Behind-the-Scenes with Sharon Mashihi

For our feature on Man Choubam (I am good) , we asked producer Sharon Mashihi: what were the main ingredients - inspirations, motivations, challenges, etc. - that are baked into this podcast?

1) The first audio documentary I ever heard

Nazanin Rafsanjani’s story Not Your Parents’ Parent Trap was the first proper audio documentary I ever heard. The story is about Nazanin’s parents - an Iranian couple unhappily married for 27 years and then divorced until - to everyone's shock - they fall in love again. And it’s the story that made me want to make radio.

Like me, Nazanin is Iranian American. In the documentary, her parents’ sound a lot like my parents, they have similar struggles, and seem to have similar mentalities. In my entire lifetime of reading books, watching movies and TV, I never stopped to think, “none of these stories are about someone like me.” But when I heard Nazanin’s story, I was overwhelmed by the sense of connection, the sense that for the first time in my life, my particular experiences were reflected in a work of art. I would have never made this story if I hadn’t been inspired by Nazanin’s story.

2) To create is to get stuck

After my mom and I got back from the cruise, and I had all the tape, I was excited to get going. I started writing about the meaning of my mom’s name. I remembered being nine years old, when my mother told me that her name, Nahid, referred to the Goddess of Beauty. A “goddess” was something I had learned about in school. A goddess was ancient and magical. I suddenly had the sense that my very boring uninteresting life was elevated into the realm of greatness. My mother had a name that meant something.

So when I cut that section together, I was proud and excited. I thought to myself, “To create is truly a joyous thing!”

The next day, I sat down to work and I was completely stuck. I was so overwhelmed that I literally crouched under my desk and squeezed my eyes shut until the feeling went away. I had gathered way too much tape. I spent weeks listening back to all of it, transcribing it, crying about how complicated it all seemed…. until my friend, editor and platonic life partner Kaitlin Prest intervened and offered to let me record myself telling her the whole story. We made an appointment for me to meet her in her recording closet, and I told her the story of my relationship with my mother, Dr. Holakouee, and everything that happened on our trip.

I was able to use the recording of our conversation as my first draft of the piece. Once you have a first draft, things get a lot easier. Suddenly, you’re not inventing something from nothing. You’re simply improving what is already there.

3) Time-outs

I spent my childhood in front of the TV. I watched Saved by The Bell every day for years. My favorite parts were the dream sequences and when Zack would do a “time-out”. In his “time-outs” the action would freeze. All the other actors in the scene would be stuck in place, and Zack would explain his dilemma to the audience. When I started watching the French New Wave films - particularly Godard’s - I was struck by the way a narrator could slow down the action, and tell you a whole bunch of background details about a character, or muse on ideas about existence. Those moments touched the same thing in me as Zack’s time-outs.

I fell in love with radio documentary because of all the things a narrator can do. I relish opportunities to give side notes, background details, and to tell a magical story within an otherwise straightforward story - and I wanted to reflect those moments in Man Choubam .

4) Little work gifts

I am often in a battle with myself to stop making excuses and just do the work. Excuses like, “I can’t concentrate, it’s too noisy here.” Or, “It’s really hard to get anything done when my desk is so cluttered.”

When I first started freelancing, I would spend an entire day, going from one cafe, to another, to a library, to a bookstore, and back home, trying to find the perfect conditions to focus. I would waste the better part of the day like this, and then be forced to work late into the night to make up for lost time. I am often disappointed in myself for being so particular. But every once in a while, if I give in to to my agida, I find that the smallest aesthetic differences in how I work, really make a big difference.

I remember one day, working on Man Choubam , I had been sitting at my computer for hours, and nothing was getting accomplished. I kept fantasizing about buying a new beautiful notebook which would inspire new beautiful ideas. But I told myself I was being a brat. All I needed to do was force myself to focus. But when I finally gave in and went and bought a new notebook, I wrote the second draft of the story in one sitting.

Sometimes, it helps to give yourself a little work present. An act of self love can go a long way in relaxing you and helping you get things done. Also, crisp clean fresh unlined pages, and nice inky pens, they seduce my reluctant mind!

5) A daughters song

Rob Rosenthal first introduced me to Dmae Roberts’ story Mei Mei, A Daughter’s Song when he was my teacher at SALT. At the time, I appreciated that the piece was good, but I was new to making radio, so I didn’t recognize what an achievement it was to make a documentary with such a unique aesthetic - it seemed to be speaking the language of experimental theater inside a story about childhood abuse in Taiwan and familial relationships.

