18 July 2015

On Running, Writing, Smoking

Last night, I put on my Smile-Sweat-Repeat running T-shirt on, my black running leggings, ankle socks, and my Saucony running shoes. I put on “khulud’s summer running 2015” playlist on Soundcloud, and start the Runkeeper application. I got the seed on an idea in my mind to mull over while running. It’s about what I want to write for today in my documentation project, i.e. this very piece. The idea is to write about de-cluttering my physical space as part of the process of making spaces for new writing. (i.e. what happened after my two-week long couch-potatoing, if you’re following up.)

But that piece will have to wait to be written on another day, because my run took a different turn. For me, running and writing have many elements in common. I can sit down at my computer, or with my notebook, with an idea I want to write about, but end up writing something completely different, like just now. Setting out to write a piece on making spaces, ending up writing about running and writing. But there’s a jumble in my mind as I type these words. Because I want to write all about running and what it does to my writing – I want to write it all at one go. At the same time, I don’t want to write all about it in one go. Because running does so many different things to my body, mind, and soul.

But I also want to write about the cacti plants that have been waiting, patiently, for me to plant them. And the fact that yesterday I was supposed to do that, but didn’t feel like it. But then I looked at the cacti and saw that they are ready to be planted, and thought to myself ‘tomorrow is another day.’ Another day on this journey. I try to keep my schedule as free as possible, and tomorrow I have nothing whatsoever that I have to do. So I might as well plant the cacti. Maybe. We’ll see if I feel like it.

And then, while out on my run, I see three potted plants sitting on a low wall behind a garbage bin, clearly discarded. I run past them, already knowing that as soon as I come home I will go back out with Pascal (our dog) and a bag to pick up those dying plants. And that’s exactly what I did. A sign to that the time has come to plant the cacti? Coincidence? The world has its mysterious ways to tell us things.

But back to running. For me, running is meditation. I don’t claim to be a runner, but I run. I smoke almost two packs of cigarettes a day and I run (no, I’m not crazy. Yes, you can run and smoke. They’re not exclusive activities). Part of this journey I am on, as I mentioned in the first piece, is to make spaces for writing. And part of that includes running. Because running, for me, is an essential part of my writing (I’ll come back to this point in later pieces). And if I want to run, I need to quit smoking. My partner, N., says it’s all in the head. He’s right. Two steps are needed to quit smoking, and only two. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

(1) Make a firm decision
(2) Implement the decision

There’s nothing more to it, actually. It’s similar to the decision I made to take an unpaid leave. Make the decision: I made it two and a half years ago. I played around with the idea in my mind for over two years before I implemented it. And so with smoking. I made the decision, but it hasn’t been firm. I’m still playing around with the idea in my mind. But this is how decisions are made. First comes the idea, you play with it, mull over it, digest it. It grows on you, and you begin to imagine how it would be and feel if you actually did it. It continues to grow somewhere inside your body, but most of the time you’re not aware of its growth. Until, one day, its size can no longer be contained by you. It explodes. And that’s the precise moment when you cross over. Once you do, it is released from your body in a gush. And that’s it. You’re committed to it. Now there’s no turning back. So I’m waiting this out. I guess the idea of quitting smoking hasn’t reached yet that critical size, but I know it’s a process, and I’m waiting it out, running it out, writing it out.


Progress with “The Lynch” short story for today: yesterday, I wrote the 4 single-spaced pages (1,500 words), but like I said, not the best writing. Because I can’t wait for the Muse. So I write without it. I’m going now to finish the story, there’s only one scene left, the last one, and then I’ll have a complete first draft. Yes, I already know it’s going to be a crappy draft, but at least I got the story on paper. I have a mass of writing that I can now play with – edit, rewrite, revise, tighten up.

In between, I’m going to plant those cacti and the dying plants I found last night.

Until next time.

17 July 2015

Two: Respect your Art [Spaces of Artful Living]

The feeling of exhilaration was all-encompassing once the decision to take an unpaid leave was made. It was a breath I didn’t know I was holding for so long being released. No more deadlines, no more work-related stress of whether I’ll be able to raise all the funds we need to cover salaries, program activities, and overhead for the year. No more “urgent” requests from donors to fill out this or that document or revise some parts of a proposal or a narrative report. The circle has been broken and I have slipped out.

