Posts Tagged writing

My Writing Struggle and the Snickering Man

IMG_6385Look at me right now. Wow! Talk about fear of writing. Fear of consequences. Fear of this thing I keep flying around in my head and thinking of as a final destination (like I was going to wake up one day and find that I magically landed on it) turning into something serious. I already feel anxious. Like a load was just placed on my chest, like something really bad is going to happen, like I need to get the hell out of here right now and get some air. This thing I have is really serious. It’s not just procrastination in its smooth, common almost romantic sense associated with artists and great creators. No. This thing has claws and is apparently ready to put up a fight for survival, or a fight to keep its grip over my throat. But I think that the mere awareness of it is a good sign for me. I’ve come a long way now after some 24 years of suffering from it and not knowing exactly what it was. I first sensed it when I was seventeen and had to study to get myself into college and it stayed with me ever since. I attributed it to everything from depression to the evil eye and black magic (Yes my mind goes in those directions at times). I felt alone, I felt sick, I thought I was cursed with a horrible affliction. I continued to think that way until I began to read more about it and discover that it is a very, very common occurrence, especially for those who have a problem with discipline in their lives, who can’t seem to get their stuff in an orderly fashion, and if those kinds of people had a guild I’d be its mistress.

I have listened to interviews* and read articles** about this very subject and I can now say with confidence that no, it’s not cancer, and it’s not a curse an evil old woman cast on me when I was a child. It’s more like a flu, but it takes all shapes and forms and it is entrenched in self-confidence and esteem. It plays on your own image of yourself, what you think you are and what you aspire to be. It makes you doubt yourself. It falsely has you believing that acceptance, acknowledgment and praise are the litmus test to how good you are. It gets in the way of you realizing that success only comes when you earn it, and you don’t just earn it with hard work, you earn it by learning how to handle failure, by expecting it as part of the natural course of things, accepting it when it comes, and embracing it as a learning experience and as the first open door to a growth opportunity. Now that I have realized this and am preparing myself for failure, I think I’m finally posing a serious threat to my saboteur; this obnoxious man standing over my shoulder and snickering at everything I write, sometimes even snickering at my thoughts and my dreams. I’m going to snicker along with him and say “you know what? I know I might fail, but I know that there’s only one route to my dream and that route is a one way road. I can’t go back even if I wanted to. I wouldn’t be myself if I did, and if I stopped it would be the end of me. So come and join me on the ride because I know that you’re not going anywhere. I might as well accept you, I just won’t pay that much attention to you anymore.”

It sounds easier said than done, but in itself this too comes gradually, and always begins with a compromise. So sometimes I find myself procrastinating within procrastination, or trying to get out of a procrastination situation by accepting a modified version of it. In other words, instead of actually forcing myself to write about this thing that I want to write the most about, I start writing about something else, like about this very fear. This is precisely what I did with this post today. The upside of it is that I stayed put and wrote. I didn’t get up and I didn’t leave the room and I didn’t get out for fresh air (I wouldn’t get much of it anyway as I live in central Cairo).

So that was one of my fears. The Oh-my-God-this-is-serious-and-I-might-suck fear.

There is another, more profound fear that I read no answers to anywhere. The fear of not having much to write. I could write a story in half a page and not know what on earth to add to it. I could deliver my point in a paragraph and then stare blandly at the screen in bewilderment. How do writers get all those things to say? It’s the fear of not having enough to say.

On a creative writing course I wrote once a short story in one paragraph. It was about a woman who suffered from domestic violence. The story ended with a shudder she felt as she heard her husband turn the key at the door. My teacher was very pleased with the story but asked me why I stopped so abruptly? Why didn’t I describe the man and what he might have said to the woman? That was a part of the “showing” approach, where the reader could see the characters with you and could see the profundity of what was happening to them without you overusing your adverbs. I don’t know why something in me couldn’t go much further. I could imagine the man but I couldn’t quite put him in words (I suck at descriptions anyway). I tilted more towards allowing for a reader’s imagination to wander. I would like the reader to imagine rather than show him myself (a fancy way of saying I don’t know if I can do that). That is not very satisfactory, I know. It needs to be fixed, or at least I need to learn how to draw the line between saying just enough without rambling on and stopping too short.

But I think I partially arrived at the problem. Relying on too much imagination is likely to alienate the reader. It takes on a more detached, holier than thou approach that I myself wouldn’t want to be subjected to. My problem is that I forget that the reader doesn’t necessarily have the same background information I have. Perhaps they need to be familiarized with the things I took for granted. And it’s in this background bit that all the leg work begins. Here’s where I face the fear of not having done my homework so well and ending up being thrashed by a real life snickering saboteur who is more than willing to tell the world what kind of a loser I am.

