Saturday, June 29, 2019
The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy by Colin McGinn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My commencement into the world of philosophy, came by way of a book my brother once gave to me, leftover from one of his college freshman courses. A book by the philosopher James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy.
Rachels was an American philosopher who specialized in ethics and animal rights and who’s arguments persuaded me, for a time at least, to even adopt vegetarianism for myself.
As I pondered the questions Rachels asked of his readers, I became alive, I believe, intellectually, for the first time. I was absolutely on fire with philosophy from that point on. And I’ve read innumerable books dedicated to the subject since then. But I will always remember and cherish Rachels book as one of the first, and certainly among the few, books that have made a lifelong impact.
I first became aware of Colin Mcginn, however, back around 2004 when he was featured on the BBC documentary series, The Atheism Tapes with Jonathan Miller. Actually that’s also how I have been introduced to a number of great thinkers, through one documentary series or another.
In The Making of a Philosopher, Mcginn touches upon some of the more major strands of what is, I have heard referred to, rather crudely, as, "analytical philosophy," be it language, the meaning of meaning, the mind, the body (where one starts and the other finishes), the Subject, the Object, Phenomena, the Thing-in-Itself, primary and secondary properties, mathematics and logic, ethical judgments, and all that senselessness. Which makes this is a good read for the non-specialist interested in why a philosopher might want to become a philosopher and spend their years pondering, why there is something rather than nothing.
As McGinn makes it clear up front, this autobiography focuses on his intellectual life rather than his personal life. And as someone who once considered a career in academic philosophy themselves, I found this book to offer a fascinating insider's perspective, even if it mainly represents the perspective of one man. McGinn also has an enviable ability to summarize and explain even the most obtuse of ideas, Saul Kripke and Donald Davidson's work certainly falls under that category, making the book fascinating as well as interesting.
But I did find Mcginn’s tone to be a little off-putting at times; the "isn't it amazing! and me just an ordinary sort of chap!" inflections, ad nauseam, strike the ear as a bit self-satisfied and pompous. But, you shouldn’t mistake my meaning here, as Wittgenstein himself said, language can be tricky, especially when it comes to matters of tone and idiom. I did very much enjoy McGinn's book. But, with that said, and as my own working class Grandmother might have said, he does come across as "a bit full of himself."
The only other problem I had with the book, and it’s one other reviewers have had as well, is Mcginn’s strict avoidance of any personal information. So much of our thinking is influenced by our emotional life and so I think more details about Mcginn’s personal life would have added a much needed and important dimension. But I respect his decision to devote the book exclusively to his own particular evolution as a philosopher instead.
What I did find most striking about the book was Mcginn’s conclusion, fully discussed in some of his other books, that the human mind is not equipped to understand the fundamental issues of philosophy, such as the mind-body problem, the determinism-free will riddle and the nature of consciousness. As he puts it, “in my bones I felt that there was some deep-seated obstacle in our intellectual makeup that prevents us from discovering the missing clue…We are suffering from what I called “cognitive closure” with respect to the mind-body problem. Just as a dog cannot be expected to solve the problems about space and time and the speed of light that it took a brain like Einstein’s to solve, so maybe the human species cannot be expected to understand how the universe contains mind and matter in combination. Isn’t it really a preposterous overconfidence on our part to think that our species—so recent, so contingent, so limited in many ways—can nevertheless unlock every secret of the natural world?”
Essentially what Mcginn is saying, is that there are really two sorts of questions: problems and mysteries. Problems are those questions it is within our capacity to answer, whereas a mystery is a question that falls outside our cognitive space. The problem with McGinn’s theory, what’s been labeled mysterianism or new mysterianism, is that one can never know when it applies. “If there are things we are constitutionally incapable of understanding,” writes Daniel Dennett, “then where to draw the line will clearly be one of them, as this would seem to require our being able to stand on both sides of the problem. A paradox would be involved where we would know enough about the issue to say that we can never comprehend it.” Interestingly, however, the philosopher Thomas Nagel also reached a similar conclusion to Mcginn’s, in a 2012 book which stated that there is in fact something very obviously missing in our understanding of our own evolution.
