8 Life Lessons From A Master Memoirist

8 Life Lessons From A Master Memoirist
TO GO WITH STORY TITLED AFGHAN AMERICAN WRITER--Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary gestures during an interview April 15, 2002, at his home in San Francisco. Ansary, 53, who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a widely circulated e-mail, has expanded on his electronic dispatch by publishing a memoir, "West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story." (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
TO GO WITH STORY TITLED AFGHAN AMERICAN WRITER--Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary gestures during an interview April 15, 2002, at his home in San Francisco. Ansary, 53, who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a widely circulated e-mail, has expanded on his electronic dispatch by publishing a memoir, "West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story." (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

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Tamim Ansary became 'Internet famous' before the term existed.

Three days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, he sent a thoughtful email to a handful of friends about the "monster" Osama bin Laden and the state of affairs in Afghanistan. It was forwarded from inbox to inbox until it became a global sensation.

Newspapers printed the note verbatim; Charlie Rose and Oprah came calling for interviews.

Ansary's perspective is special. Born in Kabul, his mother was the first American woman to marry an Afghan and then live in Afghanistan. His father was a diplomat and professor.

In his memoir, Ansary paints a vivid picture of his upbringing in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, where people lived "pretty much as they had eight thousand years ago."

In 1948, when I was born, most of Afghanistan might as well have been living in Neolithic times. It was a world of walled villages, each one inhabited by a few large families, themselves linked in countless ways through intermarriages stretching into the dim historical memories of the eldest elders. These villages had no cars, no carts even, no wheeled vehicles at all; no stores, no shops, no electricity, no postal service, and no media except rumors, storytelling, and the word of travelers passing through. Virtually all the men were farmers. Virtually all the women ran the households and raised the children. Virtually all boys grew up to be like their fathers and all girls like their mothers. The broad patterns of life never changed, never had as far as any living generation could remember, and presumably never would.

Ansary moved to the United States when he was 16, setting out on a successful quest, he says, to become a "normal American guy."

Some 50 years later, he is a critically-acclaimed author of memoir, history and fiction; he directs the oldest free writing workshop in North America.

I asked him whether he'd had any recent realizations about living a more rewarding life. "I've had various revelations all my life, and one of my recent ones... I don't remember what it was." He burst out laughing. "But I do remember, I found a bunch of papers of things I'd written in high school, and this great revelation I'd had last week was already there in high school, and better expressed. There's something about the circularity of life's revelations as you go along."

Below, Ansary shares lessons for living -- about relationships, sleep, preserving your memories, crafting your life story, and planning for death. (Read the full Q&A here.)

Before we were friends, we were roommates. And before we were lovers, we were friends. And before we were married, we were lovers. I recommend that that's the trajectory one ought to follow. You've got to be friends with the person you fall in love with, and so we are.

The other thing is our lives are very linked together, but also we don't -- I don't know if 'separate' is exactly the word, but we're both two independent people with our own lives. We're partners. I think that's part of why it's worked.

Now, it's a great marriage still, but it's only 33 years old so... [laughter] -- let's not get ahead of ourselves. [Laughter]

I do keep something -- it's not a journal, it's a log. Each day there might be like 12 words in that log, or 12 phrases. For example, what we're doing right now will end up in the log, "Huffington Post interview." And another item in the log will be, "My stolen car recovered today." [Laughter]

Many years ago, it was 1978, somebody as a present gave me a journal which had a very small space for each day. It was only enough space to make some notations about what happened. But I did that, I kept these little notes.

Four or five months later, I sat down to write a letter to a friend of mine in New York and I couldn't quite remember what happened. So I leaf through those notes, and the whole of that era just came flaring up in my mind. That's the better way to remember, to keep a skeleton so that your narrative-making machine, your memory, it can wake up and do its thing.

If you keep a detailed journal, you will impose your present moment on all your future selves, and that's what you don't want to have happen.

Ansary wrote a charming column about trying to master mono-tasking. I asked him whether he'd made any progress towards that or other daily habits.