I listened to Mei Mei a couple of times while I was working on Man Choubam . It helped me open my mind, and feel less constrained by logic. It also gave me permission to explore the hardest parts of my relationship with my mother. I realized that it’s possible to honestly depict a difficult relationship, and also have the entire thing reverberate with a tremendous amount of love.

6) Index card fetish

I have a fetish for index cards. Without index cards, I wouldn’t be me. I use index cards in many ways. One of the ways I use index cards is to post reminders to myself on the wall. While I was working on this story, I had two index cards. The first read, “God, help me get out of the way and make the radio story that wants to be made.” I stole that idea from Anne Lamott. The second index card read, “I’m here and I’m naked. Let’s go.” *

I also used index cards to figure out the structure. Every story beat was its own card, and I constantly re-arranged them on a table as I tried to map my way through the story.

And finally, I wrote myself a note on an index card at the end of every work day. The note was a message to myself in the future. i.e. “Tomorrow, when you sit down, the first thing to do is a free write about your complicated feelings exposing mom so much in this radio story.” Or “Score the water scene.”

7) Daisies

This is one of my favorite movies, and once Kaitlin Prest saw it, it became our favorite movie as collaborators. I’m afraid I will only botch it by trying to describe what it’s like, but here goes: It takes place in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, a couple years before the country had a revolution. It’s gorgeous and surrealist. Full of colors. The main characters are two young women. They are either best friends or lovers or roommates or parts of the same person. They are deeply bored. They are greedy. They don’t follow any rules. They trick rich old men into taking them out for dinner and then ditch them as soon as they’ve finished feasting. They spend hours in their bedroom, cutting each other up with scissors and eating old watermelon.

The characters don’t follow any rules. And the film doesn’t follow any rules. The film will cut from the two women bored at a bar to them lighting their bedroom on fire, to a shot of sausages hanging from the ceiling, the flames are grilling them. In the film’s most famous scene, the women walk into a pristine banquet hall, set up for a feast. They sneak some bites of the food, and then they sneak some sips of wine, and before long, the scene escalates into a massive food fight. They stomp on the tables, shatter glass, completely trash the place and each other.

The women see the world around them - and either because they feel excluded from it or because they struggle to find meaning in it - or simply for their own aesthetic pleasure - they tear that world to shreds. At times joyfully, at times indifferently.

The movie gives total permission to follow your stream of conscious when you’re making something, to be a fucking boss about ideas, and juxtapose whatever you want with whatever else. I am lifetimes away from achieving something as beautiful as this film, but I am trying every day.

8) Editors!

Kaitlin Prest and Bob Carlson were wonderful editors.

Kaitlin helped me realize that in order for the big talk to pay off structurally, I needed to clearly establish upfront that Iranians (and my mother in particular) value appearances. She suggested I write up “The Rules of Great Neck,” and she also suggested I create a section where, one by one, I name an expectation my mother has for me and explain how I thwart it. (i.e. “my mother would like me to be feminine in an old school way, I don’t shave my armpits. My mother would like me to live in a nice clean house with a husband, I live in a dirty four story hippie house with a ragtag crew of artists and queers.”) Creating those contrasts set up the tension for the conversation. Certainly, that tension was there in real life, but in order for listeners to be invited into that, I needed to set up the context.

And Bob was the one who encouraged me to not back down, to have that really hard conversation with my mom on the boat, and to record it. In the beginning, I thought I was just making a story about Dr. Holakouee, but with Bob’s help, I realized that I was really making a story about my relationship with my mom.

Both Bob and Kaitlin were equal parts editors and therapists - and I am eternally grateful to them.

9) Third Coast Radio Residency at Ragdale

Seriously, that residency was the lap of luxury. I had time to meditate two times every day, go for a run, and still get a shit ton of work done. I felt far enough away from my everyday life that my brain actually felt clear, uncluttered. One morning, I remember thinking, “I feel sick to my stomach about this story, none of the writing feels honest enough, I am not saying the most urgent truth.” And then I realized that the thing that was making me sick was how guilty I felt, knowing that my mother did not want me to make this radio story. The fifth day at the residency, I decided, “Ok, that’s the first line: My mother does not want me to make this radio story.”

The right first line is so important. Once you have that, the story has an identity.

  • I am deeply embarrassed that I just shared that, rendering that particular index card ineffectual for all the rest of time.