Was There A Time

Today marks the ninth anniversary of our move to Montreal.


I remember sitting on the bus and wondering about my life, about us, about our future as a family. And I remember having this sad feeling too. This gut feeling that this was it, this was our final move and there was no turning back no matter what. Specially since we had left our extended families back in Lebanon which was at war with Israel. And nothing was ever going to be the same any more.

The future of our kids was what mattered most at the time. We kind of expected some of the difficulties my late husband and I would face. We had read accounts of families who had moved before us and we had heard about how difficult it was to find jobs here, full time jobs. All was fine and we were ready. My late husband was a hard working honest man who did everything for us, his family. He had this joie de vivre. He loved life and loved to laugh. He even joked about how he got his cancer passport before getting the Canadian one.

Cancer. That was something we were never prepared for. While we were busy making plans life happened. And on a day like today I can’t help but think of all the dreams we had that were never realized, of all his dreams, the unfinished projects and canvases he left behind. On a day like today I can’t help but think of the poem “Was There A Time”  by Dylan Thomas:

“Was there a time when dancers with their fiddles
In children’s circuses could stay their troubles?
There was a time they could cry over books,
But time has sent its maggot on their track.
Under the arc of the sky they are unsafe.
What’s never known is safest in this life.
Under the sky signs they who have no arms
Have cleanest hands, and, as the heartless ghost
Alone’s unhurt, so the blind man sees best.” 


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Get That Muscle Working!

It is one of those busy mornings again when I have a lot to do and I feel frustrated because I know that I won’t be able to write during the day. Sometimes even thinking about upcoming bills and expenditures causes me to be creatively blocked.

Usually I am a positive person. I am well aware that some things are out of our control and that there is nothing we can do about them except wait. I am a positive person by character and I realize that if I don’t expect anything from anyone I don’t get disappointed or hurt.

During all my school years and even later in university, I don’t remember anyone telling me how to make decisions in my life. Certainly, no one shared with me a process of finding out what I love to do. I have been taught to look to the outside to find answers, to quickly look for alternatives out there and hang on to them.

And I guess I am that kind of person who no matter how well I am doing today I can’t stop worrying about tomorrow. Maybe because I have lived most of my life in the Middle East where there is no political stability. And when we finally moved to Canada to provide a better life for my kids, I lost my husband to cancer and with that I lost that social, financial and economical stability I needed to feel safe.

Maybe I am the kind of person who really values having that security that really allows me to be happy, and lets me concentrate on enjoying every part of my life. Because right now I am worrying about what’s next and I just don’t like it. This confusion hinders my creativity and I find myself constantly blocked.

And yes, I get very depressed sometimes. I know I have to step back and take a look at myself. Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? Or do I take the advice of the so many great writers before me and try to put words on the page no matter what. Sarah Harrison writes:

“Yes, I got very depressed at times. But it doesn’t all just happen.
You have to keep driving yourself to put words on paper. It’s the point I’m making to these would-be writers I’m talking to at the moment. Writers say they find it difficult to achieve the ’flow’ so I genuinely think covering the paper is the most important thing, because if you make yourself write a page, then suddenly, halfway down the second page, you find you’ve written a couple of paragraphs that do flow, and you did not notice it happen.
My advice to any aspiring author is, I think, not to stop writing. I think people put their all into one short thing and send it off and wait for the result, instead of immediately writing something else. I know it sounds terribly banal, but if you keep the muscle working, it’s better.”


I guess I have to keep that muscle working no matter what.


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It’s A Geometrical Problem!

During one of her interviews Oprah mentioned that for her a good novel must be over 300 or 350 pages long. I don’t remember the exact number of pages even though I had it somewhere in my notes.

I personally don’t agree. Literature is full of stories that say otherwise. Because the value of a book for me is not in the number of pages. It is in the story, the characters, the way it is written, and most importantly the way I as a reader connect with the story and the characters.