The term “mysterianism” is also, actually, incredibly misleading: discussing inherent limits of the human mind is a legitimate and indeed much-needed concern and I think Mcginn, and others like him, add an important dimension to the emerging study of “ignorance” and pose serious question marks to the “Singularity” expectations, put forward by Kurzweil, of humanity constructing a super-intelligent AI.
Few philosophers today, however, can genuinely tell us anything really meaningful about the world anymore. And even though philosophy may very well be, as Hegel once said, “utterly useless and fruitless.” It is for this very reason, the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal. A somewhat Coleridegy assertion to be sure, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. But, nevertheless, quit astute.
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
It Follows has sparked numerous interpretations from film critics since its release in 2014, regarding the film's symbolism and unfortunately almost all of them have invariably resorted to interpreting the film as a parable about HIV/AIDS, or other sexually transmitted infections, and the social perceptions thereof; the sexual revolution; and "primal anxieties" about intimacy.
However, what these critics have failed to appreciate is precisely just how much trust we must have in those around us whenever we enter a public space. We rarely give any thought to the nameless faces passing by us who might not have our best interests at heart. Even though keeping a watchful eye on the strangers around us came to be an integral and fundamental part of the films universe.
The movie seemingly follows the familiar horror movie pattern: everyone who has sex, dies. Jay, a pretty and fragile-looking college student, leads a boring but seemingly satisfactory life in the suburbs of Detroit. Her days seem to consist of sitting around with her sister and close friends, drifting in a small swimming pool, and going out from time to time. Her new boyfriend, Hugh, takes her to the local vintage theater and then starts to act strangely, apparently seeing people that aren’t there. On another date they have sex and it’s then that Jay learns about her boyfriend’s true intentions, he wanted to pass something on to her. Hugh kidnaps her, straps her to a wheelchair and explains to the terrified Jay that she wouldn’t believe him if she didn’t see “It” with her own eyes. Together they wait until a naked woman suddenly appears, seemingly after the immobile Jay. Hugh takes her from the spot and says she must sleep with someone else in order to pass it further along, otherwise “It” will kill her and then return to kill him and any other person before him. The deadly chain cannot be stopped.
Jay eventually does decide to sleep with someone, Greg, who is portrayed throughout the film as a bit of a womanizer and someone to whom Jay admits, she has already slept with, to pass along the curse. And later on in the film we witness “It” in the form of Greg’s mother kill him while rubbing her crotch against his, wearing an undone nightgown, with one of her breasts exposed.
From this scene you could draw the following conclusion: what Hugh told Jay is not true, just as his name was false, “It” doesn’t just look like anybody. It personifies one’s deepest fears and repressed sexual desires. No one in the movie wants to tell the others what he or she sees as “It.” The characters subconsciously understand that this would reveal too much about themselves, about the parts of their minds that they don’t want others to know. When Jay’s sister asks “What do you see?” Jay answers “I don’t want to tell you” while looking at their father trying to attack her. But if this theory is correct then it can be seen as the movie’s weakness. Jay shouldn’t be afraid of just anyone, only people that look familiar and/or out of place to her.
But it’s also important to recognize that Jay was by no means a slut, made obvious by her one piece bathing suit, she's also even on the prudish side of things, which makes her feel even more guilty about having slept with a guy she doesn't really know. Thus, “It” also comes to signify social “stigma.” No one would ever pass it along mischievously to someone they love, since it would bring them harm. "It" can only be passed along through casual sex, just as “stigma” is never passed along to anyone for sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend in a loving monogamous and consensual relationship. The only time Jay can feel comfortable from "It" is at the very end of the movie, when Paul, who is truly in love with her, receives “It.” Since it was true love that aroused their sexual passions, they can feel safe around each other. In the final scene, they are even seen holding hands, suggesting that they are now a couple. Even though "It" was in fact still following them, they no longer felt threatened by it. Seeing "It" as a sort of social “stigma” also helps us to understand why it never seems to die: we will never live in a society where social “stigma” ceases to exist.
