The Writing Life: From Beirut and Cambodia to New York, Florida, and Parts Unknown

August 17, 2012 | 8 3 min read

Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.

Key to the plan was leaving my daughter in Illinois, where — with my dad’s recent death — my mom had recently bought a house on six acres, near my wife’s parents, Steve and Claudia, who lived in the same small town. All three were retired, and could do pretty much anything they wanted. But the world was a big place, and sometimes you stayed where you felt most at home.

Children can be an anchor. During the two weeks I was at the writing conference, where was my wife? Mostly in Yemen, where she met a boy who said he cowered in the rocks one night after what was an apparent American airstrike, waiting for daylight to try to find his father and brother. When the sun came out, he found them, scattered in pieces, a red sludge.

Once upon a time, she and I lived in Turkey and Iraq. And before that, it was Saudi Arabia, where our little girl was born. Before all that, it was a big job in New York, which I left to walk along the ocean. Why did I do that? I’m still trying to figure it out.

I can be a private person. Shy. It was a strange experience to hear the long-time director of the writing conference, Bob Boyers, stand in front of a room and talk about having lunch with the same guy four times a week, for 26 years. I’m not sure I’ve had lunch with the same guy four times, like, ever.

Ever since it was up to me, I suppose, I’ve been on the move. Early on, it was hitchhiking across the West, fishing in Alaska, a summer doing construction in Hawaii. I made it to all 50 states, thinking that mattered. Then I took a newspaper internship in Cambodia, where I met my wife. Eventually, we made it in New York, but then I decided to take that walk. Then Kelly said, OK, it’s my turn. So we moved to the Middle East.

So now it’s a life in Lebanon, and the decision to leave, and then the decision to attend this conference, where everyone hopes someday to succeed, whatever that might mean, but for now we sleep in the dorms. There’s the green poster on the door, about sexual assault, the number to call, how you shouldn’t wash your privates. The handicapped bathroom, with its flickering light and half-empty bottle of male body-wash. The thin carpet and the poster about studying abroad and the faded photo of an RA, whose favorite color is blue. Favorite hobby: watching movies.

In the dining hall, it was all you can eat — and I couldn’t stop, could you? We were all getting older, larger, with sophisticated appetites, as if we were almost a different species than the highschoolers on campus for their own summer improvement programs — dancers, jazz trumpeters, math nerds — all of the kids chirping at some higher register, like a dog whistle or a swarm of swallows, this mad rush at lunch for the french fries, a silver tray of meat, no idea of the complications that lay ahead. I’d owned leather jackets heavier than some of them, yet that gave no obvious advantage. Some day, some of them might be 33 years old, sitting at a desk, trying to write.

It wasn’t easy. I wanted to finish a book. Be a good dad. Get an MFA. Be a good husband. I’d lined up a teaching job at a university in Beirut. Got an essay in a publication that might impress you. Called my mom as much as I could. I couldn’t call my dad, he was dead. When do you know if it’s actually starting to add up, when you can say, OK, yes, this is real, it’s actually happening.

Among members of the Skidmore faculty, the answers seemed different. For novelist Allan Gurganus, there was a hotel room in Iowa City, and John Cheever was pouring scotch. For Elizabeth Benedict, there was a sublet in Washington DC, and she left the oven door open, trying the keep the place warm, and when the editor visited he was appalled. Poet Campbell McGrath and his wife moved to Miami Beach, and yet the Genius Grant people managed to find them anyway.

There’s only so much time, and it’s a big world. Wherever we are, we work at it, making decisions, and then one day — and we may not even know when it comes —  the scales begin to tip and the waiting turns into the having done it already.

Photo Credit: Flickr/geishaboy500

lives in Beirut and is an MFA candidate at the University of Tampa. He has written essays for Salon, Slate, The Awl, and LA Review of Books. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.


  1. Thirty-three, father of two as of six weeks ago, already did my MFA, now I’m just trying to write the book, be all those good things to those people while I work swinging a sledge hammer for the railroad to keep us fed and the doctor bills cheap. In other words: I feel you, brother. Keep it up.

  2. I love your writing, Nathan. Keep it coming! I would still like to read that book about your walk to New Orleans.

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