Among my all time favorites are Hemingway’s “The Old Man and The Sea”, Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “For One More Day”, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot”, Naguib Mahfouz’s “Midaq Alley”, Albert Camus’ “L’etranger” (The Outsider), Robert James Waller’s “Bridges of Madison County”, and Erich Segal’s “Love Story” just to name a few. 

Georges Simenon, one of the most productive writers of the twentieth century, has altogether 550 million copies of his work printed. He has written nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographical works, numerous articles, and scores of pulp novels using different pseudonyms. Capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day, his novels are not much longer than some short stories. Most of his works are written and revised in about two weeks. Here’s how he does it:  

“It is almost a geometrical problem. I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives. Then I write my novel chapter by chapter. On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. All day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels. … And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons why my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t- it’s impossible. I have to- It’s physical. I am too tired.”  

Nobody else writes in quite the same fashion as Simenon. When asked if he would continue writing novels even if they were not published, he answers “certainly.” 

“I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.” Georges Simenon


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Dammit! Stop Writing!

In my previous post I wrote about the first stage in writing a story, the idea, the germ, the “aha moment.” 

For me it’s hard to start a story with only an idea. There has to be something more, something emotional, a sensitive situation, a touching moment. To quote Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

“Generally intensified emotional sensitivity … when events that usually pass unnoticed suddenly move you deeply, when a sunset lifts you to exaltation, when a squeaking door throws you into a fit if exasperation, when a clear look of trust in a child’s eyes move you to tears.”  

Then comes a process of reflection, and meditation. Sort of conscious, wakeful dreaming. As Angus Wilson calls it, “the gestatory period” which he says is:

“…very important to me. That’s when I’m persuading myself of the truth of what I want to say, and I don’t think I could persuade my readers unless I’d persuaded myself first.”

“I always remember the date, the place, the room, the road, when I first was struck. For instance, World Enough and Time. Katherine Anne Porter and I were both in the Library of Congress as fellows. We were in the same pew, had offices next to each other. She came in one day with an old pamphlet, the trial of Beauchamp for killing Colonel Sharp. She said, ’Well, Red, you better read this.’ There it was. I read it in five minutes. But I was six years making the book. Any book I write starts with a flash, but takes a long time to shape.” Robert Penn Warren

Georges Simenon writes:
“As soon as I have the beginning, I can’t bear it very long. … and two days later I begin writing.”

“I never quite know when I’m not writing,” says James Thurber. “Sometimes my wife comes to me at a dinner party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, “Is he sick?” ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing.’”

While Nelson Algren writes page after page to find his plot. He says:
“I always figured, the only way I could finish a book and get a plot was just to keep making it longer and longer until something happens.”

“I invariably have the illusion that the whole play of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously- that I’m seeing it in one flash.” Truman Capote

I too take a long time to write my book, a very very long time.


Happy writing everyone!


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Do You See Or Hear Things?

The month of June has been a difficult month for me and my kids. We had to face some really hard challenges. I rarely wrote during that time, because I can only write when I distance myself from situations and all kinds of emotions.

In times like that it’s hard for me to be myself. The only way I can lift my spirit and keep a positive attitude is to read about writing and other great writers. I have books and notebooks filled with quotes on how the great writers do it. I would like to share some with you.

Every story or book starts with an idea, a germ, or a flash as some authors call it.


And as Henry James described it:

“The precious particle… the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point, its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.”

William Faulkner said that ‘The Sound and the Fury’ “began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and it would be a book.”

On the other hand, Frank O’Conner whose imagination was not visual, said: “If you’re the sort of person that meets a girl in the street and instantly notices the color of her eyes and of her hair and the sort of dress she’s wearing, then you’re not in the least like me. … I have terribly sensitive hearing and I’m terribly aware of voices.”

So does Dorothy Parker, for she said: “I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things.”

So which one of these writers are you? Do you see things? Do you hear things? Or maybe both?

Have a great weekend visualizing, hearing and writing!


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Play! Have Fun!

