Jessica Semaan’s earliest memory is one of her most difficult: packing her belongings into a car and driving to the bomb shelters of coastal Lebanon. The Lebanese Civil War was peaking, and shells were raining down on her home. Her family survived, but Jessica never forgot the feeling of being at war. Thirty years later, those memories have crystallized into an intense desire to heal and to write.
On an internet that judges, criticizes, and “takes,” Jessica’s poems and stories are an oasis of honesty and vulnerability. Every piece offers clear perspectives on self-love, ambition, and how (not) to change yourself. Writing is how Jessica accesses her shadow — the part of herself that’s scariest to share. Envy, loneliness, shame, lust. All the things we love to conceal behind soft-focus filters and ironic emojis.
“A bomb exploded in the courtyard of my primary school,” writes Jessica in a story about the war. In another piece about pain — experiencing it, remembering it, unpacking it like the worst-ever time capsule — she explains, “We don’t write about suffering enough… We socially compartmentalize it until it becomes an old chatty neighbor we avoid every morning as we walk to work.” She uses words like tiny headlamps, illuminating all the internal cobwebs.
There’s no school for this kind of writing. “I didn’t study writing, it’s not like I got a degree in literature. English is not my first language,” Jessica reminds us, “so if I can write, you can write. And now, more than ever, we need people to write.” You don’t have to master sentence structure or memorize The Elements of Style, you just need to have something to say.
Jessica immigrated to the U.S. seven years ago. After four years working at Airbnb, she began to express herself on the internet. Her process is hardly scientific: She surfs the waves of intuition and memory, looking for inspiration in green, watery places. The beach, the park, the woods. Jessica sits, strolls, taps some initial ideas into her phone, meditates a bit, and taps some more. “I wouldn’t want to over-rationalize it,” she says. Ideas often arrive after emptiness, like a breakup or a bout of paralyzing depression.
In our short film, Jessica dives deeper into why she writes and what she’s learned from it.
One of her most popular pieces, “Fuck changing yourself,” plucked the rawest of chords in millions of readers. “Stop land filling your soul,” she writes, “Stop overcrowding your genius. Be naked. Live naked. Thrive naked. Fly naked.” The lines have been highlighted so many times it’s amazing you can still see them. Hundreds of readers responded with words of gratitude (and abundant exclamation points). It’s clear Jessica’s words have healing powers.
More than just writing for herself, or for us, Jessica also writes for her family. During the war, her parents endured a numbing amount of trauma. Survival was paramount. “I view my writing as one of the ways I’m liberating a lot of Arab women in my region,” says Jessica. “A lot of the writing that I do is also in a way to heal my family, because they couldn’t do it.”
In everything she writes, Jessica asks us to stare deep into the face of our issues. Our shit. Get to know it. Feel it out. Use words if you can manage. “Whether you like it or not,” she says, “if we are at war with ourselves, this war will manifest to others.” Peace comes after visiting the darkest, most difficult places, and living to write about it.
Check out some of Jessica’s most Noteworthy stories:
Fuck yes, you’re a writer
While in a Lyft yesterday, a passenger, let’s call her Alarm, asked me what I do for a living. I hesitated. The voice…
When you can’t love yourself
Sometimes you wake up and you can’t love your breath Sometimes you go to bed and you can’t seem to rest They tell you…
Why I am going to Standing Rock
On Wednesday, my friend Joe and I are embarking on a trip to North Dakota, taking supplies and our passion to show…