The first reaction was that of the mind. It immediately freed up millions – no, billions – of thinking cells. Within one week, I wrote some 25 single-spaced pages of the “Taboos in Arabic” manuscript. Which, for me, is a tremendous amount. And all 25 pages were real good writing. I was on a writing spree. And when I wasn’t writing, I was constantly being bombarded with new ideas for writing: complete outlines for short stories were formed in my mind. I wasn’t even making any effort. It just poured into my mind and out on the paper. I was doing all kinds of writing, journaling, writing about writing, writing up outlines for short stories, and making huge progress with Taboos in Arabic. I felt like all the brain cells that were tied up, busy being fully committed to my job, all of a sudden and with no prior notice, finding themselves unemployed, went berserk. They jumped on the creative writing project immediately in full force.

Two weeks later, utterly exhausted, the flow abruptly stopped. Just like that. The brain cells burned out. It’s like with running. If you plan to run a long distance, you can’t sprint into it and then expect to get to the finish line alive. You have to start by warming up, and building up slowly until you reach that speed that will get you through without getting out of breath. But these are not mistakes. No. These are processes that you might (or might not) go through, and learn from them. Take them as they come.

Become aware of the process, and listen to your characters or narrative as a runner must learn to listen to her body. So if you’re on a sprint-writing, keep going. My creativity flow stopped after two weeks. Abruptly and with no prior notice. Just like it burst like a dam, it dried up. It was telling me I should slow down, maybe even take a few steps back – let the creation breathe on its own for a while. Let it settle down like. Step away.

But instead of accepting this as part of the process, I resented it. I was furious with myself. More than that, I was furious with the characters, who refused to budge. Not only that, they even started to protest and resist the path I was leading them down. How dare they! How dare they interrupt my – MY – flow of writing? Who do they think they are? I am the writer, and they are just fictious, made up characters. I can kill them if I want to. I can bury them. Or better yet, I can just press the delete button on my computer. One press of a button, and poof, you’re gone.

But in fact, this is not the case. At one point, that being page 80 for this novel for me, the characters stop obeying. They actually come to life, demanding their right to freedom of choice. I am no longer their puppet-master. And that’s the point where the initial idea of the story all collapses, followed by the caving in of the whole narrative. And I go – within moments of realizing this fact – from intellectual ecstasy all the way down. Sometimes the fall would be to frustration, other times to anger, humility, mourning the loss of the initial idea. It’s a long process that may take up to weeks, ultimately ending with acceptance. For me, this time, the road to acceptance took about a month, and was strewn with some seemingly unconnected incidents which, at the end, when looked at from a wider perspective and from a distance, all make sense and lead to acceptance.

What followed after this initial fall was two weeks of couch-potatoing, literally. I opened the sofa in the living room, and moved my whole life onto it. At first, I thought I’d give myself a couple of days off from writing. And when I don’t write, I read. And I read. Ferociously. I think I went through more than ten books in those two weeks. I had contradictory feelings about it at the time: I’m not wasting my time, as I’m reading, and reading is productive. As a writer, I must read. Reading is just hiding from facing the collapsed manuscript. Running away, finding refuge in other writers’ worlds. So let me just finish this one novel and I’ll get back to work. Ok, maybe one more novel, please? I don’t have to go for a run. I’m on vacation! I should go running tonight. At least keep up my body in shape. Nah, this couch is too comfortable, I deserved this! I’ll go running tomorrow. I’m a good-for-nothing writer. I’m not even a writer, who am I kidding? When a friend calls to ask how I’m doing, I say “I had a great two weeks writing, I’ve got 80 pages written! Now I’m just taking a few days off to read. You know, that’s how it works.” At the end of the first week, I finally gave up struggling and gave in to the couch-potatoing (Word keeps indicating this isn’t a word, underlining it with red, but I insist). I knew it was worthless to keep up this internal struggle, so might as well give in and enjoy it. And I did. At the end of week two, I was exhausted – mentally and physically. My eyes were watering from reading so much, my body felt tired, and my legs ached for a run. So I listened to my body, folded back the sofa, cleaned up the living room, and went for a run. If you think the next day I sat at my computer to deal with the manuscript and the disobeying characters, well, it didn’t happen. It would take another month, as this was a major process. More about this in the next post.