While reading Julia Cameron’s book the other day I came across the following paragraph:

“Creativity expands in an atmosphere encouraging to it, and constricts self-protectively in an atmosphere that is cynical or hostile. This is why artists can have a difficult time accessing their best work in academia.” 

I remember an interview I had read with writer Frank O’Conner decades ago that I would like to share with you.

When asked how he feels about the academic approach to the novel versus the natural approach, here is what the author said: 

“All the university men of Shakespeare’s day thought he was a simpleton, a bit of an idiot. 

to be

The university novelists have been having it their own way for thirty years, and it’s about time a natural novelist got back to the job and really told stories about people. You see, I don’t believe there is anything else in the world except human beings, they’re the best thing you’re ever likely to discover.
To me, the novel is so human, the only thing I’m interested in- I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer. I really got into this row, big, at the novel conference at Harvard, when I had a couple of people talking about the various types of novel- analyzing them- and then we had a novelist get up and speak about the responsibilities of the novelist. I was with Anthony West on the stage and I was gradually getting into hysterics. It’s never happened to me before in public; I was giggling, I couldn’t stop myself. And, “All right,” I said at the end of it, “if there are any of my students here I’d like them to remember that writing is fun.” That’s the reason you do it, because you enjoy it, and you read it because you enjoy it. You don’t read it because of the serious moral responsibility to read, and you don’t write it because it’s a serious moral responsibility. You do it for exactly the same reason that you paint pictures or play with the kids. It’s a creative activity.”

Creativity is fun. Creativity is play. I hope you have fun creating!


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I Treasure Those Memories

It was 4th of July weekend this weekend. Even though I live in Montreal and am Canadian, I have the sweetest memories of my first and only 4th of July. 

When I watched the news these last couple of days and saw the high security measures that were being taken to ensure the safety of the citizens, it was disturbing. What has happened to our world? How did we allow all this to happen? How could things change for the worse at a time when we are getting better and better in sciences and in technology and in many, many other fields. 

And I remember my 4th of July weekend in 1988. It was my late husband’s and my first trip to the United States. We started with New York. We were there for only four days, but I can say they were among the most memorable of our days. We landed at JFK airport. Even though we carried a Lebanese passport at the time and were traveling from Dubai, everything at the airport, customs and all, went so well for us that even we were surprised. Because at the time the civil war was still going on in Lebanon and we were prepared for the worst. 

During the four days (including the weekend) that we were there, we managed to visit an exhibition at Lincoln Centre, stroll around Central Park, visit the Statue of Liberty, roam the streets of Manhattan, visit MOMA the Modern Museum of Art, and the Guggenheim Museum. We also managed to see the Broadway show “Midnight Express”.

Most importantly for me however was my visit to Doubleday bookstore. You can imagine my excitement when I first entered the bookstore.


There was nothing like it in Dubai, and even the bookstores we had visited on our previous trips to Rome, Venice, Paris and Australia were nothing like that. I was so overwhelmed that I felt like a child again, walking around in awe just looking at all those books until my late husband reminded me to get my list out.

It was on that day that I bought my first John Dos Passos books. I had read about him in Jean Paul Sartre’s writings. Sartre had referred to him as “the greatest living writer” back in 1939. I wanted to buy his U.S.A. trilogy, since I had read somewhere that he used a special technique called the “camera eye” to write the trilogy. I not only found the three volumes but thanks to the salesman I also bought The Manhattan Transfer. 

I treasure those memories specially now that my husband is no longer here with us, and traveling has become such a problem. Just as I treasure all the books I got on that day, most of all the books by John Dos Passos. Throughout the years I have read his trilogy over and over. I have so much respect for his talent and writing technique, even though he once said in an interview:

“I never felt I wanted to be a writer … I didn’t much like the literary world as I knew it. I studied architecture. I’ve always been a frustrated architect. But there are certain periods of life when you take in an awful lot of impressions. I kept a good diary- very usual sort of thing- and I was consistent about putting down my impressions. But I had no intention, really, of being a writer.”


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