David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: Tamim Ansary

Photo of author Tamim Ansary smiling

Tamim Ansary on Memoir, Road Trips, Storytelling, Pain and Misery

We first met Tamim Ansary many years ago through an intern who went to the same college as David and Tamim. David attended the San Francisco Writers Workshop, which Tamim ran for many years, and was startled again and again by how smart, kind and wise Mr. Ansary is. Having been a professional writer for four decades and taught hundreds of writers in general, and memoirists in particular, David thought he would pick Tamim’s brain about writing, publishing and storytelling, in anticipation of his new memoir Road Trips.

Read this interview on the Huffington Post.

Photo of author Tamim Ansary smiling

Tamim Ansary

The Book Doctors: Tell us about your new book, what inspired it, and what were some of the joys and difficulties of writing it?

TA: This book started out as an anecdote I wanted to tell my sister about a time I drove across the country in a cheap car with just enough money to cover gas. The crux was, I got caught in a blizzard. But when I started telling the tale, it turned out that it wasn’t enough to talk about the blizzard or the cheap car, I had to include why I was on that journey and what led to it. By the time I was done—hours later (my sister was patient, bless her heart)—I found myself obsessed with the idea that every journey is an odyssey if you consider it as a whole, especially if the destination is far away and difficult to reach, and you include what led to leaving and what came of having gone. So I decided to pick three iconic journeys and write each one up from start to finish in a single sitting, and that way produce a book in, you know, three nights. That was 12 years ago. I just finished. Ah well. The journeys in Road Trips all took place in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. I was a newbie in America, then, coming of age at a remarkable moment in history. The book isn’t about history; it’s a personal story about coming of age. The ‘60s was just the context. I have to say, though, now that I’ve finished the book, it feels strangely relevant to right now. I mean, here we stand, at the threshold of the Age of Trump and it’s important, I think, to remember that there was another time so totally unlike this one. To recover that memory.

TBD: As someone who has written and taught memoirs, why do you think people are so drawn to reading about other people’s pain and misery?

TA: Is a memoir necessarily about pain and misery? Not sure I agree with that. Road Trips has some pain and misery in it, sure, but it also has humor, adventure, romance, pratfalls, pompous philosophical rumination–anything that might turn up in life. Because everything does. The pain and misery genre of memoir taps the impulse that makes us slow down to gawk at car accidents. And there’s a place for that. Mos’def. Memoirs like that can draw us into empathy with experiences we ourselves will never have to endure. That could be me, you think. But it can work the other way too. It can give you a glad sense of separation from experiences you’ll never have. Thank God, that’s not me. The kind of memoir that interests me is today’s version of the storytelling our species did 40,000 years ago, when we were little bands of hunter-gatherers huddled around our fires. That kind of memoir stokes our sense of human interconnection because it’s not just the people who were raised by wolves who have stories. We all have stories. In fact, we all are stories. When we hear one another’s stories, if they’re well-told, we experience the story-like quality of our own lives.

Book cover of Road Trips by Tamim Ansary; person sitting between two photos of other people

Cover of Road Trips by Tamim Ansary

TBD: Why did you decide to start your own publishing company? What are some of the challenges involved in making your own book, and then actually selling it to readers?

TA: The publishing company you’re referring to is Kajakai Press, and it came out of a grant I wrote seven years ago, funded by the Christenson Fund. I proposed to help young Afghan-Americans write about their lives, because here was a generation of young people who felt they had nothing to say. They were growing up in the shadow of their parents’ catastrophe, the holocaust in Afghanistan. Their parents had incredibly dramatic experiences to recount–imprisonment, torture, bombs, abandoning all they owned, running for their lives. Their children? They felt alienated in high school. Big deal! But my premise was, they had stories too, these children. The loneliness of living in the cracks—that’s a story. Growing up in the shadow of a catastrophe and feeling like you have no story—that’s a story. So I did the project, we got some great stuff, and I set up Kajakai Press to publish their work as Snapshots: This Afghan-American Life.

We sold out our print run and let the book go out of print but now, years later, I look at all the people who go through my memoir writing workshops and I feel like I want to help some of them—not all of them but some of them—get their stories to an audience. Because the writers I want to publish do have an audience. There are people out there who want to hear them. What they don’t have is a mass audience. And traditional publishers, unfortunately, can’t publish for many niche audiences—increasingly less so. Fortunately, technology has opened up new vistas with print-on-demand publishing that individual writers or small concerns like mine can access through Createspace, Nook Press, and others.