However, this third act victory has very little to do with an evil being banished. This isn’t a story about a monster that terrorizes teenagers and then is sent back to the depths of hell. It’s about a girl who is betrayed, must suffer through the aftermath with little help, but who ultimately finds someone willing to share the burden.
Throughout the film, we also see Jay’s friend Yara reading The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Which provides some good quotes, but a better piece of literature to sum up It Follows is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies. Early on in the film, Jay and Hugh play a game in which one of them scans the crowd and decides which person they would trade places with, and the other one guesses which person they chose. Hugh chooses a little boy because, “He has his whole life ahead of him.” What Hugh wants most is to be a kid again. Later, in her monologue, Jay reveals who she’s always wanted to be. She says she “had this image of herself” driving with some “cute guy,” not going anywhere, just “having some sort of freedom.” She’s become her little-girl fantasy of a sophisticated adult. And, she finishes, “Now we’re old enough, where the hell do we go?” There’s only one place to go once you’ve achieved adulthood, and that’s the grave.
It Follows is among one of the most thematically-rich horror films released in the past decade, so it’s endlessly frustrating for me to hear that the average viewer knows it only as “the STD movie.” But the movie is very clearly not about an STD, because you don’t need an STD to die. You’re just going to, no matter what you do. As Yara reads in the penultimate scene: “And the most terrible agony may not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour—then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, and now—at this very instant—your soul will leave your body and that you will no longer be person—and that this is certain. The worst thing is that it is certain.”
While Jay did open herself up to danger through sex, sex ended up being the one way in which she could free herself from the danger that she was in. We're all here for a very limited amount of time, we can't escape our mortality, and certainly not the horror of living. And what the film illustrates is that love and sex are two of the only ways in which we can, at least temporarily, push death away.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Colin McGinn is an internationally acclaimed philosopher and teacher. He was educated at Manchester University (Psychology, BA and MA, 1972) and Oxford University (Philosophy, B Phil, 1974), and went on to teach philosophy at University College London, Oxford University, UCLA, Princeton, and Rutgers. McGinn is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, and in particular for what is known as new mysterianism, the idea that the human mind is not equipped to solve the problem of consciousness. He is the author of over 20 books on this and other areas of philosophy, including The Character of Mind (1982), The Problem of Consciousness (1991), Consciousness and Its Objects (2004), and The Meaning of Disgust (2011). I recently finished his memoir The Making of a Philosopher (2003) and I am very honored to have been granted an interview with him which you can view below.
Friday, June 21, 2019
After the publication of Each Thing Touches in 2015, I had a few years during which I was very prolific. I had so many poems to choose from for a new collection which I put together in 2018. Willingly was stitched together mostly from my collection of published poems since Each Thing Touches. It is a bit unusual, but most of the poems in Willingly were published in literary journals both online and in print. This third book differs in two ways from my previous books in that there are more experimental pieces and more gay-themed poems.
You ask a lot of questions in your poems, what do the questions add to the poem?
It’s interesting that you asked this because I am not consciously aware of how many questions I ask in poems until it is pointed out to me. I recently wrote a poem titled “Interrogation” which is a series of couplets where the first line is a question and the second has some sort of answer. I had a poetry workshop buddy who used to criticize my use of questions. He had a silly rule (like poets tend to have) that a poem could only allow for one question. I hope when I use a question it is organic to the poem and its meaning.
When did you start writing poetry, and what moved you to start and how has your relationship to it changed and served you as a writer throughout your career?