Back to the present: I had a productive day of writing today. It’s a Friday and I woke at 10:00, eager to start my day, with renewed energies for writing, as I feel now committed to this documentation process. I decided that today was a good day to go down to the garden with my laptop. For the first time. I never bring any technological devices to the garden. For me, this garden is a sacred place for meditation, reading, and writing in my notebook. But rules, even those one sets for herself, are meant to be broken. And since I decided last night to move most of my writing from the notebook to typed Word documents, I didn’t really have a choice. Beethoven accompanies me with his music. I’m not much into classical music, but for writing, it’s perfect. This garden has its own story that longs to be written, but you’ll need to be patient, because that’s for another day. Meanwhile, you can enjoy reading the poem I wrote on the spot on my first writing day in this garden, Hidden Garden behind a Row of Haifa City Blocks.

I spent four hours down in this garden today, reading, writing, and meditating. I decided today that no decision was the best course in regards to what to tackle: the “Taboos in Arabic” manuscript, which has grown into a monster of 80 single spaces pages divided into 17 separate files, or the short story, tentatively titled “The Lynch,” or the short story titled “Meanwhile, on the train.” For the past several weeks I’ve changed my mind so often between choosing the novel or the collection of short stories, that I have become disabled. Today I decided it’s not an either-or choice. I settled down in the garden, took a few deep breaths, meditated, and then read for about fifteen minutes before starting up the computer. Put on Beethoven. My finger guided the mouse spontaneously, without much thought, to the file titled “Short Stories.” I opened “The Lynch” file, and wrote. I wasn’t visited by any Muse. I just wrote, knowing that even if the writing isn’t great, I can come back to it at a later stage to edit, tighten up, or delete.

I had written the first three pages of the story back in September 2012 (almost 3 years ago), and filed it in the “short stories in-progress” file. About a month ago, I went back to this story, and wrote two more pages of it. I have the whole story in my mind, had it in my mind since September 2012, all the way up to the end. All I need to do is write it. Sounds simple, yes? Not so in reality. Even with a short story, where you know exactly what’s supposed to happen and how the narrative ends, when you actually sit down and write, sometimes the narrative takes a detour on its own, and you need to submit and follow the lead of the characters. Trust me, they always know, so it’s no use to resist them.

And so I submitted to this detour from the original storyline today, and ended up writing three single-spaced pages (some 1,500 words), and the day isn’t over yet, so I might get some more writing done. I don’t need to reread what I wrote to know it’s not the great writing I aspire to. I know most of it will have to be edited. Tightened up. But that’s ok. That’s good. I have a draft, I made progress, and I have a place from where to pick it up the next time I sit down to write. I’m happy with the writing of the first part of the story, which was written back in 2012, and this is good news. That first part is final and doesn’t need any editing. You’re welcome to read that part, which I posted on my blog a while back. The parts I wrote today are hardly in shape for reading, so you’ll have to be patient to read the rest of the story. This documenting project is proving to be good so far. 1,500 words in a day and still going is a lot of writing for me for one day, and add to it this piece, which is just over 1,800 words.
Until tomorrow.

16 July 2015

One: On unpaid leave [Spaces of Artful Living]

So I’ve been on a sort of unpaid leave from work since the beginning of June. My initial plan was to take six months off work about two and a half years ago, and I almost succeeded. I quit my job, withdrew all my compensation money and some savings. I had finished writing my novel, Haifa Fragments, and was in the process of searching for a publishing house. I had worked for six years as a fundraiser and development coordinator at Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center, and felt it was time to move on. Fundraising is a very demanding job, with tight deadlines to meet, and entails quite a lot of stress. I wanted something different. And I wanted time to focus on the publication of my novel and on my writing. I also felt I needed change in my life. But then, as soon as I quit my job, I was approached by another organization with a job offer. I accepted it for several reasons, but I think the main reason was that it was not the right time for me to take a break from life then. I just wasn’t ready.

