Tamim Ansary is the author of a novel, history books, a number of children's books, and two memoirs. Also, as an editor and teacher, Tamim dedicates much of his time to helping others tell their true-life stories. In this interview, Tamim shares his thoughts on the creative process of writing nonfiction (and fiction).
Find out more about his books at http://mirtamimansary.com/books/ and his writing workshops at https://memoirpool.com/workshops/
What is memoir to you? And how does writing fiction and nonfiction differ in your experience?
All writing, for me at least, is a struggle to transform the formless mush of the world into something clear and visible. Memoir is about mulching experience into meaning. History is about finding a shape in the tumult of public events. In my experience, no writing project goes through an orderly set of stages: it never begins with an intention to write X, and then to writing Chapter One, and then to Chapter Two, and then on and on to “The End.” It’s all chaos at first, but gradually some sort of order emerges, and if I’m lucky, what emerges is a book. Or an essay. Or maybe an email. Or at least a haiku.
For me, fiction and nonfiction both start with a vague intuition of something that doesn’t exist as words. Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes more like the feeling one has waking up from a powerful dream one can’t quite remember. The question always is how to bring this shy animal into the light where it can be seen. For me, the only way forward is to keep my attention fixed on the “something,” and while I’m looking at it, generate a story without paying attention to the words—letting those stream out as they will. Afterwards, I can look at the words and begin to articulate the “something.”
My novel, The Widow’s Husband, began with a dreamlike image of a strange old man wandering over a hill to live on the slope above a small Afghan village a couple of hundred years ago. That’s all I had at first. Who was this guy? What was going on down in the village? What did they think about this old man? What was happening in the larger world around the village? The image generated questions and the questions generated the novel.
My memoir, Road Trips, began with the intuition that “every journey is an odyssey.” However, the book I’m working on now began with the phrase “ripple effect.” I was reading certain books about world history, and I kept stumbling across interconnections among different cultures, and that phrase popped into my head. Five years later, I have 450 pages drafted, and I’m still unpacking the implications of that phrase: ripple effects.
What led you to writing your memoirs, West of Kabul, East of New York and Road Trips: Becoming an American in the Vapor Trail of the Sixties?
I was drawn to writing memoir about 25 years ago when I started working on a novel based on my experiences as a bicultural person. At some point, I realized that the stories I was telling were much more vivid and “story-like” when I cast aside the fictionalizing and just recounted what really happened. I think “story” is an essential current running through real life. Fiction moves us because it stirs feelings we’ve actually had. Great fiction distills themes out of experience, but memoir can do that too. It’s all a matter of leaving out what’s trivial and dialing up what’s profound.
The two memoirs I wrote started out as one book. I was going to call it Road Trips. It started one night when I told a friend about a time I tried to drive across the continent with no money in my pocket and ran into a blizzard in Nebraska. I thought I was going to share an anecdote, but for some reason, I started the story much earlier, two years earlier, in fact. Apparently, something in me knew the story wasn’t the blizzard per se, nor even the drive across the continent. The story included what led to taking that journey and what came of having taken it. It took me an hour to tell the tale, and I told it from start to finish in one sitting. I’d never done that before. My friend was kind enough to listen with interest and without interruption (except for an occasional, “Aha!” or “I see.”). Once I was done, I saw that the story of my journey had a narrative arc to it. I hadn’t realized it at the time, because you never see the story while it’s happening, you’re too busy dealing with the crocodiles of the present moment. It struck me that every journey to someplace far away and difficult to reach has the character of an odyssey if considered as a single whole, but it’s only in retrospect that you can see the whole. So, I thought I could pick three journeys I’ve been on, three that felt important to me, and write each from start to finish in a single sitting, and that way, in just three nights of work, I’ll have me a little book. As it turned out, writing is different from talking to a friend; I spent years on the project, but the original impulse continued to inform the work throughout.
As I was noodling away at the story of three iconic journeys, it struck me that all three of the journeys I had picked took place after I came to the United States. I had grown up in Afghanistan, I came to the United States when I was 16, and that was a pretty traumatic transition, and I wondered why I had not thought to include the journey from Afghanistan to America as one of my stories. But when I tried to write that one, I discovered that I had no specific memories of that actual journey: not the airport in Kabul, not my arrival in Chicago, not anything that happened during my first three or four months in America. How curious! It got me wondering what, if anything, I did remember about my 16 years in Afghanistan. At that point my writing project changed from recounting journeys to scuba diving for memories. Every day around 4 p.m., I’d sit down and type anything I could remember about Afghanistan, in no particular order. In that way I generated about a thousand pages—pages that no one had read, not even me, because one of my rules for myself was “Don’t edit, just write” (I’ve found that the moment I start reading anything I’ve written I get drawn into editing). So, I wrote those thousand pages without reading a single one of them.
Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly Afghans and Americans were shouting at each other, and each side had no idea what the other was saying. I was sitting on the wall between them, able to see both sides, hear both languages. My agent urged me to write a nonfiction book about Afghanistan, and I saw her point. I looked through my thousand pages and found West of Kabul, East of New York in there. So the book I wrote at that point didn’t turn out to be about journeys or odysseys. The social context dictated that it be about Before and After—about living a life with one foot in Afghanistan and one foot in America. Technically, it was a memoir, but it wasn’t as much about me as it was about that fault-line in the world between East and West, as seen through bicultural eyes.
