Guest Blog: You Should Write A Memoir
This past March my very first book was published. A memoir, no less – The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In (Skyhorse Publishing.)
As the title pretty much spells out, it’s my story of being “The Other” in America, feeling like a fish out of water and spending my life trying to find my voice and define my identity.
First off, I’d never considered myself a book author, nor had I ever harbored a dream of writing a book. My desired format is TV (sometimes film.) I love writing dialogue for actors to bring to life. And coming from an editing background, there’s nothing more thrilling to me than the juxtaposition of sound and images to create a mood. And music used ironically? I’m in Heaven.
Yet there I was three winters ago outlining my first book and I was really nervous.
Nervous that I wouldn’t have anything to say. Nervous that even if I did have something to say, it would only be worth reading to friends or family members. To me, a memoir was reserved for those who had overcome addictions or abuse or survived being shot just for trying to go to school in a strict Muslim country. I fit none of these criteria.
“My story is nowhere near as important as someone like Malala Yousafzai, so who’s really going to care?”
Luckily I had Lee Jessup in my corner:
“Just write from the heart. That’s all you can do.”
So I took that advice… sort of.
I wrote about a third of the manuscript, and felt a sense of huge accomplishment as my agent sent it out. And then we received a multitude of very thoughtful rejections — the common thread being that I was getting in my own way of telling my story. Turns out, I wasn’t writing from the heart. I was hiding behind comedy. Anytime I had the “I’m not Malala” insecurity, I would throw some comedy at it. That was my defense mechanism.
It was the opposite of from the heart. It became too shticky – a performance piece. Who wants to read that?
So I took a beat and then sat down to make the necessary corrections. I stripped away the comedy. I got real. I made a deal with myself that I would write truthfully, authentically and from the heart and if after I was done, the whole thing was a disaster, I could fake my own death and burn my manuscript I wouldn’t have to show it to anyone.
All I had to do was just put it down on the page.
I’d like to say once I made this realization, the writing flowed easily. But nope. Having a potentially risqué opinion was so much easier when I gave that opinion to a fictional character or wrote about life events the fictional character experienced. But here I was, writing as Ayser Salman, about my life events and experiences – which weren’t all that scandalous, but not completely Pollyanna either. My proud traditional Arab Mom suggested I make up a cousin and give her all the sex stories. I declined, for obvious reasons (also there aren’t really sex stories in my book.) The point is my parents were going to read this. And that was scary as Hell.
I considered turning the book into a fictional account of my life – but that idea was quickly abandoned after I couldn’t come up with a suitable name for the main character…
Eventually I just shut up and wrote – from the heart.
And that’s when I found my stories. Stories I had forgotten about. Stories that had been buried deep. Stories I initially dismissed but soon came to realize were integral to the narrative and theme. The more uncensored I allowed myself to be – not trying to be anyone else BUT me – the richer the narrative became.
During this process, I also spoke to people about what I was writing. More often than not, I’d see a spark of interest and then they’d tell me their own stories of not fitting in. I was happy enough embracing my own story and deciding to share it, but seeing the spark from others made me realize I had a story other people might want me to tell.
When the book was published, the tour I embarked upon took to me to various colleges where I had the opportunity to speak to writers. Almost always their first sentence to me was “I’m not that interesting but… “ And then they’d launch into the most fascinating story – the Southern preacher who came out of the closet and decided to be a writer, the engineer who suffered the loss of his twin sister when he was a teen and is only now in his 60s realizing how that affected him. Because we all have rich personal narratives from which to draw. And everyone has a story.
Ultimately, writing my memoir forced me to be more honest and authentic than I’d ever been before or thought I could be as a writer – but more importantly as a person.
And so here I am now, six months post publication date and working on the next thing I’m writing; a feature script about a fictional family loosely based on my experiences. It’s a script similar in theme to those I’d written before the book. Only this time the characterizations are richer and the themes are stronger. I know it’s also because I’ve been writing more regularly so my writing was bound to improve, but I like to think my work on my personal story played a big part.
I wrote my memoir because I wanted to connect with others who had a similar experience to mine. What I didn’t realize was, how deeply it would help me connect to me.
So if there’s even a glimmer of interest in writing a memoir or true story, I hope you go ahead and do it!
I for one, can’t wait to read it.
Ayser Salman was born in Iraq back before it became a curiosity and moved to the United States when she was a toddler. She spent much of her childhood in the 1970s trying to fit in among her blond-haired, blue-eyed counterparts and telling everyone to call her ‘Lisa’ because it was “just easier that way.”
After shunning her parents’ dream of her becoming a doctor in favor of journalism school, Ayser worked as a news producer in Kentucky where she learned to end each sobering newscast with an uplifting clip of a cuddly rodent water skiing.
From there she came to Los Angeles to produce & edit promos and original content for Miramax Films, Disney, Universal Pictures FX and The Weinstein Company…yes that company. When she’s not dodging questions of “What was it like?” Ayser writes funny things.
Her book, “The Wrong End of the Table,” a comic memoir about growing up Iraqi Muslim in Kentucky was published March 5, 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing. Ayser is currently developing it as a TV series.
Ayser has had sitcom pilots optioned by Fox, Humanitas Prize and one was a finalist in last year’s Austin Film Festival. She also regularly publishes online articles and essays inspired by her ‘spirited’ Iraqi family and their immigrant shenanigans and seems to never run out of ideas – much to her mother’s chagrin…
Ayser’s remaining spare time is devoted to speaking out against the hookah bar as a stereotypical establishment, which frankly ain’t doing Arabs any favors…
Ayser is repped by Jeff Portnoy at Bellevue Productions.