In the summer of 2011 when I was halfway through my pregnancy I took a writing course called Introduction to Creative Nonfiction that was offered by The New School in New York. In fact, it was my sister Darya who found the course. She even paid for it when I balked at the cost (not unreasonable, but more than I could spare with twins on the way), because she wanted to help push my writing in new directions, and to encourage my self-belief as a writer.

Looking back, I don’t know how much of my sister’s persistence came from a conviction that I needed a firm guiding hand or if it was down to the pressure of time slipping quickly and inexorably away from us, for Darya was dying of metastatic breast cancer.

I’d only ever taken one online course before, and I was sceptical. Could it possibly feel ‘real’, and would everyone take it seriously? Given my own hunger to explore new ways of writing and thinking about writing, I was sure I’d immerse myself in the work and discussions, but I’ve always found it puzzling and dispiriting when other students don’t. Throw in the online aspect, and the prospects for meaningful engagement and feedback didn’t look good.

Still, I’d been searching for a course or writers’ group for some time and discovered that they’re difficult to find, especially in a new area such as memoir and personal essay writing. Not that the form itself is new, of course, but the notion that it can be taught just like poetry or fiction is relatively novel.

People who know me might wonder why I would take a writing course in the first place. After all, I studied journalism and worked in radio before becoming editor of a Toronto-based magazine. And while I left formal journalism some time ago, I have written on and off for most of my life. But the truth is, I was tired of the journalistic writing I’d honed. Producing it is like building a decent house: it requires style, rigour and skill. It sometimes involves analysis, persuasiveness and wit. But for me, it has always sat lightly on the surface of things, occasionally grazing deeper sensibilities but rarely giving voice to them.

One day I was moved by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ to write ‘On Being an Arab: Identity and the Politics of Shame,’ a memoir of growing up as a Lebanese-Canadian in the 1970s, for my blog. It was about a childhood spent in the half-light of a society that exhibits profound hostility towards my ethnic group, but whose values I broadly cherish. And then I felt the unexpected warmth of sun on my skin as I watched protesters challenge their corrupt governments in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and permitted myself the naive admonition that perhaps we shouldn’t take the status quo for granted after all, that ‘our people’ as my mother occasionally calls Arabs had done us proud.

Nothing in the world changed of course, except me, for in the writing of that piece I sensed I’d found my voice. I said things in public that I’d never before dared to say at all, animated by the particular nuance of an immigrant consciousness you sometimes find in the ‘new world’, where history is so close you can still feel its breath on your shoulder. But the process felt tenuous and I fretted about ever finding that voice again, so I enrolled in the course.

We had weekly writing assignments and lots to read: memoirs and essays, and essays about memoirs and essays. We were divided into groups that commented on each other’s work, and as predicted lots of students dropped out while a hard core of us remained. I steered clear of the occasional skirmish amongst the others, and let my own comments be shaped by what I could detect of my colleagues’ openness about their work. I found the instructor sensitive and skilled, and I often wondered what she looked like.

Our main project was a single essay, of which we were required to submit first and ‘substantially revised’ second drafts. I’m still surprised at how quickly and clearly I knew what I wanted to write about. The piece would be called ‘Seeing is Believing’, I decided, and it would be about the difficulty of seeing oneself and of understanding oneself as seen. It would be about agency, about being a verb instead of a noun (or worse still, an adjective), and would begin the moment I discovered I couldn’t really see myself at all and would need to wear glasses.

My first draft was well-received. My classmates said they loved the descriptive passages about Athens, Greece, in the late 1970s and early 80s when my father lived there, and my own adventures living in the centre of Naples, Italy, in my 30s. Our instructor was enthusiastic but said I had tried to do too much, and needed either to narrow my focus or write a book. She suggested I look at the work of Carol Gilligan, a researcher whose seminal book In A Different Voice about teenage girls and moral agency I’d read as an undergraduate.

In short, there was much to do but I was safe, navigating familiar territory.

I went back to the drawing board, revising and tinkering, deleting and clarifying – in theory, anyway. But the truth is, I didn’t know how to escape what was already there in order to undertake the required ‘significant’ revision. How could I unbuild a house and make it a church, or transform a dress into trousers? Anne Lamott‘s essay ‘Shitty First Drafts’ made me laugh aloud, but my first drafts aren’t usually shitty – not because I’m too skilled, but because I’m too precise, too careful to write for the sake of ‘getting it out.’ I write shitty first drafts in my head. Still, while I believed myself to be a competent writer I felt undone by what I perceived as the basic work of writing.

I was struggling with this predicament when Darya decided rather suddenly to visit me in London. Soon after she arrived, I disclosed my embarrassing quandary to her, and asked if she could help. ‘I don’t want you to do a major edit,’ I insisted. ‘Could you just read it through and let me know what you think?’

One afternoon, we went to the Marylebone library together and she sat with my draft-in-progress for a long while, gently chewing her lower lip as was her habit when she was concentrating. It was cold that day and Darya seemed tired, her immense eyes pregnant with fatigue, a knitted cap enfolding what remained of her chemotherapy-ravaged hair. She handed the paper back to me without saying much, looking concerned and rather hesitant.

As I type, I have her notes sitting next to me on the desk, the familiar, slightly scrawled handwriting she developed after our schoolgirl script fell away running on an angle across a single page ripped from a coil-spined notebook. ‘It doesn’t seem to me that you ever had any trouble seeing,’ she wrote. ‘It’s not about vision, it’s about relationships – I think loneliness? Inside/out?’ And later: ‘there’s something rougher and more painful hidden here.’

I was dismayed and distressed, for Darya had dug into the heart of my work and detected in it an elaborate smoke screen. Sure, it was infused with sincerity and enlivened by charming touristic tableaux. But it was emotional camouflage, she implied.

In the event, I had a deadline to meet and – not knowing where to begin – I decided to clean up the piece as best I could, changing the order of a few paragraphs and weaving together its separate parts with stronger thread. I couldn’t face excavating its themes, so instead I produced a chisel and sharpened its blurry edges. I submitted my second draft with a sense of dread, and was merely relieved when it came back with similar comments to those on my first. Exhausted by the effort, I put the piece aside.

Those mournful days in London were the last I would see Darya on her feet, even laughing occasionally despite her pain and the terror of what lay ahead. She died four months later, two months to the day after our twins were born. Real life laid siege to my imagination for some time afterward, forcing me to attend to daily exigencies as I balanced with desperate care on the edges of grief and joy. Occasionally, an anxious curiosity propelled me to dust off ‘Seeing is Believing’ but reading it provoked the lassitude of a relationship that is finished but never ended.

I have felt deeply lonely since Darya died. And in the rare moments of solitude that appear from nowhere these days I’m acutely conscious that outside is only bearable when someone is there with you, holding your hand, sharing a conspiratorial giggle as you press your noses against the glass. Darya was my emotional camouflage, my inside. Along with the loneliness her death has exposed, the sharp bounds of outside and in have been rendered unmistakably too, pressing insistently against my own soft verge.

I read through ‘Seeing is Believing’ one last time the other day and it felt at once both starkly familiar and utterly impenetrable. In it, I recognised a young girl who sees the world with painful clarity. Owlish glasses perched on the tip of her nose, she easily discerns its broad arc, its twinkling lights, its majestic skylines. She sees all of it – yes, every tiny detail – from where she’s standing, very far away.

Advertisements