I keep coming up with these great routines and they last for about a couple of years. And then they sort of fade away.

I was performing namaz for probably three or four years in the morning. That's the prayer ritual for Muslims, and you're supposed to do it five times a day, but I only did the morning one, and I did it every day. It was the way I started, and it was a good thing. It's an interestingly contemplative thing to do.

I'm not religious. I'm a secular guy. I believe in the power of -- I don't want to say ritual. I believe in the things you can do that will line you up with the rhythms of the universe. Reality has embedded in it so much pattern. That's why mathematics exists and is powerful.

The cycles of human existence are just palpable everywhere. You want to get lined up with that stuff. You can go further by swimming with the river than swimming against it. So that's what I try to do.

I sleep okay. I keep coming up with tricks that are great, but then they stop working. I'll just toss a few of them out. To me the problem with sleeping is not getting your mind empty. When you try to just think about nothing, everything comes teeming in.

So to me you have to think about something. But you have to think only about that one thing, and then by the time you've gotten into it, you've woken up the next morning. So for a while it was like visualizing a certain place that I knew about, and I'd just go there and just be there.

For a long time I wrote down dreams that I had. When you do that, you remember more and more of them. So I have probably 300 pages of dreams [laughs]. I find that sometimes I can think about that dream, and then I remember that place, and then I just stay there. And then I'm asleep [laughs].

Ansary has written about using peyote, LSD and other drugs in college. I asked him how he approached drug use with his two children when they were younger.

By the time the kids came around, we were beyond that phase. But we never suppressed information about our lives, my wife and I.

My daughter came home one day from fifth grade or fourth grade and said, "A police officer came and told us about marijuana, and it's really scary. And if you take that, pretty soon you'll be robbing liquor stores."

I had to say, "Mmm, that's not true." I felt like it was important to say that because when I was young, that kind of scare story was everywhere, and before that "reefer madness." But the first time I smoked some dope, I was like, "That's not true." And then everything seemed like a lie.

With marijuana, I did want to raise the question for my kids -- there was one anti-marijuana ad that was really good, and they just took it off right away. It's somebody in a dingy little house stirring something. It's obvious that this is a very stalled life. And this guy's saying, "They said this would happen and that would happen if I took drugs. But that's not what happened. I'm taking drugs. Nothing happened to me."

And then the tagline is, "Go ahead and smoke marijuana. Nothing can happen to you, too." I feel like that's the actual menace of marijuana. You can just sort of sink in to smoking dope all the time and not doing anything.

So for my kids, the important thing is that our household was filled with the idea of excitement about doing stuff. Both of the kids have passionate interests. One is a writer. One is an artist. And I don't know what they do in terms of drugs [laughs], but they seem fine to me.

The feature of Afghanistan that was most striking to me was not the communal aspect of it, because we took that for granted. It was the fact that there was a private world and there was a public world, and the two were just really separate. There was one whole world inside the various compound walls in which everybody was family, and men and women were living together. You had your history and your anecdotes and your ancestry and your quarrels that never went away.

And then there was the outside world. When you went out there, this inside world was like that private world that you don't talk about when you go to a business meeting or something. You don't say, "Oh, you know, my wife and I last night..." The outside world has these rules that you completely accept and you're not going to break those. Inside it's a whole different story.

When you come to how I live now [in the United States], yeah, I have a private life. I live in my house, and then there's a public world out there. But a lot of my private life is outside my house. I have my friends. I go to their homes, they come into my house. I throw a party, there are people I don't know who come. There is not a distinct border between private and public. And the private life for most of us here in America is very small. It's your house and whoever you're living with.

So it just does not bear any comparison to that private life in Afghanistan, which is huge. There are hundreds of people. They're spread across a vast landscape. But they're contained like rabbits in a warren in these private spaces.

