Bombs, Beirut and Bigger Pictures

A few weeks ago, I ran into one of my Literary Agent’s staff members at a party. We had both recently returned from holidays – me in Europe and Lebanon, him Jordan and Lebanon. When he asked me if I’d had a good trip, I’d replied “Why of course, you know Paris is my favourite city in the world.” He expressed his surprise that I did not think the same of Beirut, the Paris of the Middle-East, a city he loved so much that he’d been there numerous times and was in the process of trying to convince his mother to accompany him on the trip. What could I say? I didn’t feel the same way about the city in my mother country that I felt for other places: Paris, New York, the entire Greek Island of Santorini. Places which nestled themselves in the crevices of my heart, begging me to return to them again for more adventure.

What I’d failed to disclose is that although those cities were in my heart, Lebanon was in my bloodstream, pulling me in all sorts of directions for as long as I could remember. I didn’t love Beirut the way that Drew did, but I noticed the tragedy of not loving it. Its significance was a lot more than holiday dreams gone sweet or sour, than love found on the shore of the Mediterranean, than delicious food enjoyed in vibrant atmospheres, with intricately dressed women providing the ideal setting for bemused people watching.

That was the Beirut of tourists, mine was a Beirut of family history – the place where my grandparents, their children in tow, boarded large ships bound for the months-long journey to a strange land down under, not knowing if they would ever return again. Mine was a Beirut of heart-felt tales from my grandmother’s oldest memories, and songs from the old Fairouz movies I still watch today.

Mine was a Beirut of mixed emotions: the city that I flew into on the cusp of my womanhood was one I couldn’t fly out of as bombs dropped on to it in July 2006, but a city whose sparkling lights along the coast at night beckoned me to embed some happy memories into the tortured ones I’d had when contemplating that I’d fly back into it as a foreigner: married to someone so far removed from its mountainous ranges and deep valleys, from its smells of zaatar and baklava, from its age-old traditions and familial ways. This time, my Lebanese name was gone and I was a Westerner, here to enjoy a summer vacation in a city known for its wild parties (Beirut was named the Party Capital of the World in 2009 by The New York Times) and opulent resorts.

I used the opportunity of that vacation to remove myself from the tug and pull of my homeland to be the objective journalist, writing a travel story for Yen magazine on the city. I got to know it as a tourist, not as a girl who’d grown up with tales and traditions of the motherland dominating her existence. An existence which facilitated an identity crisis that paved the way for a 66,000 word novel on the subject that doesn’t promise any more answers. An identity crisis fuelled by teenage memories seeing ‘Lebanese Gangs’ plastered on the front pages of tabloid newspapers, making everyone around me question whether or not people like me warranted a place in this Great South Land. An identity crisis which, at 26 years old, I am still having.

A few weeks ago, a car bomb ripped through the Achrafieh, one of the beautiful districts of Beirut, a Christian-populated area filled with clubs and cafes. While Lebanese people around me expressed their sorrow that their country will never have peace, I realised that the tragedy goes further than I ever knew.

Australian-Lebanese people flock to their motherland to enjoy the R&R that they would never find here. In our fast-paced society, we’re always working ahead, never stopping to enjoy life like we’re supposed to. In Lebanon, they experience a burst of energy, a renewal of self, brought on by the fact that every person there lives for the moment.

With every car bomb, political drama and threat of war, the resilient people of Lebanon keep going, keep living, keep striving, keep loving. But they savour every moment of their life, knowing it might fall to pieces in a matter of hours.

In some respects, when I think about my stresses and my bad days and my conflicted work-life balance, I envy them. Despite the tensions raging through their streets out of the blue, they know a peace that we will never have. A peace we fly all the way to an Ashram in India to find.

Therein lies the bigger picture: in war the Lebanese have a peace which I, in my constant peace, am yet to find. And the more I think about it, the more I realise: with lessons, adventures and stories weaving in and out of its crazy streets and etching themselves in the hearts of expats in Rio, Sydney, Pittsburgh and Paris, what is there not to LOVE about my motherland’s capital city?



Pressure, Hard Work & Fears of being a one-book wonder

                                                                                                                        Source: via Quiana on Pinterest


“Book writing, by comparison, feels invisible. It is countless hours spent alone, perfecting ideas that are too complex to explain to strangers you meet at cocktail parties. It is enforced humbleness (or at least enforced daily stomping on that ego and desire for affirmation); being willing to continue toiling when you’re pretty sure anyone else would have shipped by now, because you and the gatekeepers you’ve installed around you want to make sure you get the damn thing right.” – Rachel Hills, Invisible Work

Right now, I am in a grip of quiet terror. Or not so quiet, if you’re my husband or best friend and are accustomed to my daily freak-outs. Having let the dust settle on the exciting news that I am to be an author, that the dream I had started chasing a few years ago was about to become a reality, that something in my life was going somewhere AT LAST, I am now dealing with a frightening aftermath.