Distribution is the big problem, though. People often tell me they won’t order a book from Amazon, they’ll only buy books at a bookstore because they want to side with the little guy. I heartily endorse this position. Bookstores and books by traditional publishers offer something vital to the reading public, and that system must not be allowed to perish. But individual authors and imprints like mine are even littler guys. The only way this new niche-audience publishing can survive is for alternative distribution mechanisms to form, and that’ll only happen if readers open up to these alternative systems. Ordering online is going to be part of that. So it’s a process. We have to keep exploring, we have to keep opening up alternatives channels between writers and readers.

TBD: Tell us about your Memoir Pool project.

TA: Last year, I decided to start a website dedicated to the art of telling real life stories. Every week (except when circumstances intrude—like this presidential election) I publish a new story, by me or by someone else. As I said, I’m interested in the stories-told-around-a-campfire kind of memoir and with Memoir Pool I hope to help develop and promote that kind of memoir. Here, the premium is not what happened but what the writer made of it and how he or she told the story. So the stories at Memoir Pool might be about anything. There’s one by Colleen McKee, for example, about her mother giving out 59-cent pads of paper when she worked at “a private insane asylum” in Missouri. There’s another by Rick Schmidt about getting a really good deal on a sandwich thirty years ago. If those don’t sound like stories to you, look them up at www.memoirpool.com. You might change your mind.

TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading right now?

TA: As a kid I liked big 19th century European novels—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev. Elliot and Stendhal. I consumed Dickens and Melville. The sweep! The tapestry! Today, I mainly read suspense thrillers: Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coban. The quicker they move, the better I like ‘em. You see a trajectory here? I do. The thing is, these days, I have to do such a ton of reading for my next project, a history of the world called Ripple Effects, How We Came to Be So Interconnected and Why We’re Still Fighting. You wouldn’t believe how much information you have to gather when you’re trying to tell the story of everything that ever happened from the big bang to the day after tomorrow. Modern literary fiction generally attracts me less than the classics used to or than crime fiction does today, although I have been recommending The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Farber to everyone who will listen.

TBD: You ran the famous San Francisco Writers Workshop for many years. What did you learn as a writer from listening to all those writers read all those words? Do you think that writers should be part of a writing group?

TA: The SFWW got started in 1946 and has met every Tuesday evening since then in some public venue. It’s free and no one maintains it except whoever’s in it at a given time—it’s operated this way for 70 years and counting. If that’s not a mystical phenomenon, I don’t know what is. I ran it for 22 years, but when I stepped down someone else took the reins and it’s still going strong. The great thing about that workshop is that writers flow through. It’s not some single static collection. On any given evening, you see both familiar faces and new faces. I learned a lot about writing by opening my ears to the staggering variety of things people thought worth writing about and the many ways they thought to go about it. Honing in on how to make a piece work when it’s not something you would have written flexes writing muscles you didn’t know you had and opens you up to new directions. Plus, at this workshop, people read their work aloud to whoever’s there, and I’m telling you, when you read what you’ve written to a group strangers and acquaintances, you can feel when you’ve got ‘em, and when you don’t. Apart from any formal critique you get. You can feel it. There’s no substitute for that. So yes, I think every writer could profit from being part of a writer’s group.

TBD: How is it different writing a history book than writing a book about your own history?

TA: Well, in a sense, history is memoir writ large, and memoir is history writ small. We live the lives we do because we’re alive at a certain time and place within the context of a much bigger story going on. What’s different about writing history, though, is that before you can start writing, you have to gather information that you didn’t have before, and you have to steep yourself in those facts until you start to see the story that is in those facts. With memoir, research is a final phase. You start with memory.

TBD: You’ve also edited many books. What has that taught you about being a writer?

TA: One part of writing is getting your voice going and getting out of the way. You have to do that, but what you produce when you’re doing that, even if you’re doing it really, really well, isn’t usually suitable to show to anyone except your cat. Or your dog if you want an enthusiastic response. Once you’re done getting the draft out, however, you have to put your brain to work and get your heart out of the way. Editing is purely about this kind of brainwork. By editing lots of other people’s work, you learn how to pick words, construct sentences of any length, brevity, or complexity, make them work, make them sing, purely on the level of diction and syntax. If you’re a cabinet-maker, it’s not enough to design a great piece of furniture: you have to have good tools. Language—words, sentences, paragraphs, structure—those are your tools as a writer, and those you can hone quite apart from any particular thing you want to say.

