If They Only Wrote So Much Less

I read an interesting book recently called The Main, written by Trevanian, an author unknown to me. I had never heard of him before. A friend of mine, himself also a writer and a retired English teacher, recommended it to me.

I was hesitant at first since I couldn’t find the book in any of the libraries in Montreal. Only one library had a copy and that was checked out. Luckily Amazon had it.

The book is about Montreal in the mid seventies and is written by an American writer. When I heard the name Trevanian my first reaction was that he is Armenian. Most Armenians have names that end with “ian”. As it turns out, Trevanian was just a pseudonym. I felt kind of sad and disappointed that no one mentioned him to me throughout all these years that I’ve been living here.

First published in 1976, The Main is a beautiful book in every sense of the word. Even though the subject matter is dire, it portrays Montreal’s swarming underworld where the dark streets echo with cries in a dozen languages. It’s a tale of death and danger, action and mystery. Throughout the book I was there emotionally. I felt whatever exaltation, panic, tenderness or despair the situation evoked in the book.

The protagonist is a police lieutenant, an unusual but remarkable hero. The supporting characters are also unforgettable. No character in the book was out of place. The author didn’t portray his characters’ entire lives and yet I could feel they were real. No incident was left unaccounted for. Every sentence served the story: the surprise ending, the attention to detail, an emotion, more than one thing happening at any given time… He knew how to write to give us readers what we deserve/crave.

After reading it, I felt sorry that I hadn’t read it before. It’s rare to come across such a book these days.

I am not a big fan of bestsellers. Maybe my taste in reading is different. I like to read a book that makes me think, that makes me jealous of the writer, that leaves me speechless in awe wishing I could write to the author and that we could be friends somehow.

Nevertheless once in a while I read them for two reasons: First as a reader to find out what all the fuss is about and second as a writer to see what in the book made the author stand out.

I don’t believe that writing a novel is simply a matter of plugging words into a set formula. Raw talent, a unique voice, originality, commitment, passion and luck are components in that quest, and those aren’t things anyone can teach. Unfortunately most bestselling authors of late don’t have any of these qualities. For example, they may be well structured and have a good story but the characters would be lacking, or vice versa. It’s hard to come across a book that has it all. And The Main, despite it being written in 1976, has it all.

I remember a book I read not very long ago. It was by the bestselling author Baldacci. I vaguely remember the story, hardly remember the characters. I only remember a scene in the book where the hero was in his boat and decides to fly with it and land it on the culprit’s house. It’s a scene I won’t forget not because it was great, but because while I was reading it I was thinking this is too much, too unbelievable. And as a reader I felt cheated.

Peternelle Van Arsdale writes:

“If the sentence can be deleted without losing the meaning of the paragraph, or the book as a whole, then delete it by all means. There are lots of writers who would have so much more if they only wrote so much less. A lot of novels I’ve seen may have one really great character and one intriguing plot line. The problem is there are also nine other characters and three other plot lines to wade through, so you lose all the nice trees for the unruly forest.”

ChK

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We Do What We Can We Give What We Have

“We work in the dark- we do what we can- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Henry James

Whenever I face a challenge I try to deal with it the only way I know how without getting depressed. That is, I just try to ignore it for a while, or rather, for as long as I can afford to do so. I try to direct my thoughts away from the issue. I do so by reading and writing. Although I must say writing doesn’t come easy during these times, mainly because I get too many ideas at the same time. 

My mind gets crowded and it becomes difficult to focus on one thing. And right now I am at a stage where I wish I had superpowers to put all those ideas on paper. When I reach this phase of having too much on my mind, I become creatively blocked. I try to do all, everything at once, and only succeed in doing nothing. Which shouldn’t be much of a problem, right? 