In West of Kabul, however, I included one of the three iconic journeys I was going to use in Road Trips: traveling across the Islamic world in 1980 and then coming home to marry my wife Debby. I still wanted to write Road Trips, but it felt like I had crippled the book by using up one of the journeys. Now I had only two iconic journeys to recount and for some unknown reason, the book wanted to be three journeys. I couldn’t figure out what the third journey was, how the book would be one single whole, so I put it away for the time being. Years later, I realized what the third journey should be, and with that I saw what Road Trips was: a story set in the late sixties and early seventies when I lived in Portland, when the counterculture was my world, when Portland was the place I kept leaving and coming back to, a story that ended when I left Portland for good. When I came to Portland I was an Afghan kid, when I left Portland, I was an America fellow. Therefore, Road Trips was about turning into an American guy. But my personal transformation occurred against the backdrop of America going through an epic transformation of its own, from the radical sixties to the Reagan era. My story and the story of the culture were intertwined, and that’s the story I ended up telling in Road Trips.
What led you into teaching memoir? And what are the joys of teaching memoir craft?
After twenty-two years running the San Francisco Writers Workshop, I wanted a deeper engagement with memoir, more continuity, more focus. So I started some small workshops that focus only on writing real-life stories. I limit each workshop to five members (plus me), and right now we meet six times over the course of twelve weeks. Each session is devoted to pretty intense discussion of each person’s submission for that week, and over the course of time I have been able to play some part in the emergence of a number of whole books.
What’s really stunning and great is the variety and intensity of human experience. It seems like everyone who comes to my workshops has an astounding tale to tell. Maybe there’s some self-selection there; people who have taken it into their heads to write a memoir are more likely to have a dramatic story than the average person. With these workshops, there’s no small-talk—the conversation immediately goes right to the stuff that matters.
On your website, you say to memoirists: "Your job is not to create the story but to discover it, because in nonfiction 'story' is not something you impose upon the facts; it’s something you reveal through the facts." Can you explain this further?
I’m saying the story is already there, the way gold is already there in certain places although hard to see because it’s mixed with sand and covered with dirt. If you set out to write a memoir, you’re already claiming you have a story to tell, and you should have faith in that claim. Certain things happened and they felt like a story to you and there’s a reason for that. The question is, why did they feel like a story? What makes those events a story? It’s because they have resonance for some mysterious reason; they have meaning, they have impact. And if you clear away the dross of everyday life until you find that meaning and communicate that impact, and if you create something that another person can experience—feel what you felt, saw what you saw—you’ve done something pretty great. When events feel like a story, it’s worth telling because there’s no other story quite like it. If, as you’re writing, you decide that you can improve your story by altering or adding to it, chances are you’re bringing in elements from other stories you have heard or seen, and your story may end up more sensational but less moving.
As an editor of memoir, what are you looking for in the manuscript and how do you help the author raise the quality of their writing?
Editing begins with structure. You help the writer look at the whole draft and ask what the story is really about. Where does it start? Where does it get to? What’s the turning point? Is there content missing? Where does it end? Most important of all—does something change, is something revealed? Is there content that maybe reads really well but doesn’t contribute to the arc of the story and should therefore come out?
The second stage of editing is largely about details. Most drafts suffer from being too general, too expository. I try to push writers to remember what exactly happened in terms of physical and sensory details: sights, sounds, textures, tastes, odors, etc.
And the final stage is language, and what I largely do as an editor—of my own work and of other people’s—is fix sentences. So much depends on the music of syntax. So much depends on using the exact word instead of the good-enough word.
What mistakes do you see most often in memoir manuscripts?
Writers know a lot about themselves, and they reflexively assume their readers know them and share their assumptions. They don’t appreciate that, on page one, they are strangers to their readers; they are nobody. If I’m told my brother just broke his leg, I feel the ouch. If I’m told that someone broke his or her leg, somewhere in the world, theoretically I’m sorry to hear it, but I’m not really that sorry. Memoirists can’t just tell their readers what happened, they have to let readers know who this is happening to, and that requires writers to see themselves as others might see them. Often that means they have to develop a sense of irony that permits them to realize they weren’t always the good guys. And that can be uncomfortable, but rewarding, because that’s the other challenge in writing a memory: everyone has an official story of themselves they’re carrying around in their head. As a writer, you only start getting into the good stuff when you break through your own official narrative and start discovering the story-of-yourself you never knew.
What should someone do before they sit down to write the first draft of a memoir?
I don’t think there is a before. Like Yoda, I say there is only "do.” The first step is to sit down and start typing (or scribbling, for those few who still work with pen and paper). At first, you’re not writing the memoir, you’re writing about the memoir, you’re telling a theoretical close friend (a.k.a. yourself) what you’re going to say when you start writing your memoir, a theoretical friend who is endlessly interested and patient, so you can ramble at will and express yourself clumsily and beat around the bush as long as it takes to get to the point.
Are you planning to write another memoir? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I haven’t given any thought to a new memoir project, because I’m neck-deep in writing a difficult book right now—I say “neck-deep” but that’s on good days; on bad days, I feel like I’m in way in over my head. To the extent that I have any next project in view, it won’t be a memoir, but it might be a nonfiction book about how to write a memoir, the working title of which will be: How to Write a Memoir—Or Anything, Really.
And finally, what is your favorite “book with spine”?
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan comes to mind. It masquerades as a children’s story but it’s actually a profoundly unsettling rumination on time and loss and life and change and death. But somehow, right along with all that, it’s also a biting satire of Victorian social roles and, by implication, social roles in Western civilization as a whole. Quite a lot for one slender book to accomplish!