TBD: What if you’ve never done anything famous or important or sensational. Can such a person write a memoir?

TA: Absolutely. To me, there are really two kinds of memoir. One kind is an adjunct to the news. You hear about something of public interest, you want to hear about it from someone closer to the scene, an eyewitness maybe, a principal, even. With that kind of memoir, what you’re really interested in is the news event. I wrote one of those myself. West of Kabul, East of New York was published in 2002, right after 9/11; it was about the bicultural aspect of my life, growing up in Afghanistan, growing old in America. The transition between them, I didn’t really talk about. “I arrived in America, twelve years passed during which I never saw another Afghan”—that’s about all I have to say about that. I skipped over those years because they weren’t pertinent to the news event.

But those twelve years were a story too, and that’s the one I’ve tried to tell in Road Trips. I was a freak in Afghanistan because my mother was the first American woman there, and when I came America, the ‘60s were just getting underway, and there was this whole movement of people, millions of people, who were calling themselves freaks and dropping out of American society, and I joined them, even though I wasn’t part of American society. I did it to find “my people.” In that I was not unique. We were all declaring ourselves freaks so we wouldn’t have to feel like freaks. I had my version of a story millions of us lived through, and that’s kinda the point.

The stories that matter are the ones we’ve all lived. Growing up, getting lost, soaring high, crashing, falling in love, falling out of love, getting dumped, breaking it off with someone—all that stuff. Building a home. Raising children. Growing old. How was that for you? That’s the question. Those are the stories. The things we all go through are different for each of us, that’s what makes life so fascinating.

TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

TA: My advice to writers is this. Talk about writing all you want, that’s fine. That’s what we’ve been doing here. But don’t talk about writing as a substitute for writing. If you find writing painful, if getting the words out feels like pushing a camel through the eye of a needle—remember: that’s just what writing feels like. That’s how it probably felt to Flaubert and Raymond Chandler. But the aha! moments when you break through, when you nail it, when you get said exactly what you meant to say—in my experience, those are worth the struggle.

Afghan-American author and writing guru Tamim Ansary was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. He moved to America in 1964, attended Reed College in the late sixties, and later joined a countercultural newspaper collective called The Portland Scribe. Ansary wrote West of Kabul, East of New York, San Francisco’s “One City One Book” selection for 2008, and Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, winner of a Northern California Book Award for nonfiction. His new book Road Trips is about three tumultuous journeys that began and ended in Portland, Oregon.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.


Bobbi: My Constipated Fiancee – A Mini-Memoir

From Tamim Ansary’s website: Memory Pool.  This is a true story of one of my many fiancees.  Click here.


Art of the Memoir: Tamim Ansary on Going Viral and the Importance of Not Knowing Where You’re Going

To commemorate the publication of the 10 year anniversary edition of my memoir Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, I have decided to do start The Memoir Project.  I’ll be doing a series of interviews with memoirists I admire.  I have known Tamim Ansary for what seems like a lifetime, but isn’t.  He runs the San Francisco Writers Workshop, and in that capacity he demonstrates every Tuesday night how much he knows about writing and books and people.  He’s been a professional writer for a very long time.  I’ve said publicly that he is the wisest men I know, and I stand by that statement.

David Henry Sterry: Why in god’s name did you decide to write a memoir?

ansaryTamim Ansary: Well, that’s a complicated question since I’ve written three. The first one, West of Kabul, East of New York,   I wrote in response to a historical moment. The events of 9/11 had highlighted to rift between the Islamic world and the West, which took most Americans by surprise. I knew all about this issue because I was born in Afghanistan of an Afghan father and an American mother, I had grown up in but grown old in America, and so my whole life had straddled this crack in the culture of the planet. I felt like I was the guy perched on the fence who could see the people on both sides even though they couldn’t see each other. I thought writing about my bicultural life might do some good in the world. The second memoir I wrote was actually someone else’s. I wrote it for an Afghan girl named Farah Ahmadi who  had stepped on a land mine when she was in second grade, had lived the horrors of the long war in Afghanistan, and had confronted them with flabbergasting dignity and courage. The exact circumstances of my writing that memoir are peculiar, but I thought her life was an embodiment of both tragedy and resilience that people should know about.  So these memoirs were attempts to engage with the world of politics and history. But my latest memoir is a very different sort of project. This is a more philosophical examination of “life story,” a phrase we often use without pausing to consider the implications; because the quesiton is, does a life have a story, a narrative arc, in the same way as a novel? A beginning, middle and end that adds up to meaning of some sort?  Several years ago, I was telling someone about a trip I had taken, I happened to tell it all one sitting, and when I was done, it struck me that any journey to any place far away and difficult to reach has a narrative arc if consider it as a whole.  I wondered if I could capture the “story-like arc” of one-whole-life by recounting a selection of iconic journeys. The result is Road Trips. The journeys I chose for this book took place when I was 10,  19,  24,  31,  50, and 52: so the movement is through time as much as space.   This memoir is not hooked to news events or public issues, it tells a private story, and it’s a story I believe all of us have some version of: that odyssey from young to old and the things that happen along the way: falling in love, falling out of love,  breaking up, breaking down, drifting, drowning, searching for solid ground… and finding it…maybe… The details are different for each person but underneath the welter of particulars is, I think, some single story that can be made visible only through the details of a specific life. Mine is the only life I know well enough to use as such a lens, and so I wrote this book. But I’m hoping this book will get readers ruminating on the story-like elements of their own lives even if, as is likely, their lives and mine don’t share a single particular detail. Because my premise here is that the narrative is there in every life; it’s there, you just have to look for it.