I’m thinking way too much ahead anyway. Again, I’m giving my fears a voice when what I really, really need to be doing at this very early point is write. Just write.

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*If you have similar issues I strongly recommend watching Habit Change for Artists. It’s an inspiring dialogue between artist Paul Foxton of Learning to See and writer Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

**A particularly eye opening article published on The Atlantic that has stayed with me is Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators by Megan Mcardle.

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Unlived Lives, Unanswered What Ifs

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was 7 years old and was left alone on a plane heading to Ottawa?

I was flying to Montreal with my parents and friends of the family. We were seated in front rows and our friends – whose daughter was at my age – were in the back, so I spent the entire flight sitting with them. When the plane landed I decided to go back to the front to find my parents and remind my mother of my little bag. I went up to my seat and found that my parents had already left the plane – trusting that I was leaving with their friends – and I went back to my friend’s family and found that they had left too. The door was closing and the flight attendants were buckling up in preparation for the final stretch to Ottawa. In shock and despair I tried to meet my new fate and go back to my old seat, but I began to cry. I got up, ran to the flight attendant and with a quivering voice I said “I want to go down.” She was shocked. “Where are your parents?” she asked, “Did they leave you in the bathroom?” The story was too complicated for me to explain in the midst of my gasps and yelps. So I just repeated my request. Soon I was let out of the plane and taken in a nice car to the terminal, where I found my mother a weeping wreck and my father trying to book a flight to Ottawa.

It was the most traumatizing experience of my life then.

Years later, as the hormones began to rage and I became an angry 14 year old wondering why oh why my father wouldn’t let me go down to the nightclub with my friends, I began to wonder what would have happened if I really had gone to Ottawa and begun a new life of my own (ignoring the fact that there existed authorities that wouldn’t let a 7 year old just “be” on her own and a father who would come get me a couple of hours later).

When I was 16 I considered running away with my cousin and finding a new life in America. The reason was that I was offended and insulted that my father objected to the presumptuous dance we did on the roof of the house, right next to the water storage tank (which is usually placed on the highest point in the roof). I had no visa to the US and there was no way I could apply for one alone at 16. Yet still I asked myself later what if I did run away then? Who, or rather what, would I have become?

I spent a good deal of my life asking these kinds of questions to myself, and I still catch myself doing this every now and then.

What if I did marry the stalker who knew where I lived and knew every member of my family and had the guts to walk into my father’s office and ask for my hand in marriage?

What if I hadn’t put on the Muslim headscarf at 22? What if I hadn’t taken it off at 39?

What if I hadn’t taken my editing job in Cairo and went after what I wanted and applied to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government after I finished my studies in AUC? What if I got accepted then? I would have never left Boston, that’s for sure, but what would my life have been now? What would my problems be? Would I have had time to clack away on my keyboard or would I have been too busy lecturing and writing academic books and brushing shoulders with policy makers?

What if I did accept that job offer I got on Aljazeera when I was 30 and moved to Qatar? Perhaps I would have continued on in my career as an editor, and I certainly would have had a very different world around me, shaping my view of everything.

What if I wasn’t so intimidated by the UK’s old quarantine laws for incoming pets and put my cat in there for 6 months and found a job in London when I had the chance? (Yes I’m one of those crazy cat women that let their cats run their lives, but in truth I think my cat was and still is just an excuse).

What if I did convert to Shiism when I considered it?

What if I did tell that self-righteous jerk exactly what I thought of him?

What if I did go out to dinner with that Canadian stranger on the plane?

Many times when the world takes on a shade just a little bit darker than the usual dark I find myself asking these questions and wondering about those alternative lives I could have had. My mind works them out perfectly in my head that I think of them more as parallel lives of parallel selves I already am. Each of those lives does fulfill a bit of me, or perhaps they fulfill the me I was in different phases of my life.

But in the midst of all of this I seem to forget the life I did have.

