My Motivation

by Somayeh Shams

I am at a friend’s Thanksgiving party.  Or Passover dinner.  I am in a house like many others in the suburbs.  Or in a penthouse looking down at the buzzing city lights.  The air is jovial. I talk to the families.  People I do not know.  Normal people, average people with real jobs like librarians or shop-owners.  They live in California or New York or Illinois.  We converse.  It is pleasant.  My friends look relieved that the guests are getting along.  We all have that fear of showing our family to our friends, so I understand.  I feel I am good at this, at connecting with people.  I have moved around a lot so I have mastered initial connection. It’s the more long-term thing I have trouble with.  Then somebody asks me where I am from.  My accent. My dark hair.  It confuses them.  Where do my parents live?  And I answer: Iran.

 The most difficult thing about writing, for me, at least, is not the process.  It is not the hours spent trying to find the right word or the right rhythm for my sentences.  It is those few moments when I have felt so distant from writing, so completely removed from it that I began thinking if I never returned to that desk, never picked up that pen, it would not matter.  And let’s be honest: It probably would not.

 I have recently gone through one of these moments after making a large move across the country, while receiving a shit-ton of rejections on the first story of my novel-in-stories.  This is my first novel.  As you can imagine, I took it to mean the book as a whole is to be trashed.  It became hard to keep motivated.  And I began to question my choices.

 I am used to moving (though that doesn’t make it any easier), so I pull out the techniques I have acquired: I reach out to writer friends.  Talk to my partner.  Read every article about how to survive a slump, a block. . . .  I cry a little.  Get angry a little.  Go through bouts of insomnia when at 3 a.m. I try to decipher the exact moment or action or decision that made everything go haywire.  Or, worse, how from the beginning, from the moment I was born I was destined for failure.  Remember everything else I have done has failed—why not my career also?

 My partner reminds me of the things I have published, of the grants I was awarded. It makes me feel better, but it’s fleeting.  At 3 a.m. the fears come back.  Because I have forgotten about my motivation.  The thing that made me give up my other career for this one.  I need to find the thing that pushed me to finally make writing a reality and not something that only happened in my mind while daydreaming under the shower.

 And it is in those perfectly wonderful people’s faces that I find my reason. That face people make when I say I am from Iran.  Or that my parents live there.  Or that my dad prefers living there over anywhere else, even though he has a choice. The way their eyes become large and a slightly amused smile spreads across their lips.  I realize they know little of my country, of Iran.  What they imagine and the reality that is my country are not the same.  They are shocked to hear that members of my family have green cards and yet refuse to live in the US.  What do they do there?  And I tell them, the same thing they’d do here.  They are engineers. And shop-owners.  They love to picnic and dance.

 You see, post-revolution Iranian writers and artists had to reconfigure their writing inside and outside their country.  Both inside and outside there was a “preference” for a narrative that would support the political and social views those places had of the country and, consequently, its people.   But that did not mean that writing stopped or art stopped.  Recently, at a talk about her work, artist Shirine Neshat said that despite everything, or maybe because of everything, art in Iran was growing and Iranian artists had become masters of metaphor.  I realize Iranian art is still happening, but little of it is reaching the public.

 That night, I left her talk filled to the brim with inspiration and motivation. It is not an everyday experience for me to see an Iranian artist up on a podium in a room filled with over a thousand artists and art lovers so intently listening and obviously enjoying themselves. Actually, that was my first time. And so I realize what motivates me, what it is I am seeking with my art, why I get so excited when literature teachers add Persepolis to their curriculum or writers discuss how astutely Farhadi manages to tell a story about the slipperiness of the truth in his movie A Separation or that I see plays like White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Soleimanpoor playing at the playhouse near me.  It is that feeling of being seen that I am seeking.

 There is nothing more maddening than for writers or artists not to find themselves represented in the field they love; to be unable to read work that represents them; to have to explain again and again to unbelievers that their country is more than ayatollahs.  So, I want to share myself with whoever would like to read my work.  I want to free myself from this claustrophobia.  I want me, us, to be part of the conversation.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

Your Reward for the Truth     

by Francine Ringold

In 1740 a book was published entitled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. Some say it was the first novel.  However, it purported to be the true story of a woman named, of course, Pamela, and it was written in the first person in the form of letters from said Pamela to her father telling the sad tale of her life in the home of Mr. B (initials only are provided in the novel), where she worked as a servant and was pursued by B, who, failing to seduce her, marries her. In truth, Pamela was written by Samuel Richardson—neither a woman nor a servant to anyone.

