Our nonfiction reader Alexandra Carroll recently had this exchange with Mahdis Marzooghian, our Issue #35 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her recently completed novel, her wonderful experiences with writing workshops, and the importance of balance in writing nonfiction.
Your essay “Lingua Nova” has a poetic feel. How does poetry influence your creative nonfiction writing?
I live by Charles Baudelaire’s words, “Always be a poet, even in prose.” I have read and loved poetry for as long as I can remember. Coming from a Persian background and boasting the likes of Hafiz and Rumi amongst our literary figures, poetry is in my blood. I once wrote in one of my nonfiction essays about the Persian culture that “Rumi ruminates in my blood,” and that’s the best way I can describe it.
I’ve always tried to maintain a poetic presence in all my writing, and I think my style naturally gravitates towards that. I think giving a poetic touch to nonfiction writing enhances its poignancy and depth.
How do you balance ambiguity and clarity? How do you decide how much to give away and why?
Balance has a significant impact in every aspect of my life, and writing is no exception. I think when it comes to nonfiction especially, it’s important to be clear and honest about the emotions and themes you are portraying, but being a little ambiguous about some of the events or people works really well, too, because you want to make sure it’s still relatable to your audience and their experiences. You want them to be able to connect to your writing on a personal level. That is not to say that you shouldn’t be specific (I always say, specificity is key in writing), but knowing where to be ambiguous and where to be specific (again, that balance), is crucial—the more you write nonfiction, the better you can gauge and implement that.
You also don’t want to give too much away because that takes away from the poignancy; you don’t want to be heavy-handed or melodramatic. Subtlety goes a long way in this genre, so you want to give just enough to make your point. Nonfiction writing is already honest and vulnerable; you don’t want to bog that down with too many details and descriptions, so I’ve found that balancing clarity with ambiguity is a good formula. Bottom line, a little goes a long way, but you also want to make sure you’re not hiding any important details or emotions from your readers, and that’s where the clarity/specificity comes in.
Your voice is quite distinctive. What advice do you have for other creative nonfiction writers concerning how they develop and settle on an authorial voice that is distinctly theirs?
I appreciate that! First off, I’ll say that a writer’s authorial voice develops the more they write and develop their craft and style. However, the best advice I can give to writers of creative nonfiction is to first figure out the story they want to tell and why it’s important to tell that story. The second step is to decide how much they want to give away and how vulnerable they want to be within the piece. Thirdly, they need to reflect on the emotions and themes they want to evoke in the piece.
Finding that voice is a delicate decision-making process, and I think the best way to reach a consistent voice that is distinctly your own is to really be honest with yourself as a writer and dig to find the truth within your story. Dig to find those relatable moments, those heartbreaking, poignant moments. Be as specific as possible with your details and descriptions, but as I already mentioned, don’t give too much away or over-explain. Make it your own story, but allow your readers to connect with it (this brings us back to that clarity and ambiguity balance). I have found that all of these aspects are critical in finding your authorial voice.
Loss is a strong theme explored in “Lingua Nova.” How did writing this essay help you cope with loss and separation?
I’m sure many—if not all—writers will tell you that writing is a cathartic practice that allows us to reflect on, work through, and sometimes even make peace with significant moments in our lives. Same thing goes for me with this essay—it helped me work through everything that happened as well as my feelings towards it, and allowed me to even reach closure. I believe that seeing your emotions and thoughts on paper, in word-form, makes it all click. It’s written, tangible, structured proof of all our jumbled and messy thoughts and emotions. It’s truly a form of therapy.
I’ve always been better at communicating through writing, both with others and myself, because it allows me to gather my thoughts and feelings and work through them at my own pace—to really reflect on them and understand them on a deeper level. Sometimes I’ll describe a certain event or write how I feel about it, and it will surprise me that I described it in that way, because until I wrote it down, I didn’t know that’s how I viewed it or felt about it. Writing, especially nonfiction writing, allows us to first be truthful with ourselves and then with others. It is such a pure, freeing act.
How did you navigate revealing the intimate moments of your own life?