I didn’t walk away from my family at a young age, I stayed with my parents till the last day of their lives doing the best I could to be good to them. I stayed in my country and became more rooted in the culture and more comfortable with its oddities. I stayed in my job and through it I was exposed to a world I may never have gotten the chance to see. I got close to Muslim Brotherhood members and was exposed to their thought. I got to speak in front of the Danish editor who commissioned the cartoon that offended millions of Muslims worldwide and looked him in the eye, and I got to see the other side of the coin too. I met Hizbullah fighters, commanders, slept in their villages, had their coffee, shared their dishes, and heard inside stories of the 2006 war on the Lebanese south. I ran away from tear gas with a fearless friend I only met because I chose to stay in this life. I thought, I considered and I reconsidered until I became the person I am today. I had first hand experience about everything I talk so passionately about because, thankfully, I’ve seen stuff. That to me is worth a thousand books written on theories, based on theories, and protected by the comfortable bubble of assumptions and secondhand knowledge.

I felt the suffocation of my job, my life, the message I thought I was carrying to the world. I got disenchanted with it all and went and climbed Kilimanjaro, then went to the Himalayas, then the Andes. And somewhere in the middle of this I went to Florence and stole six perfect shots of David with my own camera right under the guards’ noses.

I may not have been able to reflect on all of this if I’d chosen to take any of the different life paths that presented themselves to me. Much of what I went through gave me pain, but I don’t believe I would have learned anything if it hadn’t.

So I know it sounds miserably cliché, but really, I just wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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The Sound of War

Each time I visit Lebanon I keep thinking to myself, “Will the war erupt and will they close down the airport while I’m there?” A friend of mine and I have had this secret wish for so long it’s become a common joke between us. Yes, wish. Not for a war, but for us to physically be there if a war does actually begin.

I’ve never been to a war zone. I have no idea what the sound of an F16 right above my head would be like, the closest I ever got to a fighter jet was when I was 9 with my class when we went to visit an army museum to see the jets that fought against Israel in 1973, but that was back when pride in “our soldiers” was something still being taught in Egyptian schools. Another time I was sitting in the living room when a very strong sound of a plane started approaching. At first I thought it was just a civilian plane, but the closer and louder the sound became the stronger the engine sounded. Interestingly, it would just not go away, it kept getting louder and louder until I officially panicked and froze. All I could think about was that Cairo was under an air strike. War broke out and I can’t move my feet to the TV to check the news since the building is about to crumble anyway. I later remembered that it was October 6, and the army was performing in commemoration of the 1973 crossing. When I finally did get the strength to look at the window I saw a part of the performance. The aircraft was in no way as near as it sounded. I had honestly thought I was taking my last breaths.

But listening to that sound and knowing for sure it’s an air strike is definitely worse, because there’s no room for doubt this time that it would surely take lives. I did listen to a detailed description from a Gazan friend a few years ago of what an F16 sounded like and it surely unsettled me. I saw the psychological effect of the sound and the accompanied fear on the reaction of another Palestinian friend to fireworks in Cairo right across the street. As I jumped in excitement and watched the “show” she closed her eyes and tried to block her ears. She simply could not take what was to her the sound of war.

I’ve never been a high intensity seeking kind of person. I’m usually very careful with myself and I weigh consequences. So much so that I once declined a horse riding trip after I had gotten on the horse simply because I discovered that I was wearing the wrong pants. I couldn’t stabilize myself properly, so I chickened out.

But when I’m actually in the situation, the “woman in charge” takes over. I recall traveling from one town to another during pilgrimage on foot, simply because I knew my feet would get me there faster than all the buses that seemed to be parked for hours along the highway. And I’m a person who doesn’t have a very good sense of direction.

If war erupts in Lebanon I don’t think I can sit by in the comfort of my living room in Cairo and watch it all like a spectacle on television, let alone listen to useless critical commentary from those who’ve never been smiled at by an orphaned child from the south, or who’ve never breathed the air at the southern tip of a mountain that overlooks historical Palestine. I’m known amongst my friends to be a freak when it comes to the whole Lebanon subject, but even the food in the south tastes like freedom. No one is subordinate there. Everyone controls their own will. Everyone is a master of their own land. That sense of ownership Robert Fisk once wrote was so missing from most Arab countries is so vivid in south Lebanon.

But as much as I claim to know how different the place is, I think I’m yet to acquire the ways of the people there in order to fully understand how they’ve learned to face death so fearlessly. I shudder at the very thought of losing the warm friends there who always make me laugh. Each time one of them talks to me I cherish every word and look them straight in the eye to take the moment all in. I always fear I may never be able to see them again. How blatantly “un-Shiite” of me to be such a coward about loss! And I’m a person who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to lecture about Karbala.

But I don’t think it’s that. I’m just a person who’s never been in a war, who’s never lost anyone for war, and that is my weakness, because as scary as the sound of war may be, it perfects a person’s ability to endure. It simply makes them stronger.

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