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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What To Do!

One day the great sculptor Michelangelo was carving a statue in a courtyard and a small boy asked him why he was hitting at that rock. He answered: “Because there is an angel inside and it wants to come out.”

I don’t remember how many times I have heard and read the following advice, “write what you know,” or, “as a writer, your finest work will emerge when you free the angels and the dragons that exist within you.”

Write what you know. Write what you feel!

To be honest I am the happiest when I try to write from my heart. From that vulnerable place at the very core of my being, using feelings that may have been experienced long ago but that resonate in my life even now. 

I used to get angry and sad every time I thought about my experiences of the civil war in Lebanon decades ago. But then I realized that those events that have occurred have prepared me to write best about certain types of emotional responses. I have used those emotions and experiences to write my first book “The Lost I”

Since it was my first time writing a book and I was not confident enough to send it first to a publisher, I sent my manuscript to a Manhattan firm to be evaluated. Here’s how they responded:

“There is a nice element of mystique in “The Lost I”; the narrator does not fall into the common trap of giving away too much future action and over-expressing the motivations and emotions of the characters. There is a very subtle incorporation of small details and aspects of life within the context of the novel’s reality. Also, the characters are three dimensional and realistic, and as such will engage both the interest and sympathy of the reader.
“The Lost I” is a compelling read. It is a very exciting story. Overall, the plot and the conceptual uniqueness of “The Lost I” will recommend it for publishing.”

Excited and happy by such positive response I started my search for publishers. After searching for a while I realized that almost all publishers don’t accept unsolicited material, so I started searching for agents. Most of the responses I got were just a simple no of course. But to my surprise two different agents responded in the exact the same way. Here’s what they wrote:

“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. It is crucial to find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, and your project did not seem like a good fit for me.  
Please understand that this is a subjective industry, and what does not work for one agent or publisher may in fact work well for another. Although I cannot recommend someone specific, I encourage you to continue seeking out representation elsewhere.”

I got this response from two different agents in two separate emails. They “cannot recommend someone specific.” Sigh! 

What am I supposed to understand from the above reviews? That even though my story is compelling no agent can help me find a publisher because it won’t sell?


What do I do then? Do I continue to write from the folds of my soul and expect no one to publish my material? Or do I just write something, anything, with the market in mind and be dishonest to myself and to the readers?


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Happy Father’s Day!

“Nothing is worse and more hurtful than a happiness that comes too late. It can give no pleasure, yet it deprives you of that most precious of rights – the right to swear and curse at your fate!” Ivan Turgenev

Today is father’s day. A sad day for me and my kids. I am sad because almost four years ago I lost my father and a year after that I lost my husband and my children lost their father. My dad was old, in his early eighties when he passed away. He had lived his life and had seven grandchildren. When my husband passed away in his fifties, his death overshadowed my father’s. He was young and had so much to see and do for his family, his kids and himself. He left behind so many unaccomplished dreams.

I know I should be grateful for the time we had together. And I am. Because he was this true gentleman, loving, caring, giving not only to us, his family and loved ones, but to everyone who crossed his path. He never said no to those who needed him. And in our competitive and materialistic world people like him are rare to find. To quote Ivan Turgenev: 

“He was the soul of politeness to everyone – to some with a hint of aversion, to others with a hint of respect.” 

I am so grateful for the times we had together, for knowing you, for loving you. I am lucky to have met you and spent the best years of my life with you. You were the best husband and the best dad and the best friend and companion and soul mate I could ever have or ever wish for. Except that for all those years that we lived in Dubai we never celebrated father’s day. It was just not in the culture, at least not when we were living there. Neither did we celebrate it in Lebanon back then. It was only when we moved to Canada that we started. 

Ironically though, in the thirty years that we were married we only had one real father’s day celebration: the first year we were here. After that our life and everything in it seemed to take a downfall. 

There’s an old saying; “Take whatever you want from life but never forget God expects you to pay one day.”

I guess our payback day had come somewhat early. What is left is a new us. We will never be the same again, or see the world as we once did. It’s like with our loss has come yet another loss, that of innocence. We have come to realize that life is not what it seems to be. And that something like this can happen to us and has happened. And as a consequence we are more vulnerable and sad now. 

And on this father’s day, it will be exactly two years seven months and five days since his passing. Lots have happened since then. And with each day we feel his loss more and more. We long for his presence here with us more than anything in the world. There’s an emptiness in me, in us, that will never be replaced no matter what. 

And on this day I cannot help but think of all the dads who are not in this world anymore. I think of the dads who are away from their families serving their country or working their butts off somewhere far away in order to provide a better life for their kids.
And on this day I cannot help but be grateful for the life we (the kids and I) had with him, for the love I knew, for the joy he brought into our lives. Father’s day should be a day of gratitude for the three of us and we will celebrate his life with tears in our eyes and an empty heart. For the legacy he left us in the short time that he was with us is far greater than any we have known so far. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre:

“There is a future that lies beyond death and that almost turns death into an accident in the individual’s life, a life that goes on without him.”

Happy father’s day my darling. I like to believe you’re up there somewhere together with my dad watching over us.



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Your Way Is Just As Right!

You have a passion to create art. (For me that passion is writing and my late husband’s was painting.) You are overwhelmed with everyday worries, with life. You don’t have time to finish your chores and tasks and obligations to sit at your desk and do what you like to do most, write.

Whether it is late at night or early morning before anyone else is awake, you sit at your desk, you stare at that blank page or at your computer screen and nothing, but nothing comes to mind. Nada! Zilch! 


