By Tamim Ansary
In 1972, I came to a suicidal moment, which I skirted by going on a road trip; and thereby hangs a tale. The gist of the tale is simple: one November day I felt that I might kill myself if I didn’t barrel to the opposite coast lickety split to see a girl named Natty. Six weeks later I came back cured of suicidal despair, an emotion I have never felt again, not in the way I felt it then. For years I wanted to tell the story of that turnaround, because I thought only the whole story would explain it. I mean: it wasn’t like some single dramatic thing happened on the road; there was no breakthrough moment; I didn’t run into Dr. Phil in some bar and have an epiphany in the course of a momentous late-night conversation, just the two of us. Nor did Deepak Chopra play any part in it. The cure came slowly and was full of nuance. In fact (it seemed to me) in order to convey how a road trip dragged me back from the edge, I would have to tell a story that began two years earlier.I had jotted voluminous notes while I was sliding toward the edge, so I had source material to work from. I pulled together the beginnings of a draft at one point but abandoned it, because I felt I didn’t yet have the chops as a writer to do my epic justice. Later I tried to write the whole thing up as a novel, but I burned that manuscript because the real events seemed to me to make a so-much-better story. I took that partial draft of a memoir and those scribbled notes with me every time I moved, thinking that one day, when I finally started writing, I would be able to confirm my recollection of the minor details from those contemporaneous sources. I was pretty sure I would need no help from my earlier self with the overall arc of what happened, because that part was blisteringly clear.
Decades later, however, when I finally started writing the story, I discovered something curious. The narrative I was carrying in my head all those years ago was false. It’s not that I made up any of the brute facts: those were all, as far as I could tell, reasonably accurate. After all I had my source material—notes, journals, letters. What was off was the part I had always considered platinum: the arc of the thing, the core meaning of it all.
This discovery came to me one day when I overheard a group of twenty-something year old women talking about relationships. One of them told her friends that a fellow she was dating had “every young man’s script.”
I butted in to ask: “What is ‘every young man’s script?'”
“Oh, you know: He fell in love when he was twenty, she broke his heart, he never got over her, it’s not his fault that he can’t commit to a relationship, he’s damaged now, there will never be another woman like the one he found and lost, so he’ll date you, but don’t hold your breath because he’ll never love again. Boo hoo.”
“That’s every young man’s script?”
“Every guy I know under 30: that’s his story.”
Hmm. I met Lily when I was 20. Fell head over heels. She left me. I crashed like a kite, skidded to the edge of suicidal madness. All my relationships were dysfunctional for a while. Not my fault, I was damaged goods. Stop the presses, this was a tragedy (not to mention, writers’ capital, the whole world needed to hear my story: it was an epic!)
Could it be that my story was really just “every young man’s script?” Well, of course it was. Not only that, but I knew it was. Seeing through the Sorrows of Young Werther to the underlying script was how I broke out of the obsession years ago. How could the memory of the thing have stayed in my heart exactly as if I had never discovered it was just a script? That’s the mystery: it felt so real when it was happening. That’s the mystery coded into life. It all feels so real; and so painfully unique, even the stuff that happens to everyone.
So I would have shut up about my miniscule epic except that right around then I ran across something Mark Twain once wrote, which I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have the exact quotation. Twain said, “Sometimes you realize you’ve done things no one else has ever experienced, and then you feel you just have to write about it. But sometimes you realize your experiences have been just like everybody else’s, and then you feel you just have to write about it.”
Twain was onto something, it seemed to me. Some memoirs were written to let readers gawk at lives utterly unlike their own, presumably to give them insights into what it would be like do things they’ll never do: get kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Somalia; grow up raised by wolves and later perform dental surgery on themselves; earn billions from an app that cures cancer while inventing a new style of music—most of us will not do these things and yes, those stories too deserve to be told.
But man, there’s something to be said for telling and hearing stories about nothing more unusual than being born, growing up, growing old, falling in love, falling out of love, leaving home, getting dumped, crashing, flying, landing—all that stuff.
When I was writing a memoir called West of Kabul, East of New York, a cousin of mine heard about it and asked what a memoir was. I told her it was the story of one’s life.
“So you’re writing the story of your life?” she said.
“The story of your life,” she exclaimed indignantly. “What is the story of your life? You grew up in Afghanistan, you came here, you got married, you bought a house—that’s the story of your life.”
And the thing is, her facts are accurate. That is what happened to me, pretty much. But I went ahead and wrote that first memoir because her way of putting it wasn’t quite my way. And after that I started writing a memoir about the sixties and their aftermath, which is sometimes referred to as the greatest story told too God damned many times. I did it anyway because if you don’t tell your story, you’ll end up as just a character in someone else’s story.
Tamim Ansary’s new memoir Road Trips will be available this summer from Numina Press.: it’s about an Afghan American in the late sixties trying his best to turn on, tune in, and drop out of a society he’s not a part of.
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