Spilled Ink and Tears: Healing Through Writing

LAU’s 11th Creative Writing Competition helps students find catharsis in relaying health-related memoirs through poetry and prose.

By Luther J. Kanso

Ms. Paula Habre and Dr. Sleiman El-Hajj organized, hosted and juried the event.

When American essayist, philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau withdrew into the woods around the shores of Walden Pond for two years, he went on a voyage of spiritual discovery which he documented in a book.

Years later, as the world shakes off the shackles of the pandemic, the need for a medium to channel one’s stories of hardship and endurance has never been greater. Similar to Thoreau’s retreat from civil society, the solitude and contemplation imposed by the lockdown, albeit unintended, fueled a need to share narratives and find solace in collective understanding. This need has been all the more acute in Lebanon in the aftermath of the August 4 Beirut Explosion.

To that end, the Department of Communication, Arts and Languages at the School of Arts and Sciences dedicated its 11th Annual Creative Writing Competition (CWC) to Illness Writing and Health Memoirs, providing participants with the opportunity to present a candid narrative on a physical or mental illness. The event, as in the past four years, was organized, hosted and juried by Senior Instructor of English and former Director of the LAU Writing Center Paula Abboud Habre and Assistant Professor of Creative and Journalistic Writing Sleiman El Hajj.

“While the art of auto-somatography – a first-person account of an affliction or suffering – has become popular in the West, there remains a lack of such representation in the local and regional Arab context,” explained Dr. El Hajj. Having introduced Life Writing and Illness Writing to the Creative Writing Program, he added, this year’s competition reflects his students’ writings over the past five years on “deeply intimate subjects related to coming of age in the Lebanese setting.” 

Clinical assistant professors at the Gilbert and Rose-Marie Chagoury School of Medicine Nancy Chedid and Jinane El Khoury prefaced the awards ceremony by reading excerpts from their health memoirs, which are part of a forthcoming volume on illness writing edited by Dr. El Hajj – Illness Writing in Lebanon: Converging Pathologies and Lived Narratives Since August 4, 2020.

The ceremony, during which winners in the Prose and Poetry categories were announced, was held on April 28. Winner of first place in poetry Layla Maria El Hachem, first place in prose Narjess Haidar and second place in prose Reem El Zouheiry relay their participatory experience and writing journey below.

How important was it for you to have a platform to express your lived experiences related to illness and other cultural maladies? And why?

“Normally, mental health is a subject to avoid at all costs in our society. However, on this day, the stigma against mental illness was defeated between the walls of Irwin Auditorium … I was able to reveal my scars without any shame, to heal the part of me that was still wounded and to give sound to the voice that was silenced in the time that flew by.” – Layla Maria El Hachem

“I was able to release and validate raw feelings and memories from my childhood as well as revisit them as an adult, as we often do in our writing classes … This [competition] made me realize that time does not heal wounds; it just makes them rusty. Writing, in that sense, was a good way for me to express my experiences and memories related to traumatic moments we endured as a country.” – Narjess Haidar

“Nine years ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder. It was difficult to truly understand when you’re so young, but what I saw was the slow progression of his illness. Only when given the platform to explore the implications of his illness was I able to not only understand him but also connect with him better.” – Reem El Zouheiry

Can you share some of the challenges that you faced in writing about such sensitive and personal topics?

“While writing the poem, I had to dive into the past, investigate sensitive pictures and search for inspiration in the most obscure areas of my memory. I, 19-year-old Layla Maria, couldn’t handle the pain that 17-year-old anorexic Layla Maria was silently carrying, so I handed the pen to the unhealed past version of myself and, soon after, she was writing the poem in an attempt to heal herself.” – Layla Maria El Hachem

“I’ve always found myself feeling uneasy when I wanted to write about myself. However, at a certain point, I became aware that most of us have gone through situations that shocked us, pressured us and thereby changed the way we now perceive the world and ourselves.” – Narjess Haidar

“The responsibility I had subsequently placed on my own shoulders seemed to be the biggest challenge … No matter how much I loved what I had written, it never felt enough. When I decided on the topic, my fingers seemed to type by order of my heart, not my mind. Writing about this seemed to be something I was honor-bound to do.” – Reem El Zouheiry

Reflecting on the overall experience, what impact did participating in the competition at LAU have on your growth as a writer?

“I owe it to the art pounding in my heart to keep fighting with my words for the sake of others who are scared to be heard. I realized that perhaps what I went through was not in vain and that perhaps it could help other people fighting the same illness.” – Layla Maria El Hachem

“Honestly, it was greatly heartwarming to have connected with people who found it relatable because they have gone through something similar. Having my writing be able to speak to someone else’s heart has been my dream for so long, ever since I read something that connected to my heart for the first time in my life.” – Narjess Haidar

“My grandfather was hospitalized a week after I won second place in the competition. While we were in the hospital, I read excerpts of my piece to him. A week later, he passed away. Other than the obvious pride that winning a competition brings, as well as the humility of seeing the works of the other winners, I came to realize how personal and intimate writing can be. To see my grandfather reflected in my work, living in it even when he’d left us otherwise, is a choking sort of feeling.” – Reem El Zouheiry