And that aftermath is the constant worry that I won’t be able to replicate the ease in which I wrote my first novel. And when I say ease, I am not talking about the effort, the time, the thought process of concocting a storyline and characters that would be both believable and compelling enough to warrant the turning of a page.

I mean the ease of writing without pressure. Without knowing what would happen when and if it finished. Without the commitments of a contract, or the advance sitting in my bank compelling me to work for it. Without a deadline, or waiting publishers, or even an audience whom I have excitedly shared my book news with.

The reality is, there’s no way out of that worry for me. At least right now anyway. I have under a year to write a novel, to create new characters, share their stories, get to know them as intimately as I did the last ones so that they eventually – in some alternate writer’s universe – become real.

The worry is mostly based on what Rachel Hills terms invisible work. Work that sees her like a duck in the water, “peddling furiously beneath the surface, but seemingly standing still”. The kind of work that now typifies my days and nights: sitting in front of a computer, compelling words to come. But they don’t. 

Instead I have to contend with working against my own thoughts and self-doubts. The kind of thoughts that remind me that it took years to write my first novel, writing maybe 15,000 words a year in short weekend-long bursts of productivity then going eight months without even opening the document, whereas now I only have months. Thoughts that have me stress about storylines, even though I didn’t have one when I started writing the first book and just let my characters take me on a journey through their lives, after I had sufficiently grasped the melodrama in their heads. Thoughts that remind me that it’s not only invisible, but solitary. 

Hills struggles with not being able to talk about it also. For me, it’s because it’s all internal. Not because I have the kind of new, smart, intellectual ideas that will make up her first book, but because I have virtually shunned company to meet my deadline. I have to tell people I cannot come out to lunch because I have to write, and then I have to deal with the anxiety of them walking away thinking I am sort of workaholic when essentially I just sit there watching TV or reading magazines or buying things on Ebay. Waiting for a fictitious teenager whose name, age and school I have scrawled on a notebook to wake up so I can follow his/her day in my head, then put it out on my laptop.  

The above excerpt from Hills’ latest blog post on Musings of an Inappropriate Woman is typical of what I am feeling right now. The angst, the worry, the concern. The desire to emerge from my wordsmith slumber to protest that I am doing something – anything – to justify the MANY hours I spend typing away at a keyboard or staring at a screen. The eagerness to have my work come out just so I can validate the effort and worry that is now consuming me constantly – maybe to some sort of reader acclaim so I can feel encouraged to keep pursuing this difficult stage of my work despite the fear and self-doubt.

I’ve questioned how I can possibly utilise the excitement of being published to sit down and wait out the period of editing, production, cover design, marketing plans and the like (before I even see the fruits of my labour) to my advantage. How I can use that waiting period to emulate the toil of work #1 into work #2.

People conversing with me now tell me that it must be easier, writing a second book. But if anything, it’s harder. It’s harder because I have a commitment now. I have ‘gatekeepers’, just like Hills’, who encourage me to work and perfect and fine-tune, all the while knowing that they will then go over that perfection I tried to achieve with a fine-tooth comb and find more flaws that I will then have to re-work in a cycle so painful it burns. Not just because of ego, but because of effort and heart and soul, and the watching eyes of family and friends who are proud of me, but who don’t understand the process that sees me cut myself off, resigned to an abyss of my own making. 

It turns out that I am my own gatekeeper, as Hills must be also, because although she’s ‘peddling furiously’, I know she’s commandeering the peddles: knowing that it is the same issues that make her want to perfect whatever she puts out, no matter the time or the risk or the struggle.

Sometimes, we force ourselves to stand still, to remain invisible, to turn off. Even though on the inside, we don’t. I don’t stop working when my husband sees me turn off the computer and retire to bed: there’s always a little me in my brain that keeps going, even when I am shaving my legs, dancing at a wedding or buying shoes. A little me who never switches off, but instead spends her time thinking, writing, waiting. 

Waiting for the day when a character comes in, tells the brain’s little-me what happened (and if I’m lucky, why it’s so bad), and asks me to write it down. Until then, I just have to wait it out.   

My only wish is that my character is not on Lebanese timing. Because even though I am invisibly working 24/7, my gatekeepers (and readers) can only see what’s there on the surface, not under the water.

Or in reality, the stories on the page, not in my head.  

PR Queen Roxy Jacenko talks her new book, working motherhood & her own chases…

She started her own PR company at the tender age of 24, took it from strength to strength in competitive environments and thus changed the face of fashion PR in Australia. And in 2011, the woman at the helm of Sweaty Betty PR added international offices, a new baby and a hot-selling novel to her super-stylish name. We had a chat with Roxy Jacenko about her new book, Strictly Confidential and the aphrodites that have flowed from all her hard work when putting her business at the top of its game – and keeping it there.