Until I log on to Facebook and I am bombarded with all these ads about being a published author, or becoming a successful writer. Then I get upset. Part of me, the idealist in me, wants to be all that and more. But on the other hand, realistically speaking I know that that is not possible. Because if you are a writer and get to write about what interests you or what’s closest to your heart, chances are nobody, no agent or publisher would want to publish your book.

Rejection is something I think I can handle. Indifference is much worse. The fact that your emails and messages don’t get answered, the silent treatment that you receive from the publishing world, is more heartbreaking. Because you keep hoping against hope that one day someone might say yes to your story. 

I took a leap of faith when I started on my journey to write. I was fascinated by the creative process and I was more than willing to sit in a chair for hours and try to create to the best of my ability, to give it all I had. Was it hard? Yes. But at the same time I believed that something good was happening to me as a person. Despite all the hurdles and hard work I felt elated somehow.

“The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication.” Cyril Connolly

I was ignorant of the publishing trade. I thought all I had to do was write a good book and the rest would follow. I was ignorant to say the least. I still am despite the many books and articles I read about the subject matter. Marketing is a skill that I think I cannot master because I must admit I don’t have it in me.

My first book “The Lost I”” was first published in Dubai in 2004. Publishing rules are different in Dubai. First of all, all manuscripts have to be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture prior to printing. 

After my manuscript was accepted and upon my publisher’s request my late husband had to write a letter to the Ministry saying that he had no objection for his wife to write a book. Only after that letter was sent did the publisher forward my manuscript to them for approval (and censorship if need be) before printing.

2000 copies of the book were printed and placed in bookstores in Dubai. The ISBN, also provided by the Ministry, was valid only for the United Arab Emirates market. In 2006, when we left Dubai for good and immigrated to Canada, I bought the remaining copies of my book (in a few boxes) and my rights from the publisher and shipped them with me.

Since by law I couldn’t sell those books I started giving them out to friends and acquaintances here and there, all the while looking for an agent or publisher with the prospect of having it published in this part of the world. Upon approaching one agent this is the answer I got:

“Thank you very much for sending your query and for offering me the chance to review your material. I’m sorry to state that I will not be asking to represent your manuscript.
Please understand that this is a subjective industry. Although I cannot recommend someone specific, I encourage you to continue seeking out representation elsewhere. Should the occasion arise to submit a new exciting project for consideration, please feel free to contact me again. Thank you, once again, for the opportunity to take this on. 
Kind Regards.”

I have received nothing but positive comments from my readers for The Lost I, young adults included. I am often asked when I will publish the sequel! I don’t know if there will be a second or third part. Not only am I not able to sell the first book, but I cannot even promote it on social media like other writers do. 😥

There is a refugee crisis right now in different parts of the world and especially the Middle East. The entire world is interested in their stories of displacement, destruction, and terror. 

And if according to the agent my story is not “exciting” and she cannot recommend anyone, chances are I will never get published. Unless I write about sex maybe? Because sex sells.

E.L. James earned 50 million dollars for her erotic trilogy, in addition to which she received another 5 million dollars for the movie rights. As for her book Fifty Shades of Grey, here’s an article written on March 2016:

“An Oxfam charity bookshop in Swansea, Wales would like to request that people stop donating used copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, please.
The shop has received “literally hundreds” of copies of the literary masterpiece- so many, in fact, that shop employees went ahead and built a fort out of them.” 

Literary masterpiece indeed as the article’s author ironically calls the book!

John Grisham’s publisher only produced 5000 copies of his first book A Time To Kill, of which Grisham sold 1000 copies from the trunk of his car.

J.K. Rowling says she received “loads” of rejections before Harry Potter finally got published.