DHS: What were the worst things about writing your memoir?

TA: The worst thing, I guess, is getting flak from people whom I mentioned in the memoirs, people whose feelings I hurt, people who didn’t seem themselves the way I portrayed them, people who were disturbed, in some cases, to experience themselves as a side chaaracters in someone else’s life, not as the protagonist which is everybody’s internal identitication of him- or herself.  And there’s another disturbing thing, which is bound to happen when you write a memoir, especially if you’re doing it right, and especially if the focus is on your own life, not on some public event you observed. This is the discovery of narratives you’ve been carrying in your head all your life which are distorted, even false.

DHS: What were the best things about writing your memoir?

TA: I’ll start where my answer to your last question ended.  Gaining discomifting new perspectives on the things you’ve seen, done, and felt is also the good thing about writing a memoir. One can never have too many epiphanies.  And in the case of Road Trips, writing it brought epiphanies not just about my own little life but about the life we’re living on this planet, the implications of permanence and change, culture and identity, memory and time, fiction and reality–I mean writing a memoir, if you share my premise about life as story, does immerse you in the most fundamental issue of them all: everything feels so real when it’s happening, but when you look back, all you see is story. So was any of it real in the first place? And if,like me, you decide it was and you feel a connection to what is real, there is no better feeling.


DHS: Did writing your memoir help you make some order out of the chaos we call life?

TA: Asked and answered, your honor? Well, the true answer is yes and no. A memoir helps you make sense of things. Then life keeps happening and it all grows muddy again.  You look back and the meaning of it all changed, even stuff you wrote about earlier and thought you nailed completely. The train never stops moving and the same landscape keeps looking different as you move.

DHS: How did you make a narrative out of the seemingly random events that happened to you?

TA: Well, random is a part of life, but so is intention.  We’re never just knocking about like particles in Brownian motion. We’re always trying to push our story forward, through the random flotsam and jetsom of the world.   Some of that flotsam are obstacles and so they inherently become part of our story; some turn out to be tools but only if we figure out that we can use them, and so those are part of the story too. Some don’t fit into the story either way, so we ignore them, forget them. My premise is that when you write a memoir, you don’t “make a narrative,” you find the narrative. Intentions and obstacles are the indispensable elements of story and those exist in real life at every moment for every person.

DHS: How was the process of selling your memoir?

TA: Selling the first one was easie macheesie because I had just written an email in reaction to the events of 9/11 to twenty or thirty of my friends explaining what I, as an Afghan, thought about the horror because I knew they’d all be asking and I thought it would be say it once to all twenty of them.  Those twenty each sent my email to dozens of their friends and by the next day the email had gone viral across the globe and by the weekend had reached tens of milliions–it was, in fact, one of the first examples of the viral phenomenon that the Internet has made possible. That 900 words email took no longer to write than to type. Don’t tell met here is an inherant contradiciton between random events and story: nothing could be as random and accidental as that email and yet it is certainly a story. Anyway, after the email went viral, my agent had no trouble getting publishers interested. The second one, Farah Ahmadi’s The Other Side of the Sky was an odd one. Good Morning America staged a contest for the most inspiring life. Various people sent in one-page descriptions of their life story and the one judged most inspiring got a bunch of cash and a book about them written by a professional writer.  Farah won the contest, and I was part of her prize.  The third one I’ve just completed, so I’m still n the process of selling it. The difficulty here is that memoirs usually sell on their news hook. They promise to take readers to places they have not been and could never go without this memoir. I promise just the opposite: I intend to take readers to places they too have been, not to startle them with how unique my life has been but to startle them with how unique theirs has been.  We’ll see if that concept sells.