Roxy, Strictly Confidential is your first foray into books. How does it feel to be able to add ‘author’ to your wonderful list of credentials as a dynamic entrepreneur and business woman, mother, and to some, super-stylish lady on the Sydney social scene? It’s CRAZY! It wasn’t until the first actual copy printed in book format with a glossy cover hit my desk that it actually hit me!

Were there any moments throughout the book writing process where you wanted to stop with the project and just stick to your day job? Not at all – the book was a challenge and I love that about it!

How did you deal with it when the writing and the working got too much? We know that your working day extends beyond that of most other workers, so in what ways did you get to stop and reconnect with yourself in order to be able to increase your output? I suppose I don’t look at it being something that was a burden – more an exciting opportunity and also a challenge – my days aren’t 9 to 5 by any stretch and a book was just something else I threw into the mix. I am not really the type to sit back and relax so I loved the fact that on a Sunday when work slowed down I could spend some time working on it for a whole day!

Was the novel a long time coming? Or were you able to write in a very swift and quick manner because you were writing about something you live and breathe on a daily basis? The process was approximately 1.5 years, from the time the Publishers at Allen & Unwin approached me, however the actual writing process was about 10 months. Writing a book of this nature which is heavily based on my experiences in the PR world wasn’t  overly challenging as I had plenty of actual experiences I could draw on from for inspiration and then get a little ‘more’ creative with them to create a fun and light read with sparkle!

Take us through the routine you maintained when running the business while simulatenously writing the book. Did you write at night? During the day? On weekends? What inspired you, when and how? I actually spoke into a dicatphone daily! The best invention EVER! Every afternoon while driving home from a busy day at Sweaty Betty PR HQ I would recount the days events, past experiences that I would remember and any funny moments I could think of. They then were put together to form a book. There was definitely no ‘rigid’ routine. The only regular activity was meets every 2nd or 3rd week with my fabulous publisher to discuss where I was at and which parts she felt were/weren’t working! (more…)

War and Journalism

Lois: Kill, or be Killed.
Clark: Lois, you’re talking about war. This is journalism.
Lois: See, your problem is that you think there’s a difference.

From Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – Season 1, Episode 12

As regular readers of this blog might know, I am an ardent Superman fan. I love the man of style in all his incarnations, and Lois Lane too (although, admittedly, I was slightly disappointed by Kate Bosworth playing my idol) – I even have Lois Lane magnets on my fridge (way too much information, maybe?).

Anyway, I tend to watch and re-watch episodes from my favourite series depicting the two from time to time, and I recently couldn’t stop laughing at this particular conversation between Lane and Kent in the newsroom. Those of you familiar with the series would no doubt be aware that Teri Hatcher’s depiction of Lois is not hilarious if not oddly confronting – the woman gets herself into situations and out of them by the sheeer stupidity of pursuing a story before she even thinks her plan through. Then again, the baddies might not be the same in the real world, but I am always struck by her competitiveness, even at the cost of being alienated by her colleagues.

It makes me wonder about the competition that others ask me about when it comes to writing freelance. Magazines might be competing for sales on the stands, but are freelancers competing for work? I tend to think that most of the competition in the industry is healthy – along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you nabbed a by-line on Marie-Claire, that’s awesome, I wish I could do that’ as opposed to ‘How the Fuck did she achieve that, I am jealous’. Well, at least for me anyway.

I happened to learn by example from one of my favourite writers and mentors, Rachel Hills, who was always been fairly altruistic when it comes to freelance writing. These days, writing is her sole way of making a living and she’s doing amazingly well for herself.

For the first time in my freelancing life, things are kind of quiet. I am not having a lot of success pitching to the magazines I normally write for, sometimes because my pitches are not right for the direction a new editor wants to take the magazine in; sometimes because they’re too similar in topic (ie, social networking) to a previous story, even if they are nothing alike in content and subject matter; and sometimes because the sources need to be presented in a particular light and the sources themselves choose not to go that way (for example, a potential story on cheating recently fell through because the magazine insisted the cheater be named and photographed).

As much as my quiet freelance life pains me (I derive a lot of my pleasure and self-esteem from seeing my name in print, even if that is odd, wrong and any other negative way you can describe it), I love the fact that I am also writing a book, which prevents me from wallowing in despair in a foetal position on the floor of my study. I am not launching scathing attacks (even inside my head) on other freelancers’ success or trying to beat everyone I know to the success punch.

In war, you’re competing for territory, prizes or whatever. In freelance journalism, the territory is the small number of pages allocated to freelance writers or money that they could potentially earn from those pages depending on the alloted freelance budget. But in addition to the work I have tried to do via this blog, I see tweets of advice and links to opportunities, freelance writers sharing tips and tricks with their fellow freelancers, and writer’s clubs springing up left, right and centre.

I’m glad for that. It is the calm in the freelancing, print-is-dying, post GFC war.