitation to the International Women’s Writing Guildexternal link in New York. It was such an experience for me, bridging the ocean between America and Europe, meeting all those women. I’ve gone back every year for 27 years. 

In Geneva our group grew too large, so in 1993, 17 friends and I started the Geneva Writers’ Groupexternal link. We invited men to join as well. Today we have around 230 paid members and a 10-member steering committee. We’ll be celebrating our 25th anniversary in June 2018! People are surprised that there is such a large group of English-speaking writers in Geneva. 

Half of those 17 founding members are still with us. Because it’s Geneva, maybe one fifth of our members leave every year, and one fifth come in – new writers, new ideas. But underneath this movement there’s this core group who have supported one another for years. And I think that’s what makes the GWG special. 

Our most well-attended event is the Geneva Writers’ Conferenceexternal link, held once every two years. The idea came from Bern. The first Swiss writing conference was held in around 1994. It was organized by Deborah Ott. The second was in Zurich, organized by Susan Tuttle two years later. And then it was our turn, in Geneva in 1998. And Bern and Zurich said: “Please keep on!” So we did. 

People come to the writers’ conference from all over. We have writers who are published, writers who want to be published, and writers who are just writing for the joy of writing. There were 220 attendees in 2016. We had 10 instructors - many from abroad - and six panelists. At our 2018 conference, March 2nd to 4th, we’ll celebrate 20 years! 

The path from writer to published author 

My own writing careerexternal link developed along with the writers group. Initially I was writing fiction. I dreamed my first book of nonfiction. I had started Jungian analysis in order to work with my dreams, and at a writers’ conference at 3:00 in the morning I woke up from dreaming that I was writing a book about Jungian analysis. I even wrote down titles of chapters that would be in it. I still have that paper. 

Dianne Dicks, founder of Bergli Books, said: “Do you know that there is a publisher in Zurich who publishes in English and in German?” And I sent the manuscript to him. ‘Looking for Gold: A Year in Jungian Analysis’ was my first book. It was published in 1995, and I shifted to nonfiction. 

Writing – whether fiction or nonfiction – is a narrative. The story element is essential. And personal essays use the craft of fiction. You have adventure. You have imagination. You have character. You have conflict. And you have an epiphany. I’ve been very happy staying with nonfiction because it uses not only the techniques of fiction but also the techniques of poetry. We polish. We look for images. We listen to our words. 

‘Looking for Gold’ was about working with dreams to awaken our creativity. After its publication, three years of intensive lectures at the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht led to my second book: ‘Circling to the Center: A Woman’s Encounter with Silent Prayer’. 

I was now teaching workshops both at Jungian societies and at writers’ centers in the States. After several more books I was thinking: what I’d like to do is share what I’ve been teaching. Bring the Jungian psychology, spirituality and writing together. And that’s my new book that’s coming out March 1st: ‘Writing Toward Wholeness: Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung’. 

America needs criticism 

I feel – especially at my age, 83 – so grateful to have discovered writing. When my mother was living in a retirement home in Williamsburg, Virginia, I taught workshops on writing for the residents. The people would come into the workshop, slumped in their chairs. And after an hour and a half of remembering a story, sharing it with the person next to them, and then writing it, they would really start sitting up straight. It gave them a sense of importance, a story they could share. 

In the last two or three years, I’ve done quite a few workshops on “Words Matter”. I’ve gone back and reread ‘1984’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It’s horrifying. We’re living 1984 today: false facts. It was all predicted. So as writers it’s our duty to take our words into the world around us. 

We can criticize America. It needs criticism; we have gone astray. I considered giving up my American nationality. But I don’t want to give it up. I am American. I write from my American soul, and that’s who I am. 

And in spite of the changing times, there is still an openness, a willingness to try something new, that is American. And people are ready to help one another. That support, I think, is a good example of what we offer at the Geneva Writers’ Group.

Books by Susan Tiberghien 

Looking for Gold: A Year in Jungian Analysis, 1995

Circling to the Center: A Woman’s Encounter with Silent Prayer, 2000

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer's Art and Craft, 2007

Side by Side: Writing Your Love Story, 2015

Footsteps: In Love with a Frenchman, 2015

Writing Toward Wholeness: Lessons Inspired by C.G. Jung, coming in 2018

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