DHS: How did you go about promoting and marketing your memoir?

TA: I’m not much of a guy for marketing and promotion much, so I just write ’em and hope the chips fall were they do me some good. The publisher did send me on an extensive book tour for West of Kabul, East of New York, bookstores mostly, and I read from my book and talked.  With Road Trips, I’ve been reading from it at literary events, bars, bookstore reading and whatnot while I’ve been writing it, to enthusiastic response, so perhaps I’ve been building an audience for it even while it has been in progress.

DHS: Did you have difficulty speaking in public about the intimate aspects of your memoir?

TA: I used to have difficulty speaking in public about anything—really, anything. Then 9/11 happened, that email went viral, and suddenly I was yanked onto various stages and in front of cameras and microphones facing crowds clamoring to know the stuff I happened to know about and the crisis was so intense, I had to tell what I knew, pour it out,  no time to remember that I was shy about speaking in public, I was babbling nonstop, scarcely even knowing what I was saying, for months. When it finally slowed down, I found I no longer had any difficulty speaking in public about anything. And that transformation ha endured. Still, I maintain some reserve. Anything I’ve written about, I’ll speak about. Why not? It’s already out there. Anything I’ve held back about in writing, I will maintain some reserve about in public too.   The thing is, I was out to tell my story. People whose paths have crossed mine have shown up in my story, but they have their own stories and  I try not to be the one that’s telling theirs.

DHS: How did your family, friends and loved ones react to your memoir?

TA: After I published West of Kabul, East of New York, my mother said “What do you mean I had brown hair? I was a blond!”  One of my cousins said how could I call a famous ancestor of ours “a landowner and a poet.” He was a saint! Another cousin observed that of the uncles I had mentioned, his father should have been named the most eminent.  An aunt wasmiffed that I had called another aunt Elizabeth-Taylor beautiful.  I have also gotten some pretty severe and wounding blowback from Road Trips. On the other hand, I think the first memoir helped me and my brother reconnect after a long estrangement.  If you’re going to write a memoir, you have to be ready for some flak. You’ll get it even from—perhaps most of all from—people you’ve scarcely mentioned.

DHS: I hate to ask you this, but you have any advice for people who want to write a memoir?

TA: Well, I’ll say one thing about process: I think it’s a good idea to start without a plan and to do your first rush of remembering while you’re at the keyboard typing away, writing it down. I’d say, let the process of association take you where it will. I’d say, don’t pay attention to what you’re saying or what  you’ve just said, focus only on what you’re about to say.   Don’t push the string,  let yourself be pulled. Later you’ll see what you’ve got and at that point you’ll have to apply other skills to craft your work, but the first skill to cultivate is letting go and not caring or judging.  Association is the mechanism of memory, and memory is itself a narrative-creating machine.   We tend to think of memories as videotapes that we bring out of storage, but neural scientists tell us that memories are constructed in the act of remembering. They also say that more than half of what we think are perceptions are actually reactions to memory. When we reach for a doorknob we only perceive a flash of color and shape, memory supplies the fact that it is a doorknob and what a doorknob is and what we can do with one. Expand that perception and you realize that we’re always living as much in a story as in an immediately present world, in a narrative whose shape depends on what has happened before and what we expect or hope will happen later.S ettle in with this truth and you begin to see what a gigantic thing it is to write a memoir.

Tamim Ansary writes memoir, fiction, history, essays, and blogs. His book West of Kabul, East of New York tell the story of a life straddling Afghanistan and America. He runs the 65-year-old San Francisco Writers Workshop as well intensive memoir workshops in his home.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, activist, and book doctor.  His new book Chicken Self:-Portrait of a Man for Rent, 10 Year Anniversary Edition, has been translated into 10 languages.  He’s also written Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which appeared on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  He is a finalist for the Henry Miller Award.  He has appeared on, acted with, written for, been employed as, worked and/or presented at: Will Smith, a marriage counselor, Disney screenwriter, Stanford University, National Public Radio, Milton Berle, Huffington Post, a sodajerk, Michael Caine, the Taco Bell chihuahua, Penthouse, the London Times, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a human guinea pig and Zippy the Chimp.  He can be found at www.davidhenrysterry.com.  https://davidhenrysterry.com/



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