It’s a sad reality to see such a decline in the quality of books published lately. Sadder still the fact that there are so many unrecognized novels out there that deserve our attention. Of all the books I have read lately it is the ones that I haven’t heard of that have made a great impression on me both as a reader and a writer. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer. In his article in the LA Times, titled In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness, he wrote: 

“Of course, my novel “The Sympathizer” is not obscure at the moment because of the Pulitzer Prize. But the novel might just as well not have gotten it, might as well have sunken into obscurity because it lacked a prize, even if nothing in the novel was any different for having gotten a prize. The novel’s good fortune only changes how people look at the novel, not the novel itself.
I think of all the other novels that might have […] or should have won prizes. Some of those unrecognized novels, as time will show, will be triumphant in literary history. The point is that prizes and all that they symbolize in terms of our taste, our judgment, our vanity and our prejudices are ephemeral. What we are ignorant of in the present may be what the future will value.” 

Happy reading and writing everyone! Hope you get lucky publishing your work.

ChK

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1.5 Million Reasons To Live Laugh And Move Forward

Today is April 24. It’s a day where all Armenians around the world march by the thousands on the streets of their cities both in memory of the 1.5 million Armenians massacred by the Turks and to demand justice.

The thing we claim is very simple: Recognition. We ask that our genocide be recognized. We have been asking that for the past 101 years and we ask it this year. 102 years later Turkey is still in denial. Erdogan, president of Turkey, acknowledged that Armenians “lost their lives” but implied that they were victims of war.

Dr. Stephan Ihrig, in his article “Genocide Denial Goes Viral: ‘The Promise’ And The IMBD” writes:

“Writing this is dangerous: Speaking out on the Armenian Genocide means taking a huge risk. At the very least, it will be an exhausting experience, getting harassed online, trolled, threatened, down-rated on Amazon and publicly vilified. Until now this was true mainly for individuals- academics, artists and activists. Now it seems to apply to Hollywood movies, too.”

The film “The Promise” now playing in theaters- directed by Mr. Terry George and starring Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac and Charlotte Le Bon- is the first of its kind to be produced in Hollywood. Privately funded by Kirk Kerkorian, the film sheds light on the tragic events during the Ottoman Empire, late 1914.

No such film has ever been made before.

“Eighty years ago the Turkish government forced Hollywood to drop a movie project based on “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” Such a movie could have also raised awareness of the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany at the time and later of the ongoing Holocaust. It could have shaped the “narrative” of the struggle against Hitler.” Dr. Ihrig

Robert Fisk had an interesting article on the same topic in the Independent: On March 22nd, he wrote:

“The Nazis, whom Erdogan pretends to hate so much, rather liked Turkey. Not only did Turkey stay neutral in the war, but the Nazi newspaper Volkischer Beobachler and other Reich dailies had, since the early 1930s, devotedly praised the “Turkified” state which had emerged from the ruins of the First World War. This was a thinly layered reference to Ottoman Turkey’s “racial purity” after the genocide of one and a half million of its minority Christian Armenians in 1915 a holocaust which deeply influenced Hitler in his own decision to destroy the Jews of Europe.
In several newspaper interviews before the war, Hitler referred to Europe’s own forgetfulness of the Armenian massacres. He even asked who “now remembers” them, in a meeting with his generals before invading Poland in 1939 an open invitation to kill Jews.”

We remember. Of course we do. How can we forget? We are descendants of survivors of genocide. Every survivor had a story to tell. Every Armenian family has its own story to tell. As Mr. Terry George (director of the film The Promise) said:

“The genocide is burned into the soul of the Armenian diaspora. And until they get some kind of recognition, it’s not going to go away.”

When I was a little girl growing up in Lebanon, the stories I was told by my elders were not of Cinderella and Prince Charming. Rather they were stories of survival told by my parents and grandparents. I did not fully comprehend them at the time. All I knew was that my grandparents had fought the Turks and eventually left their homes in Musa Dagh, and upon reaching Lebanon as refugees (when both my parents were very young, aged 7 and 10), had lived in unbearable conditions under tents in a place where no one had lived before, in a place where they didn’t even speak the language. Through much suffering and hard work, they turned it into the paradise it is today, Ainjar.

