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29th April 2024

Y Knots author Omar Sabbagh gives his advice to young writers

Omar Sabbagh

My first ever publication as an aspiring writer was in 2004.  I’d attended a brief course in creative writing in late 2002, at the American University of Beirut (AUB).  This was after I’d left my undergraduate berth at Oxford months earlier.  And it just so happened that a piece I wrote, ‘Benches,’ a surreal, dream-like short story written in the second person and influenced by my having recently read at the time Kazuo Ishiguro’s breathtaking but disorienting book, The Unconsoled, was scooped up by my course instructor, Professor Roseanne Khalaf for an anthology she was putting together with another editor, Transit Beirut (Saqi Books, 2004).  Since that time, I have published much work in different genres, from short fiction, to poetry, to full-length novellas, to different kinds of critical writing, devolving from scholarly papers to literary reviews and journalism.  But in October of 2023, my short fiction collection, Y Knots (Liquorice Fish Books) was published.  It collates in one volume most of my best short form imaginative prose published between 2004 and 2022.

There are a few dovetailing reasons for the title of the collection, and they synergize in a nicely serendipitous way.  Firstly, many of the stories register and explore (if they don’t always resolve) issues of identity; and being a male, and the male chromosome being ‘Y’, the title in this sense is apposite.  Secondly, and perhaps more banal, any writer of fiction knows that stories are driven by tensions, which trigger and spur the river of narrative.  Hence the invoked concept of ‘knots.’  However, another sense, more philosophical, derives from an insight that became increasingly compelling for me as I moved from my twenties into my thirties and now, forties.

When we are young, and I mean by this later adolescence into young adulthood, our tendency is to try to understand or comprehend all the phenomena and anomalies that surround us or interest us.  Bookish youths like myself hunger to answer each and every why-question; to as it were, necessitate our experience.  The older one gets, however, and the more of one’s expanding life-experience is seen to be or to have been unpredictable, the more complicated and entangled life gets, the more we realise how little ‘control’ (mental, as otherwise) we really do have over the course of our lives, the more the question (if now rhetorical) to ask becomes, not ‘why?’ but rather, hey-ho, ‘why not?’  This is why I think I was a lot more skeptical about things like religion in my youth.  The older I got, the more I might look at historical phenomena like the miracle of Mohamad’s message or indeed the idea that God became man and walked the earth, and so on, and say to myself (given enough experience in our topsy-turvy world), well, why not?  Why not believe that such phenomena might have truly happened?  Not, therefore, trying to reduce them or explain them away.  One becomes more accepting as one ages, I think, because there’s little other option, if one wishes to stay sane and/or bear the possibility of some kind of happiness or at least, contentment.

And so, here’s my two pence of advice.  As a young writer with literary aspirations, you need to get in the habit of accepting rejection like a friend, because like a friend, it will, nearly always, visit you often near the start of your serious efforts.  Treat rebuffs as opportunities to hone and chisel the muscle of your writing.  And though as a writerly type you’re bound to be more of a perfectionist than others, who may be blessed or cursed with less artistic temperaments, try to always show patience with yourself.  Thinking that writing needs to be prepared to perfection in mind before you put pen to paper is a flawed way of looking at the practice of writing, because of the simple reason that you do need to be fully in the medium to fully know where you are going.  Because, in short, though thoughts may precede words, words deployed always then engender thoughts.  It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle: it’s a gladdening and exciting cycle that most writers feel emboldened by as they write.  A quest of sorts, it’s where the magic happens; and if you bear too much puritanism with yourself or with others, in the senses outlined above, your quest may be more likely to end in a cul-de-sac.


As well as learning to accept yourself as a writer and the role that others will inevitably play in your writerly life, you need to be above all else patient.  I myself flout that bit of advice on a daily basis, but it still remains valid.  You might be in your early twenties, and feel that as a writer you need to get ahead, but the truth is that if you were ever going to get somewhere in the literary world, you will indeed get there, by hook or by crook.  I look back to my small delight in having my first piece of writing tout court published in 2004, and I know that at that time I never envisaged some of my successes, pound for pound of course.  Be patient.  There is a term I learnt from Ford Madox Ford, discussing technique, ‘progression d’effet’ (I think, like many such terms applied to prose, it originates as applied to the drama).  It indicates why in a narrative the unraveling of the plot or events or themes, or what have you, speeds-up proportionally the further you are in it.  Simply because, I suppose, the more ‘causes’ as it were laid down in prose, the more and the quicker the ‘effects’ come.  It’s actually quite commonsensical.  However, it also applies to one’s writerly career, often enough.  I have had work published in the last six or seven years that far outweighs in both quality and quantity the previous fifteen or so.  So, keep plugging away: one day you’ll look over your own writerly shoulder and marvel at what you may have achieved.



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