I started writing, including poetry, in high school and my first two published poems were in the creative writing magazine. I had a full-time public school teaching career so most of my poetry career was contained to weekends and summers. My relationship to writing poetry is always growing in new directions. I’m a big believer in mentors and have studied briefly with some big name poets like Mark Doty, Lisel Mueller, and Carolyn Forche. I have taken numerous online poetry writing courses and workshops which have helped me to generate new work. I am a believer in writing prompts which some poets are dead set against. They usually work for me. I have also attended a large number of writing conferences, often ones where I can get a manuscript reviewed by a well-known poet. I have a toolkit of many ways to jumpstart writing a poem rather than depending on the magic source of so much poetry: inspiration.
Now that your book is being received and written about, is there anything around the narrative of the book that you feel is not being said? What do you wish people knew that perhaps they don’t?
I wish more people realized the amount of time and effort that goes into putting together a full- length collection of poetry. The poems do have to hang together in a meaningful manner and the poet has to have so much excellent work, not just good or above average, to fill that number of pages. I also wish people could appreciate how much goes into crafting just one poem until it is in its exact right clothes (form) and says exactly what you want to convey (theme).
What is the role of poetry today? Why do you keep writing poetry?
I keep writing poetry because I can’t stop. I don’t think the role of poetry ever changes. I know that it is very popular today to say that social and political themes should hold sway, but I have always believed that there is a more universal use for poetry. I am not a big fan of all the ranting and raving and gnashing of teeth in today’s spoken word world or the blatant anti-Trumpian works which are so de rigueur these days.
Who is a poet that most people don’t know about who you think is incredible?
I think Katie Ford is quite remarkable. Colosseum is a favorite of mine.
What are you working on/reading now?
I am reading Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. His poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds caused quite a stir in the poetry community a couple of years ago. I am also always tweaking a memoir I have been working on for awhile now called Without. I am taking a poetry workshop during the month of July sponsored by Two Sylvias Press. I took it last July and recommend it to poets of all levels.
If you could offer up only one tip to your fellow poets, what would it be?
Less is more but you need to finish a complete thought. Short poems are usually lazy poems and long poems rarely work.
End of Interview
Marc Frazier has widely published poetry in journals including The Spoon River Poetry Review, ACM, Good Men Project, f(r)iction, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Slant, Permafrost, Plainsongs, and Poet Lore. Marc is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for poetry and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a “best of the net.” His book The Way Here, as well as his second full-length collection Each Thing Touches, are available on Amazon. Willingly, his third poetry book, was published by Adelaide Books, New York in 2019.
Poets and Writers Directory: https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/marc_frazier
To purchase a copy of Willingly click here
Thursday, June 20, 2019
Willingly by Marc Frazier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As I sat near one of the main windows in Sycamore’s only public library, scribbling in the margins of my copy of Willingly, an undergraduate student sitting next to me asked if I was reading a collection of poetry. His friend, as it turned out, wanted the names of some poets she should read in English. The thought that anyone would be asking me to recommend a poet seemed ridiculous at the time, who the hell am I after all? But as our serendipitous symposium continued, it abruptly dawned on me that most of the poets that I have ever discovered, and have come to admire greatly, have actually been discovered in this same way. By an informal, chance encounter, with a stranger reading a book.
Most people unfortunately look at poetry as if its a cement barricade. They are intimidated by it's seeming impenetrability, or even bored by it. But we all begin our lives with a great love of poetry. It’s just that as we grow older that love can sometimes start to fade. Our language becomes more practical rather than fanciful, and we may even start to think of words not as amusing sounds we make but rather as tools we can put to some use. And while it’s true this practical side of language has great power, it also has its limits. Reading and writing poetry allow us to explore what lies beyond these limits, to remind ourselves that language is not just something we learn; it’s something we actively take part in creating.