Pamela was a sensation.  Apparently this was not just because the book had, especially for the time it was written, raunchy details.  For example, Pamela’s room is invaded several times by B. One incident finds B hiding in a closet from which he pops out and is dutifully fought off.  It is hilarious—even if we may be less than politically correct to laugh at such goings on! But more importantly, the novel’s success seems to have been due to the claim that it was a “true” story, Pamela’s story, hence a memoir—not the whole story of Pamela’s life but a vibrant, thematically integrated portion of her life.

Now memoirs flood the shelves of the few standing bookstores remaining and the lists of Amazon.  We assume that these memoirs are “true” stories even though many are written by ghostwriters or even acknowledged as co-written by another person. And how we still love to read the “truth,” even in this age when there is so much confusion over what is true and what false, even when, ironically, the most truthful, straight, factual of our media sources are accused of being “false news.”

I don’t know why this is.  I am no psychologist or sociologist or data collector but merely an observer.  Surely anyone can notice the number of memoirs being published, especially by celebrities, and purchased left and right. Perhaps it is our thirst for gossip.

Nevertheless, you should write your memoir. You are up to the task and deserve the fun you will have in the process.  Ironically, you will even enjoy the tears released. Remember, everyone has a story to tell and your story is as gripping as the next guy’s when you dig deep. You should write a memoir or an autobiography not because it will be published or will sell widely but because, quite simply, it is a wonderful way of gathering together your thoughts, your memories—your life—your truths.

I taught four classes in memoir writing and have written my own: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Writing Yours. I must confess it is more of an autobiography than a memoir.  I wrote it at the age of 80 and I thought I had better get in more than a portion of my life—which, as are many long lives, is various, complicated, diverse, tumultuous and so forth.

But getting back toyou! You should write your story because writing is fun, or it can be fun if you approach it as yet another form of play and follow the rules of the game, which involve, as one of its primary rules, writing with your whole body and mind. (In Homo Ludens,Johan Huizinga, Dutch philosopher, shows how all play is serious and essential to human culture.)

You should write your memoir because in the process you discover what you want to say and need to say.  You might even discover the truth!

But what is that? What is “truth”? It seems that the truth is something that must be corroborated by another person or persons, by facts, by data.  But one person’s truth may vary from another’s, depending upon one’s angle of vision, from which direction one views the incident or person.  Ask anyone who has filed an accident report.

In the first draft of your memoir, if you are lucky, you discover your theme, the distinct and unifying idea.  In the second or third or fourth draft, writing in substantial parts, not necessarily chronologically, rearranging, editing, and so forth—you discover your truth. Don’t shy away from it but do acknowledge that there could be another point of view.  That acknowledgement will make the reader trust you and believe that you are trying to find the fundamental, underlying premise of your life.

And yet, and yet, we do know what truth is, don’t we? The sun rises and sets each day—a truth we can check. Truth is that mountain in the distance, just beyond the edge of the water. Truth is the strange tree whose bark peels in layers, whose trunk bends and twists with the wind to form a labyrinthine path.  We see it, we touch it, we are rooted with it. Truth is the baby that emerges from your womb as you watch it in the carefully placed mirror and know, not just because of the pain and the pregnancy, that it is yours.  Truth is something you can see with your eyes, walk with your feet, feel with your body and mind, collect with supporting data. Truth has evidence, facts to support it.  As Senator Daniel Moynihan said: “You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts.”

But what if the mountain is obscured by a thick fog? Is it still there, as Descartes might ask? Will it still define boundaries when the fog lifts?  And the tree, when it is cut down and carted off—is it still a tree or just a hunk of wood? Even that baby you watched being born—is it truly yours? Did someone slip another infant into the hands of the obstetrician between the last push when you were too engaged to see clearly and the moment of revelation?  There are always truths and there are always doubts.  Yet we pursue the comfort and security of learning what seems to be true, always there, always grounding.  And we search to corroborate what is truly ours.  Our intentions prompt us to secure information, to check details, to acknowledge when we are off base, to let our active mind, as well as the old salt of the hair standing on end or a shiver down the spine, affirm that we have come just as close as possible to the truth.

Your reward is not so much the end product—your memoir—but the experience in trying to get to the truth, the labor of love that always involves digging and unearthing and corroborating and letting the facts and the sensations of your body open to discovery.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.