Behind the Words: Ryan Tahmaseb

Posted by on Apr 2, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Ryan Tahmaseb

Ryan Tahmaseb’s “A Communion” tells the story of a narrator who takes an unexpected turn on her way to work one morning to visit her husband’s graveside. The short story ran in Issue 7 of Spry. Ryan was kind enough to talk to us about his writing process, teaching, and what he’s up to now.

Phil Lemos: In your story “A Communion,” the narrator immediately drops us into the story by announcing, “You’re probably wondering why I’m here today.”  Did this opening come naturally to you? Did you play around with other potential ways to start the story?

Ryan Tahmaseb: This story was one of four I wrote a few summers ago, and of those four, this one came most naturally to me. That line was the first line I wrote, probably because I had a good sense of what I wanted to do with this story before I began writing it.

I want my first lines to build interest and hint at personality. I’m not sure this one does both, but it at least presents a few interesting questions. And because it’s such a short story, you don’t have to wait very long for those questions to be answered.

Talk about what inspired the story? How long did it take you to write it?

One of my favorite songs that summer was “Dearly Departed Friend” by Old Crow Medicine Show. (I know—very summery.) I wanted to do something similar to what the narrator is doing in that song: write a first-person narrative in which someone is speaking the entire time to a loved one at his or her graveside.

I wrote the first draft in a few days, though I had to go back afterward and make some changes so that the character underwent some kind of change over the course of the story, however small.

I also took out a relatively big part near the end of the story in which the narrator reads aloud a passage from Virginia Woolf. Here’s the deleted part in case you’re interested:

But after your death, each new day brings some new question, some mystery, and I’ve started to believe there’s Something driving those electrical impulses that run through my brain and once ran through yours. Even the books I’m reading are different these days. I’ve started to carry in my purse a copy of a bizarre passage from one of Virginia Woolf’s short stories.  Here, I’ll read it to you:

Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour–landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one’s hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard…But after life. The slow pulling down of thick green stalks so that the cup of the flower, as it turns over, deluges one with purple and red light. Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants?

I do feel like I’m being blown through the Tube. Each day goes faster and faster. I can see myself flying out of that chute one day, landing in some strange garden, and beginning to perceive at once where you are and how you’ve grown. So there you have it: you’re still making me reevaluate the way I see the world.

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what is it? If not, why?

I’m always thinking about writing. I take notes on ideas in a Google Doc or on the notes app on my phone. They’re almost all snippets: an idea for a title, an image from a song, something I heard someone say that stayed with me.

I go through stretches of being disciplined and writing for at least 20-30 minutes each morning. But the work only gets done when I am in the mood and have severals hours to power through.

Your bio discusses your teaching at The Meadowbrook School. How does teaching affect your writing?

Teaching is the reason I started writing. I actually wrote about this in a guest blog for AmeriCorps. As a teacher of writing, I felt like I had to serve as a model for my students. To this day I’m inspired by my students’ probing questions about the writing process and their endless creativity.

Talk about the revision process. How did you know the story was finished?

Writing is sometimes a painfully slow process for me. This is probably because I do most of my revision as I write. But with “A Communion,” I immediately found some freedom in inhabiting this person’s voice. I knew what she sounded like before and during the writing process.

Because I revise as I go, most of my work is done when I finish the ending, at which point I’ll typically share the piece with a trusted friend and ask them to suggest edits. That said, the ending of a story is definitely the most difficult part for me to write. In theory, the ending to “A Communion” should have been extra difficult because there is no clean, real conclusion to the way the narrator is feeling.

But it was actually easier. I knew it was finished when I decided to end it with the narrator asking her husband a question. I didn’t know why I knew this at the time. Looking back, I think it’s because the question she poses at the very end gives her husband space to speak. In that space—in that silence—there’s a voice.

What do you read? Where do you get your inspiration?

A few favorite authors include Marilynne Robinson, Wendell Berry, Anne Lamott, Etgar Keret, and Rob Bell. They’ve all changed the way I see myself and the world.

I’m inspired anytime I’m smart enough to slow down and pay attention to something. As I mentioned earlier, songs are hugely influential: melodies, feelings, words, images. But I’m most inspired by those I know or know of who are genuinely happy people and have a sense of purpose. These people often write, and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing some work for a course I’m taking this summer at Boston College. It’s my first course toward a graduate degree in theology and ministry, and I’m loving it.

Also, as a new parent inspired by a great book by Kathy Hendricks, I recently started a website, Spiritual Parent, that explores the relationship between spirituality and parenting. It’s an exciting new project that combines many of my interests. I hope you’ll check it out.

Phil Lemos