Over a telephone conversation with my niece the other day she told me she was very happy this year in school.
“I have a new English teacher and he is amazing,” she said. “Makes me want to learn.”
My niece is in grade ten and she goes to the same school I went to decades ago, in our village in the east of the Bekaa Valley. She learns Armenian, English and Arabic just like I did. I remember when I was in the tenth grade, we started to study English literature and have in-class discussions for the first time. Of all the essays we used to write in these languages, I loved to write in English the most. I had a new English teacher too that year. From day one he not only encouraged me to write but took my essays and stories to his students in his other school to read. I loved his classes and anxiously anticipated them. I knew from a very young age that:
“Book love… is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for His creatures. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will support you when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” Anthony Trollope
So, in that same year, I voraciously read everything that I could lay my hands on. I read English literature, from the classics to Hemingway, Steinbeck and Maugham. I read French literature, specially Simone De Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Camus, Collette, Cocteau, Kafka, Gide, and Balzac. I read Russian literature, from the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Gorky. The list is endless. Even my Arabic teacher used to get me books from his library to read. I read Khalil Gibran, Naguib Mahfouz, Omar Khayyam, and Rumi to name a few. I also read Armenian books but the choice was limited. I read every day. My writing improved and my confidence and knowledge grew. By the time I enrolled in university, I was familiar with countless writers and their works.
In the first year of university, English 201 was a required course for all students, regardless of their majors. As was expected, I loved my English class and my teacher. When after submitting the first assignment the teacher did not return my paper in class, and instead asked me to meet her in her office, I was worried. I thought I must have done something wrong and lost sleep over the matter. On the day of the meeting, I arrived early at her office and waited for her. I was shaking. When she saw me she was all smiles. She offered me a chair and the first thing she asked was, “When did you learn to write so well?” I started to relax and breathe normally. The topic of our paper was ‘capital punishment’ and she said she was surprised to read so many quotes from different authors explaining my point on the subject. Then she asked me what I read and this stimulated the bookish part of me; I found my niche. I stayed in her office for a long time conversing with her. Before I left she surprised me with yet another question when she asked,
“Have you ever thought of writing a book? Your own book?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I was thrilled and I replied that I hadn’t.
“Think about it and if you need anything I am here for you,” she said. Then, on a piece of paper, she wrote a list of other authors that she thought I should read. I said goodbye and she became my first friend on campus. To this day I have kept that piece of paper and I treasure it as I treasure the memory of my meetings with her.
Once, on my way to my math class, I thought about what she said. For many days and nights I thought about it real hard. But then I was young. My priorities were different and I was full of emotions, ideas, and dogmas and ideals. I had to earn a living and to do so I had to get a job. This may seem silly but the chance of finding and getting a job in writing, specially in English, was out of the question at the time. So I got my degree in mathematics and education and started teaching.
Years later when I went to Dubai, leaving war torn Lebanon behind, I realized that there was a whole world out there that I could also be part of. I found out then that I really should have considered taking up that English professor’s offer and tried writing a book.
Ray Bradbury wrote:
“Don’t ask for guarantees. And don’t look to be saved in any one thing, person, machine, or library. Do your own bit of saving, and if you drown, at least die knowing you were heading for shore.”
So I tried to do my bit of saving. I took every correspondence course I could register for, enrolled in every available writer’s workshop. Eventually I found myself. To this day I can’t help but think with regret about the opportunity I had lost. Then again to quote Ernest Hemingway:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
So to all my fellow writers and all of you out there who want to write, I wish you all a happy bleeding.