My parents and grandparents come from Musa Dagh, where they put up a resistance and fought against the Turks. “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” by Franz Werfel is their story, our story. My grandparents and great grandparents were on the mountain on that day. On this day and every day we owe our lives to all those who lost theirs. Their story is one of survival and that’s why I am a survivor too.

And on this day and every other day we have 1.5 million reasons to not only remember but to survive and thrive, to live and laugh and move forward.

Here are all my posts on the Armenian Genocide since the inception of my blog in 2011:

1.5 Million Reasons Why
Thank You Kurt Vonnegut!
We Can Never Forget!
“The Parallel To Auschwitz”
There Were A Million And A Half
The Mountains Are Still Very Wild
Since Then We Never Stopped
Is It Too Much To Ask?

ChK

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The Light Is Always Shifting

I haven’t posted anything on my blog for some time now. Actually I haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while. And when I don’t write I feel empty and lost. 

Joan Didion tells us writing is the act of saying “I, I, I,” while according to Julia Cameron:
“We write about what we see, about what we are trying to see clearly. We write, and write some more, because language is slippery, and truth is. We write because the light we have to see is always shifting.”

Writing for me is a form in which I can explore and express my reality. It requires that I look at things. And the light that I have to see with that Julia speaks about is constantly shifting lately. And every time I think that everything is okay and I can continue and get back in the game, something happens to hinder my process, let alone my progress. And when that happens things seem hopeless and empty and I find my faith dwindles yet again.

“Faith is not being sure. It is not being sure but betting with your last cent. Faith is not making religious-sounding noises in the daytime. It is asking your Inmost self questions at night – and then getting up and going to work.” Mary Jean Irion 

You ask your Innermost self questions at night. Questions like ‘What if it will never happen?’ ‘What if for some reason or another I’ll never be able to pursue my dream again?’ ‘What if the thing that I long for most is out of reach?’ And that feeling, the feeling of self-doubt that comes with all these questions, is enough to drain all my energy and make it harder to find my path again.

Julia Cameron warns us against doubt, self-doubt specially. “We must not doubt,” she writes. “Once in your system it will take in another doubt- and another- and another. They must be stopped.”

To stop these destructive and negative thoughts I do the one thing I know how to do best. Turn away from the real world, switch off all the noise outside and go to this safe place I know. I curl up in my corner of the house and bury myself in a book and read. This always works for me. I get lost in the story and things look good again and I feel fine afterwards. 

“Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention.” Julia Cameron 

Pay attention! Pain is what it took me to pay attention. It was only after I lost my husband to cancer that I tried to slow down, look around me and pay attention. I tried to listen carefully to the inner voice inside me and the voices of those around me.

I realized that in times of pain, when the future looked too terrifying to mull over and the past too painful to remember, each moment, taken alone, was always bearable. Even four years and five months later, the precise moment I am in is always the safe place for me. Just at this moment, just now.

“Attention is an art of connection. The reward for attention is always healing. May begin as the healing of a particular pain, the lost lover, the shattered dream. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all as Rilke phrases it ‘unutterably alone.’” Julia Cameron

ChK

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Who Would Do Such A Thing?

Two weeks ago I came across a heartbreaking article on the internet about the Australian writer and blogger Belle Gibson. Heartbreaking in a weird kind of way.

According to the article Belle Gibson built a public profile (since 2013) around her claim through her book, Instagram and Facebook accounts that she was diagnosed with brain cancer as a 20-year-old in 2009 and was given four months to live.

Her book ‘The Whole Pantry’ was promoted at the London Book Fair in 2014 by publisher Penguin Books and she was invited by Apple Inc. to attend its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco that same year.