Nevertheless, everyone still acknowledges that poetry is important. We just don’t know how or why it’s important. Which makes Willingly, more like a post-modern painting than anything else, one you cannot take your eyes off of for studying every detail. It is extreme and haunting and covers a wide spectrum of topics. The poems also adhere to a variety of different structures that vacillate between having straightforward meanings and others that require a deeper interpretation. But, for the most part, Frazier’s uncomplicated language makes the poems messages direct and easily accessible. Some of the more prevalent themes Frazier explores are family, childhood memories, and personal relationships, always with the reminder of the wonder and grace of existence that still, ever so blatantly, anchors us in the world, and times, in which we live.
In short, Willingly is an ideal anthology of miniature burning suns, and each poem ignites like a torch on the page allowing us to see the stunning basilica that we have been standing in all this time, but were not aware of simply because it appeared that we were standing in total darkness. It is, without question, an alternately thoughtful and whimsical collection of verse.
Poetry, however, does seem to be one of the only art forms where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it. Which is our national shame. And unfortunately, for some, poetry will always be considered something outdated. Either too random, too issue-oriented, or too melodramatic. Most of us even believe that if we don't have the same interpretation of a poem as everyone else, then we must somehow be wrong, which is largely a failure with how poetry is taught. But it's not about right or wrong; it's about what you see in the poem. There is no code that can only be understood or deciphered by an elite cadre of academic gatekeepers.
Poetry may very well be a dying ember, but with Willingly, Frazier has fanned it’s flames. Even going so far as to kick off the lid on the gasoline canister, soaking the entire genre, sending it rising into a roaring, scorching, beautiful inferno. He is able to do this because he is a highly gifted and reflective poet. One more interested in questions than answers and his metaphors capture natural phenomena in enchanting ways. He is taking stock of a life lived, and is able to imbue it with an intense, almost perverse elegance. And it was only after I finished Frazier’s book, that I put it back upon my shelf, grabbed a bottle of bourbon from the fridge, threw back a drink, and whispered, "Goddamn.”
Friday, June 14, 2019
What makes this story unique is how you weave in family history and show how the past still affects the present. What are some of the main takeaways you want to convey through your story?
I did my best to weave in family history and heritage as a fulcrum of this story. Some of the main takeaways I want the reader to leave with include the following: resilience in faith, grit, grace upon yourself and others, healing, family ties, renewal, respect, honor, and gratitude. I would emphasize the faith aspect and personal belief in self. So often we can be our own worst enemies in hardship, but we don’t have to be.
Your ability to bring the past alive with graphic detail, kept me turning the pages. Would you please share with us your research process and how you were able to recall those details so vividly?
According to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a writer must include the carnal details of the experience to draw the reader in and make them feel close to the experience. In order to be an authentic storyteller, you have to be genuine and unafraid to tell the raw truth. The first time I drafted components of this memoir, I did not include any carnal details. I avoided the parts that I felt would be hard to read or see or digest for the reader. In a sense, there was a story without the body of feeling that it needed. In order to elevate the story as a whole I took Karr’s advice and tried to get closer to my own story. In order to do this I read through all of my diaries and notes taken during that period of my life, I physically went back to the places that I talked about in the story and that held significance so I could pick up on details of setting that I had forgotten, I conducted interviews with therapists who knew me, and I also forced myself to pour through photos from that period of my life. My memory of that time is also rather vivid as the mental state I was in gave me a keen sense of awareness regarding the world around me. Also, when illness strikes and we struggle, it is rather difficult to ever numb ourselves from that pain completely. Experiencing pain is what makes us human; we are not invincible to it. Sharing our stories is what bonds us together; through survival there is hope and renewal.
As with any memoir, there are sensitivities related to family issues. How were you able to reconcile these issues and forge ahead with your story?
I recognized that no matter what, my family played a huge role in my story and in my recovery. They were not a factor I could leave out as they were an instrumental piece of the dialogue, action, and my resentment. I do not necessarily know if all of the issues I had with them were reconciled, but we all share a strong relationship now so I would say that healing for everyone did occur – hence my mention of the strength and resilience that family bonds can have in our lives.
