Every time my American friends heard a piece of my memory, they showed more empathy towards me as an Iranian-American far from my birthplace, building a new life here in the land of opportunity. We amazingly found many common themes in our lives and they appreciated for what they had not gone through; living under dictatorship, war, and rigid cultural norms.
Three years ago, when I began writing my memoir, all I recognized in me was an urge to share my story.
To learn how to write my memoir, I read other memoirs. Diving into others’ memories deepened my understanding of diversity; Of people’s differences and similarities. It enabled me to walk in others’ shoes rather than judging them. It softened me up. These stories created compassion in my heart not just toward those authors but toward people in general. I was fascinated how Richard Russo in “Elsewhere”, smoothly pictured his mother’s undiagnosed OCD’s impact on their lives. As the only child, Russo feels responsible for his mother and makes any effort to comfort her, which is almost impossible. He shows each character’s role in the story without judging them. This way, he allows the reader to develop empathy for each character. Maya Angelo in “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings” beautifully says her mother was a great one for the grown Maya but not the young Maya, which taught me self-compassion as a mother who had to leave her young daughter behind.
What every memoir revealed to me was that life happens: It rises and dips. Each book showed me how decisions are influenced by the pressure of our environment such as the norms of the society when people are dogmatic about their religion, or the current circumstances like being traumatized by living in a war zone, as well as memories (good and bad) tangled into our subconscious.
There is no one cause for any event. The factors affecting a moment, a decision, or a concern are always multilayered.
When I started, I was not happy about my past and it’s melancholy impact on my current life but I was eager to writeabout it. I was curious to see where the journey would take me. To kick-start the project, I wrote a list of milestones in my life, including accomplishments and losses. Next, I chose the ones that covered the time-frame of my memoir. I decided to write about my life in Iran beginning from the 1978 revolution until I left motherland. Then, I listed the decisions that led me to each milestone. That was when my stomach churned thinking about my bad decisions. Writing and remembering those moments of my life for the first time was nearly unbearable. I felt a void in my heart for days in a row after writing sad chapters, felt like grieving a life I didn’t live. Anne Lamott calls the first draft “shitty first draft,” painful but necessary.
I moved to the next step, accepting that a memoir was not a tool for revenge; Writing only about mistakes (mine or others) or creating a victim of myself or others. It is easy to put someone at fault—even myself—but does whimpering add value to the writing? If a character in the story has a one dimensional personality, the writer has created a caricature, not a real person. With this in mind, I paid attention to how other authors dealt with that. I noticed other authors detached themselves from a memory and looked at it from an outsider’s view. To do the same, I started writing not just about things I did and felt but also the environment, the people around me, the political situation, and my state of mind under those circumstances. I was surprised by how many memories (not all of them but, I suppose, the important ones) came back this way and began falling in the right place of the big puzzle of my past stories. This helped me to put each memory in perspective, to see the dynamic of the events.
I wrote some, left it for a while, went back to it and made revisions. Every new version of a documented memory provided more relief from regretful haunting past decisions. My brain was going a hundred miles per hour, focused on creating a new versions but enjoying the ride because it was taking me toward an inner freedom, like scraping off dead skin to get to the fresh and shiny layer after an injury. My scars didn’t look bad any more. They looked like purposeful tattoos. That felt like belonging to life, filling a hole in my heart, answering my long time questions, screaming I AM. I had begun to develop self-compassion.
After what felt like 500 times editing and polishing, the next step was professional editing.
The developmental edit brought a fresh breath to my writing. Thinking about my editor’s queries in the margins was therapeutic; I had to dig even further into the circumstances around my past decisions. “How did you defend the decision to her? What explanation did you give?” To answer her questions and improve the structure and meaning of my story, I read psychology articles to understand my past behavior.
Now that I have a complete manuscript, it is clearer to me why I wrote my memoir. I needed to heal, but more importantly I needed to share my story with others to add to the conversation about our differences and similarities. To contribute my share and to enrich the diversity of voices from close-up, first-hand experience. The more we understand each other, the more empathy we create. Let’s hope creating more empathy and compassion bring us more opportunity to collaborate and respect each other’s experiences. Share your story!