What’s pathetic is that she lied about her cancer. She lied about rejecting conventional treatment and beating it through healthy eating. What’s more, she exploited public generosity by falsely claiming most of her income went to charities. And in 2015, she admitted that she never had cancer. The article reads:

“Federal Court Justice Debra Mortimer ruled that Gibson’s deceptive and misleading claims about her charitable donations from the sales of her cookbook “The Whole Pantry” and a related app constituted unconscionable conduct under Australian law.She could be fined up to AU$200,000 and her company, Inkerman Road Nominees which is now in liquidation, could be fined up to AU$1.1 million at a penalty hearing later this month.”

Seriously? I wonder how many people have believed her, followed her diet and taken her on her word. You would think that Penguin, one of the oldest and biggest reputable publishing agencies, would do better than that.

It disgusts me to think how people can lie and fake even cancer to get some attention, some publicity and wealth. It disgusts me to even think that the publishing business is only about profit lately. It disgusts me to learn that Penguin Publishers have published her lie and promoted her cookbook, thus causing perhaps hundreds of people with real cancer to follow her diet and her lies. 

It disgusts me to learn that there are writers who have sold their soul and dignity just to make money and be talked about. Who can sink that low and pretend to have cancer just to gain a few followers on social media? 

Shame on her! Shame on them! And shame on the people, in this case primarily Penguin, for providing them with the platform and for allowing them to do as they please. 

Do you remember James Frey’s story? When he lied on national television about his memoir, about his wholly fabricated details of his criminal career, and said “all true – I think I wrote about the events in the book truly and honestly and accurately.”

His book ‘A Million Little Pieces’ was first published in 2003 by Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, and became a New York Times Bestseller before it was chosen for Oprah’s book club. But three years later it was withdrawn from bookstores. 

Are we as publishers, agents, writers, so desperate to make it big and get rich quick, so as to forget all ethical and moral issues? Are we to sacrifice our values and everything we live for and believe in for the sake of financial gains or for marketing purposes?

It saddens and depresses me to think that there are thousands of dedicated writers out there with great stories, whose work won’t even make it onto the publishers’ and agents’ desks. And yet they keep writing and trying and sending or emailing their proposals here and there only for their queries to be marked as spam and end up in the trash of some agent or publisher.

Shame! Shame! Shame!

ChK

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Name Your Dream

“Imaginary Lives: If you had five other lives to lead, what would you do in each of them?” asks Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Then she writes:
“Name your dream. That’s right. Write it down. “In a perfect world, I would secretly love to be a —–.”” 

Three years later Sarah Ban Breathnach copies her in Simple Abundance and writes:
“If you had ten other lives to lead, what would you be doing?” 

Viola Davis in her acceptance speech at the Oscars for best supporting actress for her role in “Fences” said:

“You know there’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered and that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say, exhume those bodies, exhume those stories, the stories of people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”

When I first heard Viola’s words on TV I couldn’t help but get emotional. I remembered my loved ones who have long gone and the dreams they had and that never came true. I thought mostly of my grandparents and parents and the kind of life they had, or rather were forced to have.

My parents and my grandparents came from Musa Dagh, where they put up a resistance and fought against the Turks. “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” by Franz Werfell is their story, our story. Kurt Vonnegut also later wrote in Bluebeard:“

“Musa Dagh!” he might say. This was the name of a place in Turkey where a small band of Armenian civilians fought Turkish militiamen to a standstill for forty days and forty nights before being exterminated.””

The story of my grandparents and parents is so tragic and sad that it hurts to even remember. I grew up listening to my grandparents’ horror stories of displacements. How they had to fight the Turks and how they were helped by the French and taken in boats with nothing but the clothes they had on to the safer shores of Lebanon. In a place where they didn’t even speak the language. And what was once their home became a memory they cherished and passed on to us together with the bad.

Both my parents were very young when they became refugees. My mom was seven and my dad was ten. They lived in unbearable conditions under tents in a place where no one had lived before. 

Their first school in the refugee camp was a tent where all the children were gathered to be taught. Winters were fierce and there were epidemics like malaria that killed many. But those who survived, through much suffering and hard work, turned the place into the paradise it is today, Ainjar. 