It’s certainly a struggle when it comes to deciding what to reveal and what not to reveal, because as I mentioned earlier, it makes you feel incredibly vulnerable. That’s one aspect of creative nonfiction that I think is very admirable, and I wish more people appreciated it.
I think it all just goes back to deciding what truth you want to tell as a writer and how that will impact your story. That’s the question I ask myself whenever I begin to write. You’re the sole decision-maker; you’re the protector and teller of your truth. No one else can make that decision for you. You have the right to bare all with no reservations or avoid mentioning a few details because you don’t feel comfortable doing so. But I think the main thing to keep in mind and the question you need to ask yourself each time is, “Am I being faithful to myself and my story? Am I being honest with my readers?”
There is a saying from Buddha’s teachings that states, “I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.” The moon represents the truth, and your writing is the finger that guides your readers to that truth. What you eventually want them to see is the truth at the core of your writing. It’s you who has to decide whether you want your readers to see a full moon or a crescent.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I think loss and longing are big ones. There always has to be a certain amount of heartbreak and loss at the center of your writing—otherwise, why write? You have to allow your readers to ache with your words. There has to be something at stake. Writing is too sacred an act to waste on trivial matters. Not to say that happiness, love, and all the wonderful things in the world aren’t worth writing about, but I think again, balance comes into play. There has to be a give and take; there has to be loss and sadness to make having something and being happy that much more significant. There has to be heartbreak for that love to truly mean something.
Your bio mentions that you are the Assistant Managing Editor at Money Map Press, a financial publishing company. How do you manage the variation in genres between creative nonfiction and financial writing? Do you have advice for writers who find themselves working in dual genres as well?
You’re asking some really great questions! When I was first interviewing for this job, I was asked the same question by my employers. I gave them the same answer that I’m about to give you. I think that a good writer and editor has to be flexible and navigate different genres with ease. If you’re confident in your craft, then the change in genre shouldn’t keep you from excelling in a finance-based writing field just as much as in a creative writing field.
That is not to say you have to necessarily be passionate about that particular genre, but if you truly love writing and words, then it shouldn’t matter much what genre or genres you work with. Granted, there are certain limitations in financial writing, and I obviously can’t take the same amount of liberties with it as I would with creative writing, but I really enjoy the challenge. There are also instances where I can use my creative writing skills in my financial writing/editing or vice versa, and that’s truly gratifying and valuable! I say the more experience you have with different genres, the better. Dabble in as many genres as you can—that’s also how you find your niche and what you’re best at.
How do you balance your other obligations while still keeping time available for creative writing?
I wouldn’t be lying if I said keeping up with a routine writing schedule is one of the biggest challenges for a writer, but I try to find the time most days, if not every day. Eventually, it becomes as routine as your other daily tasks. As Anne Lamott sagely advises in her wonderful book, Bird by Bird, you should keep a square, one-inch picture frame on your desk to remind you to write every day and enough to fill that frame. You don’t necessarily have to write twenty pages a day; it can be as simple and quick as writing one short paragraph a day. That adds up, and by the end of one week, you’ll have twenty pages (or more) on your hands. That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever came across, and it really stuck with me. I highly recommend Anne Lamott’s book, by the way; it’s funny, relatable, and filled with amazing advice for writers of all levels.
For me, personally, when work is less busy and I have some time on my hands, I pull up the latest piece I’m working on and tap away at it (I have my work saved in a few places like any paranoid writer, but one of my favorite places to save my writing and work on it is Google Docs, because you can pull it up wherever you are or with whatever computer you’re using. Makes a writer’s life so much easier). It can either be a short paragraph or a couple of pages, depending on how much time I have to dedicate to my writing; it varies, and that’s okay, as long as I have a chance to write. Remember, quality over quantity, and that rings true for writing, as well. I pretty much completed my entire (almost 400-page) novel by following this strategy—writing at work or at home whenever I had the chance. I think the trick to making yourself write regularly is to view it less as a chore (or work) and more like you taking a break from work and your regular flow of everyday tasks. You should view it as recess!
Your bio states that you are fluent in Farsi and French. How does your knowledge of other languages influence your English prose?