How has your family reacted to the publication of your memoir?
My family has always been supportive of my writing, but they were hesitant to support the publication of my memoir as they knew they were all central characters in my work. They were thankful for my healing and my ability to speak openly about it. None of my family members have read my book other than maybe a few chapters here and there. I was nervous about writing about my family and what I was going to expose, but the advice I was given with memoir writing was “write it first, worry about them later.” It sounded harsh at the time, but I did my best to humanize my family members so that even though I had my feelings and opinions about them during my experiences and health challenges, readers would sympathize with them and their lens of the story.
At what point did you decide to compile your stories into a memoir?
During my time in graduate school working towards an MFA, I spent a lot of time writing poetry, short stories and nonfiction prose. I had one story that I started writing in college called “Mirror Wars.” That was actually the original title of Tatsimou, Hold On! I think I wanted to write the full story, but did not have the impetus to do it on my own prior to grad school. One of my professors noticed that a lot of my poetry was also trying to tell a story he felt like I had yet to tell. There was also similar imagery and themes prevalent in my work that indicated a deeper story was present. One of my professors recommended that I try to compile my stories into a fictional recounting of events. The original idea was to make this story of personal struggle and family dysfunction into a comedy. I agreed thinking that creating a fictionalized depiction of my high school years would be comedic. It was, but it suited a play better than a novel. Yet, the more I wrote and the more drafts I shared with peers and professors, the common consensus that soon evolved was that I had more to say and the true story that kept rising to the surface needed to be told. And with that, I dove studying how to write a nonfiction memoir and I started writing different sections of my memoir and drafting ideas and scenes that I could eventually weave together to recreate the whole tapestry of my personal story. In so doing, my other writing was finally liberated and its breadth and diversity of style and topic choice grew immensely. It was perhaps one of the best decisions I could have made for my growth and development as a writer. We all have a story we NEED to tell! Don’t shy away from it.
What is your writing process like?
Overall? It is messy. And that is coming from an OCD person. All creative processes are somewhat messy and you have to let them be because the organic part of creation is what makes room for the good stuff to come out! I generally start with a list of questions I want to answer through my writing. I then fill a page with words, phrases, and ideas that come to mind when I think about the topic or story I want to write about. After that, I pick a few that I think are most significant and I write separately about each.
After that, I dive into characters. Who are they? What is their internal and external motivation? What is that they want most? What flaws and quirks do they have? What conflicts do they face? Who do they have relationships with, etc. Next – setting. Where and when is this happening? Is the setting just a background or does it play a driving role in the story? What is the problem and is there a solution? What obstacles will the characters face along the way? Generally I create a big poster with lots of these ideas on them or I sketch things out before I even start writing. The last thing I do is make an outline to work from. I usually don’t really use it, but it gives me the structure I need to at least get started.
Lastly, I develop an inciting incident to start the story. In the case of my memoir, I dove right into a scene near the rock bottom time of my depression and anorexia. That scene served as a Launchpad for future scenes and also a way in to start telling the backstory. Throwing a reader right into the action is the best way to catch attention and keep them there. Think about dramatic movies?! They use a similar tactic by employing an effective inciting incident. The murder almost always happens at the beginning.
Past that, it is all a matter of making time to write and dedicate time and space to churning out scenes and pages. Writing is a slow process that requires attention, commitment, and a willingness for endless revision!!
You have an impressive list of publishing credits. When did you first know that writing was your passion? And how did you break in?
Thank you! I have been working at that for a while and hope it continues to grow! Writing has been my passion since second grade. I had an influential teacher who allowed us to write poetry and create books during second grade and I immediately fell in love. Ever since that time I wanted to pursue writing both personally and professionally. In regard to breaking in, it took a lot of patience, rejection and the acceptance that rejection is a huge part of this industry. I also kept writing and revising. The more practice, the better. The more submissions, the better. Being part of a writing group or writing community is also helpful. Getting feedback and critique enables you to question your own work and look at it more critically. I have also tried to be fearless in pursuit of this dream of mine. Every rejection is an opportunity to look ahead, try again, create something new, and of course, re-submit.