I can’t help but wonder what dreams they had before they left their homes and their lands. What were my parents’ dreams when they were forced to work at the early age of thirteen to help support their families? Deprived of their childhood and dreams they worked hard to give us a normal life, and allowed us to dream. And I wonder about the life they could have had if they were not forced out of our homeland.

But we also had our share of misfortune later on when the civil war started in Lebanon. Our dreams also got interrupted. My late husband was among the fifty students accepted into Engineering that year at the American University of Beirut, out of two thousand applicants. But unfortunately after only one semester he had to abandon his dream due to financial difficulties.

It’s sad that his dream never materialized. Sadder still his much anticipated dream of an exhibition for his paintings in this part of the world. This dream died with him, the day he passed away.

So yes Viola, if only our beloved ones could talk and tell us their stories, their dreams. 

ChK   

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Conversation Part Six

Last month when I started my conversation series on my blog, I thought I would have a real conversation with some of my readers, a few of them at least. I thought as a writer, I would be engaged in conversations with writers about other writers and their writing. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. 

I feel that all I’ve done is jot my feelings and thoughts on my page. Which is quite well, of course, although a bit disappointing. After all my blog articles are nothing more than ramblings, random thoughts shared on the internet.

So I think what I would like to do now is stop and end my conversations with one last blog in the hope of continuing them sometime in the future.

Lately I’ve been rereading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and doing the morning pages, although with much reluctance. Every morning when I hold my notebook in my hand to write something tells me to stop. I hear a little voice telling me that I have to focus on my writing instead. 

I have mixed feelings about these pages, especially early in the morning. That’s the time when I like to just read for an hour while having my coffee. I like to sort of block the world and everything else around me and recharge. And when I can’t do that I don’t feel at peace with myself no matter what I do during the day.

Long before I had heard about Julia and knew about the morning pages, I used to write an article almost every day and post it on my blog. And that kept me happy. But now I find it hard to write after writing three pages early in the morning. After about thirty to forty five minutes of pouring my heart out on the page, writing three pages in a 27.6cm by 21.2cm notebook, all I want to do is just read a book. But I do them anyway. I show up at the page every morning and write. 

Work2

To be honest I skip the tasks in the book too. I find them hard to do. Not that they are difficult, no. But for me to just sit and write down the answers to a bunch of questions as well as follow some instructions is not something I have the patience nor the stamina for anymore.
 
For example one of the tasks Julia asks her readers to do is:
“Describe your childhood room. If you wish, you may sketch this room. What was your favorite thing about it?”

And three years later Sarah Ban Breathnach writes:
“See yourself at ten: Walk through the rooms in your childhood home. What did your bedroom look like?”

Then for another task Julia writes:
“Write and mail an encouraging letter to your inner artist. This sounds silly and feels very, very, very good to receive. Remember that your artist is a child and loves praise and encouragement and festive plans.” 

While Sarah writes: 
“Write a long, wonderful love letter to yourself from your authentic self. Let your authentic self encourage you as you would a young child. Mail the letter and save it for when you’re feeling discouraged.” 

Maybe I am getting too old for this kind of assignments. Because for me the most encouraging and truly inspiring thing to do is read or listen to interviews with the writers I like. 

Reading about other writers, listening to their interviews, hearing about the difficulties they faced both on the page (being blocked) and in the publishing world, and how they overcame them, truly moves me. Their success stories teach me how to beat the odds and gives me some kind of hope that maybe, just maybe I can also do it one day. 

Jalai Ud-Din Rumi writes:

“Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about. … Say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known it from before the beginning of the universe.”
 
Julia used this quote in the beginning of her book The Artist’s Way. Is it surprising that of all the quotes on artists and creativity out there, Sarah used the exact same quote in her book?

In his advice to beginning writers a well known author once said: “Borrow widely, steal wisely.”

Happy reading and writing everyone!

ChK

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