This is another excellent question. Well, to be honest, my French is a bit rusty now, but Farsi is my mother tongue, and I can read, write, and speak it fluently. I think knowing different languages certainly enhances my writing and gives it more depth. For example, I love using different Farsi and French expressions and idioms in my English prose. A perfect example of this is the nonfiction essay I recently got published in University of Baltimore’s Welter Journal. In one of the passages, I explore the expression “I miss you” in both Farsi and French and compare the two. I describe how each saying is different even though it’s evoking the same feeling, and I question which one comes closest to capturing the essence of what it is to miss someone. So knowing different languages certainly adds a depth and richness to my writing, and I feel incredibly lucky to know other languages in addition to English and to be able to use them in my writing.
You recently completed a novel. What can you share with us about your novel?
I really appreciate you giving me the chance to talk about my novel here. The title of the novel, Death has None, is based off of a Rumi poem, and I will try to give a very brief synopsis of it here.
Death has None tells the story of a Persian/Iranian family who immigrated to the United States and has to navigate the challenges of living with a dual culture and identity in a new country. Many of their experiences are similar to my own, because my family and I moved here from Iran when I was just six years old, so the novel touches on a lot of my own personal experiences.
As the family struggles to make a life for themselves in America, a sudden tragedy befalls them, and they must learn to cope with it and somehow move on. Our protagonist, Cyrus, takes comfort in the stories his father tells him about Cyrus the Great, the first ruler of the Persian Empire, and the lessons he learns from each tale. My main goal for this book was to tell a story any immigrant could relate to, as well as depict a side of the rich and ancient Persian culture and history that most people don’t know about. I believe that most of the novels out there about Iran and the Persian culture, however great, tend to mainly focus on the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath and have heavily political undertones. There’s so much more to our culture and history than that. So I wanted to steer away from it and just focus on all the wonderful things about my culture that many may not know about.
What books are you reading now? How do your reading interests influence your writing process?
I’ve always loved reading an eclectic mix, and I’m one of those crazy people who reads several books at a time (book-form, Kindle-form, you name it). Currently, I’m reading Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, (re-reading) Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra. I recently finished Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which was obviously excellent.
I think it’s crucial to read as many books by as many writers as you can in order to be a good writer. It simply goes hand in hand. One of my all-time favorite writers is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think reading his writing over the years has greatly influenced and shaped my own. I read The Great Gatsby when I was in middle school, and that did it for me—I thought, if I can someday write anywhere close to as good as this, I know I’ve made it as a writer. We all have those books we consider masterpieces and writers we idolize, and it’s really important to have that if you’re serious about writing. I love reading the classics just as much as contemporary works (sometimes I prefer the classics), and as I said, reading a wide array of works and writers truly helps writers perfect their own craft and simply become better writers.
Since Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, we like to ask: what’s your best/worst experience of them?
Wow, I didn’t know that about you guys—very cool! I honestly don’t think I could ever say anything negative about workshops, and I’ve never really had a bad experience with one. My entire grad school experience consisted of workshops, and I gained a deep appreciation and passion for them. I really think it’s crucial for a writer to experience a good workshop class with a group of writers who will give you honest, constructive feedback. I’ve had a lot of my writing that was just okay or even bad develop into really good, strong writing as a result of the workshops I took in grad school. I honestly miss them and wish I had the time to take more workshop classes.
So as you can clearly see, I’m the biggest advocate for workshops and tried to implement them in my own classes when I used to teach as an adjunct English professor. A good workshop class is the best support system a writer could ask for, and I think writers should take that same idea and create their own little workshop group if they don’t have the time (or money) to take actual writing workshop classes. The more eyes you have on your writing, the better. It makes the editing process so much easier.
You should try to create your own small group of writers (or even one writer) who will take the time to read your work (and you theirs) and give you honest and constructive feedback (and vice versa), feedback you can use to develop and better your writing. You can either meet face-to-face whenever you can to go over each other’s work, or if your schedules don’t allow it (which is usually the case with me), do it over email! Keep in mind, you don’t want someone who only praises your work and offers nothing, and you don’t want someone who only says negative things and rips your work apart, so again, finding that balance is key.