You are only aware of time passing. Soon the sun will come out and soon everyone else in the family will awake. Now is your chance to write something. But you can’t. You get angry. You are frustrated. You don’t know what to do! The only thing that matters for you now is that you don’t want to let another day go by without you having written a word. What do you do? What can you do?

You remember Julia Cameron’s advice. To think of art as play. So you tell yourself to calm down and not to think of your writing as a task you have to do. But as a game you want to play. You take a deep breath and start your game. 

You take a trip down memory lane, to the attic of your memory, where all kinds of dark, stuffy corners hold carefully hidden away boxes containing wonderful stories. You carefully open a box. And out come these fragments- little pieces from your secret passions, your loves, your sorrows, your humiliations. And with these memories come ideas, amazing ideas for stories. And soon the words flow on the page and everything around you takes on a different meaning.

“We all write differently and we work differently and we live differently. I used to think when I had children that somebody else had the rule book and they hadn’t given it to me, and everybody else knew how to do it right except me. I find the same thing in writing: you think that everybody knows what they’re doing and that you don’t.

Your way is just as right as my way. You have to find what you want to write.” Danielle Steel


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If I Only Could!

I’ve heard it a million times before and so have you. “Books are not written – they’re rewritten.”

Revision! An important part of writing a book and yet the hardest as Michael Crichton puts it: “It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” 

Cutting and editing and rewriting. Where you could cut, edit, rewrite whole chapters, entire sections, change scenes, get rid of unnecessary characters and add new interesting ones, just to make it your best!

There is not one specific way to do it. When you start writing your story or novel, whether you have planned it chapter by chapter or you just have a notion of your beginning and end, your writing is bound to take its own course whether you like it or not during the actual process of writing.

Gustave Flaubert writes: 

“What a beastly thing prose is! It’s never finished; there is always something to do over. A good prose sentence must be like a good line of verse, unchangeable, as rhythmic and as sonorous.” 

Different writers use different methods to write, revise or rewrite their books. The general notion however is that good writers do revise and rewrite their manuscripts until they think they get it right. 


Oh how I wish sometimes that my life was like my fiction! 

Imagine applying the same principles of revision to your own life. Imagine if you can weed out anything and everything that is not working for you but working against you in your life. You edit, you revise, you add. Because your life at best is a planned mess.

Imagine you could cut, edit, rewrite entire sections of your life, change scenes, get rid of unnecessary characters and add new and interesting ones, just to make it your best!

William Burroughs sometimes cuts up sentences, tosses them in a hat, pulls them out randomly, and writes them down in that order. Or so he says.

If only I could rewrite my life like William Burroughs did his work. Mix and match and see what happens.


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It Wasn’t Going Anywhere!

Recently while going over an old manuscript I realized that there was something basically wrong with the story. It wasn’t going anywhere. I mean I had some strong and attractive characters and some good parts throughout the story, but the story itself as a whole wasn’t going any place. Then I remembered Ray Bradbury’s advice:

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” 

I started asking myself: What does my hero or heroine want? What do all my characters want? If the protagonist is facing a problem is the reader well aware of it? Maybe that’s what is wrong with my story. I have not shown the reader that this problem, whatever it might be, is a vitally important one to the protagonist.

John Gardner wrote:

“In nearly all good fiction, the basic- all but inescapable- plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, loss, or draw.” 

Motivation! My protagonist lacked motivation! Instead of making things happen, he lets things happen to him. In other words a character without motivation, without any important goal, is a dull character. When a character doesn’t go after what he wants the reader cannot sympathize with him. 

John Leggett describes character motivation in these simple words:

“When we talk about character in a story, we invariably talk about that character’s motivation. If you hang out with fiction long enough you begin to see its advantages over real life. One of these is understanding human motivation. In both fiction and life one spends an enormous amount of time trying to puzzle out why people do what they do. In life you can never be sure whether you’ve got it right and sometimes you can’t figure it out at all. In good fiction though, you always discover the reasons people do what they do.”

Now where was I? How do I make my readers involved in my characters and my story?



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They Do Things!

“Here are two rules of writing that I wish someone had told me when I started thirty or so years ago. One is don’t make a career out of writing first chapters as I almost did. The second is that you don’t have to be able to outline a plot if you have a reasonably long life expectancy.”  Tony Hillerman

When I first started to write fiction and decided to take correspondence courses to learn more about technique, I learnt that the first sentence, the first paragraph and the first chapter are extremely important. I still believe that they are even though lately my experience with some of the books that I have started reading says otherwise. True, a good first chapter hooks me to the story as a reader, but I haven’t been able to finish most of the books I started to read and had to stop somewhere before the middle.

Lately, reading through my notes I realized that I have fallen in the same trap too. I realized that for the past months, maybe years, I have spent my time writing and rewriting and polishing a first chapter.


Rereading it made me feel happy since I think it’s a good chapter. But it stops there. I have a good first chapter and a good last chapter but the middle of my story sucks. Some parts are irrelevant to the story. 

To fix the problem I can either rewrite the entire story or just leave it as it is and start a new one. This time I can do it by the book, by planning and plotting ahead. A lot of writers, and lots of good writers, outline in great detail. But doesn’t the process of letting the story grow seem more fun? It’s like letting your characters grow and develop and eventually take over the story. It’s like you feel you really know them. They do things and say things that I don’t think I as a writer can ever come up with should I outline my story.

As a writer I am in for spontaneity and surprises. Somehow that makes my story more authentic, more genuine and more believable, because it comes from the heart. 

What kind of writer are you? Do you plot? Or do you just start with and idea and take it from there?  


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