Here, community is voluntary. And that makes it different. In Afghanistan, it's warm and sweet and you're part of the clan and all that. But there's the other side of that. "You're a part of this clan, so you can't do this, you can't do that." Built into your psyche is the capacity for shame, and that's the way in which the community has power over you. You cannot do anything to shame your community, so you're captured in it. Here that isn't a factor.

But the fact that it's voluntary, all associations are voluntary, means that nobody's permanent in your life. There was a Larry McMurtry book, the title of which was "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers." And I thought that was a powerful title because I think it nails something about the way it is to live in America. I think that's true for most people.

One of Ansary's memoir workshops has the following premise: "Every life not only teems with stories but is a story. No one really knows what their story is until they look for it; the trick is not merely to remember what happened but to find the story (or stories) in it." I asked him how he taught people to find their story.

The thing about memory is that it's a narrative-making machine. At any given moment, most of what's happened to you in your life is forgotten. It's not a question of repression. It's that you get together a kit from all the possible memories, and you have a story of your life and you're living in the last moment of that story.

To break through the official narrative of your memory is not really to break through to the real story, because there isn't a real story. I think you want to break through to a narrative that might have more important and meaningful things to say about the bigger world.

While I was writing the memoir, "West of Kabul, East of New York," I remembered that I stopped at some store that an Afghan guy was running, some curio shop in Paris. I remembered that we had this conversation. I'd completely forgotten about it. And now I remembered that the guy was saying [in awed tones], "Oh, I know your uncle" and "Wasn't your great grandfather so-and-so?"

I felt so puffed up and important. And it was not until a moment many years later that I realized the meaning of that interaction was not that I am a famous and important person from a great family. That's something Afghans do. It's like, "I recognize you." My job was to say, "And wasn't your great grandfather so-and-so? And didn't you once --?"

So the revelation there was that I flunked at being an Afghan [laughs].

The narrative that you make official for yourself is generally more shallow than the narrative you'd want to write if you're writing it as an artist. The narrative that you have officially usually casts yourself as a hero, and then there's a bunch of helpers and there's a bunch of villains. When you see that in a movie or read it in a book, you go, "Eh. Everything is black and white. Where's the gray area?"

When you look at your life you want to say, "Wait a minute, you know what? Maybe I wasn't the hero of my life. Maybe that marriage broke up because, to some extent, maybe I was a jerk. What kind of a jerk was I? What did I think about?"

When you become a more complex character, your whole story becomes more of a work of art. But you have to be able to have some objectivity towards yourself to write that. And so to write that kind of memoir, you have to arrive at a place where you are not just yourself -- you're a character in your story. That's the key.

I have thought about death much of my life, actually. I would say that thinking of life as a story, as I do, I feel like that's my preparation for death.

I'd like to keep living for as long as it's viable. But if I die tomorrow, it's not a tragedy. I die. My life has been full and I've accomplished something, and my kids are doing fine, and I'm ready to go.

I have zero idea of an afterlife. I don't believe in it, and I would be very disappointed to discover there is one, even if I go to heaven, because I don't want to contemplate an eternity of anything, not even heaven [laughs].

I don't think in terms of legacy. I think: I was here, and while I was here, it was incumbent upon me to make my life meaningful. And once I'm gone, that's fine. There are other people crowding in the gate. We don't want to clutter up the table with the legacy of people who've gone. There are other people. Give them a chance.

That's how I think of it. To have some feeling about legacy and wanting a legacy requires that you still someplace feel like you're going to still be here to enjoy that. And I don't think that. I believe in the eternity of all that is -- the stars, the moon, the universe, you -- not you, particularly but... [laughter]

The wholeness of it all, that's eternal. All these forms, they come and go, and you have your moment, and then you go on. If you didn't have your moment and then went on, I don't see how that moment could be meaningful. I think the purpose of life is to figure it all out, live the meaning of it all. You've got from the moment you're born to the moment you die. So don't waste a second.

Transcription services by Tigerfish; now offering transcripts in two-hours guaranteed. Interview has been edited and condensed.