Now, more than two years later, I have finally done it. The reasons now are completely different, but I feel that now is the right time. Meanwhile, my novel was published by the Australian-based feminism publisher Spinifex Press, with UK rights sold to New Internationalist, as well as translation rights to Italian and Turkish. The novel came out exactly on my 40th birthday, 8 March 2015. A month later, I made the decision. The beginning of 2015 brought with it not only the excitement of finally making my dream come true – becoming a published author, but also some personal crises. I was working a full-time position, taking care of my disabled mother three times a week, and basically leading a crazy schedule. In January and February, two health-related crises of two immediate family members put me completely off my track. (I won’t go into details, for the privacy of these family members). Both were unexpected, and both required from me immense energies. That’s when I finally realized that now was that time to take an unpaid leave. I needed to make space in my life to care for the two family members, to stop and breathe, and also to plunge into my writing on a much more intensive and deeper level.

So here I am, a month and a half later, with practically no income, and a mistress of my time. In May, for preparation, I made a list of things I would do while on this vacation. June came and went, and we are in mid-July, and I can’t remember where the list is, and can’t remember most of the items on it. What I do remember is on that list: finish the first draft of Taboos in Arabic, my second novel, by the end of December. And write one short story a month. And one non-fiction, political commentary a week to post on my blog. Write every single day. Spend at least 3-4 hours writing every day. Re-establish my running routine, start doing yoga. Quit smoking and stop drinking coffee and eat healthy. I was full of energies, ready to embark on this writing journey.

However, things didn’t follow according to my plan. Because when one makes such a drastic change in life, your mind, body, and soul will react. They need the time to process this new reality, and all kinds of processes are set in place. It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I have. And quite a lot, but not every day, and not as much as I set out to write.

Today I decided to officially document the process I’m undergoing. What I mean by officially is to take this from a different angle; to see this writing as documentation, to make the documentation itself a writing project. I’ve been writing about what I’m going through on a regular basis in my notebook, the traditional way: pen on paper. This is the first time I’m actually typing up words that would usually go into my journal. And why this change? I’m almost going insane with my notebooks. I’ve got five (yes, five!) different kinds of notebooks for different writings.

- One large, A4 notebook for scenes of manuscript and ideas to develop (I always start first rough drafts on paper, and then type them op from notebook to computer).
- One small, spiral notebook that’s always with me when I leave the house.
- One notebook for “practice writing” (I hate practice writing, will come back to this later).
- One notebook that is my journal (by journal I mean a notebook where I document the processes I go through with my writing).
- At any given time I have at least one more notebook, usually a smaller one, for miscellaneous.

Neat categorization, right? And quite logical. This way, I know which notebook to refer to when I need to retrieve some idea or another. So why am I going insane? Because the mind doesn’t work in such neat categories. At least not mine. I find myself writing in my “practice writing” notebook just to warm up to getting some real writing done, and I find myself mulling over the process of writing, or, if I get lucky, I come up with an idea to develop in my novel. Then the problem arises: should I switch notebooks? It can also happen when I’m writing in my journal, thinking about the progress of the manuscript, trying to figure out why the characters aren’t moving in the direction I want them to. And then an idea strikes me and I find myself writing up possible scenes, or writing notes to myself. In short, this categorization – this artificial division – isn’t working anymore. It’s come to the point where it’s actually blocking my flow of creativity. So I said to myself screw the notebooks for now, and decided to try a different tactic, and type things up. Let’s see how it goes from here.

For now, I don’t know what shape this documentation will take. I have no plans for it beyond writing it through, hopefully on a daily basis, to accompany me through the writing of “Taboos in Arabic,” my second novel, my attempts at short stories, and my attempts at living a different life. I invite you into my journey of writing and living - on unpaid leave - with no guarantees except for uncertainty and processes.