I’m also curious about the role any of your other creative activities played in writing your memoir?
I first wrote about anorexia through my poetry. It was the first outlet I used to expose the dark truths that rested within me. I found my way into this entire memoir through a poem with the refrain “wishful whispers.” Poetry can be an excellent gateway to prose work as it allows one to condense ideas and experiences, while critically analyzing the imagery and emotions of a given moment or event.
Do you have any favorite memoir writing tips you could share?
Be patient. Telling a personal story can be difficult to do tastefully. So I think taking your time with the telling is a good idea. You can’t rush through a memory or you will miss important pieces. You also have to assess how far away your lens is and decide what perspective you want to write your memoir through. I wrote as though I was presently in the events again, but carried the lens of time and a perspective of healing. This gave a layer of depth to my story. Readers want to see growth and discover, along with you, the way out of pain or the way to triumph.
Another tip I would share is organization. Memoirs can be written in a linear fashion, as a series of flashbacks or as a mosaic of scenes and memories. I spent a great deal of time trying to sort this out. I did not actually write any of my chapters in the order that they appear. Once I located the most important scenes to write for this story, I jig-sawed them over and over again until I figured out the best fit! Once I did that I then had to do some serious revision to make things flow together in a seamless way.
Now that you’ve written a memoir, what do you think the elements of a good memoir are?
From the feedback I have been given on this book, I believe the most important elements of a good memoir are the following:
1.) Relatability – does the author connect to his/her audience regardless of whether audience has shared a similar experience?
2.) Truth – tell the truth! There is no sense in embellishing a story. Use details as enhancements, but don’t change what happened. You can change names and places, but remain true to events.
3.) Detail – the more carnal, the better! Readers want to see and feel the events through details and imagery.
4.) Unexpected Elements & Character Growth – Think of a memoir as you would a novel. If you write it with the intent to surprise or shock your reader and reveal how characters grow and change, it will captivate and entertain.
5.) Education – If you are going to talk about something, teach about something! Maybe your memoir is about baseball or maybe it is about food or perhaps it is about a family tradition. Don’t assume your reader knows everything about events, customs, traditions, illnesses, addictions, etc. as you do. Be willing to weave in information that teaches your reader about what you are writing about. Give them an opportunity to honestly learn about what you are writing about. This gives a greater purpose to the reader and meaning to your story. If your reader has to engage in too much outside research, they will often lose interest in your story.
Do you think that memoirs must focus on harrowing experiences to be effective?
Not at all. Readers like happy stories, too! Remember this! I also don’t think a memoir has to be about a traumatic event. Anything that is exciting or changes you as a person, which makes the narrator a dynamic figure, is worth writing. Sure, harrowing experiences draw a reader in to wonder with you and sympathize, but a memoir just needs to have a heartbeat to be effective. If the author believes the story is worth telling, that will come across in how they write it and the reader will be drawn into that passion and energy.
How do you decide something is worth writing about?
At my base, I am a poet. And as a poet, nothing is too small or too insignificant to write about. Poetry is supposed to act as a celebration of being in the world. The poet gives life to that which does not have it and the poet also honors that which already breathes. I think if you truly value life and this world God put us in, everything has value and is worth exploring.
How have you handled the marketing of your work and could you share what is working for you and how you found your target audience?
Marketing is a challenge in a heavily saturated book market. Finding a target audience is tricky because you will have people read, buy, or like your book that you least expect. So don’t limit your audience or scope just because you wrote to a narrower audience. I write in several different genres so my audience is spread out among ages, genders, and reading preferences. I don’t know if I have found the secret yet, but I am doing my best! Social Media has been effective for me, but word of mouth has been better. Hosting events for people to come meet you or being a part of open mic nights, etc. grants the exposure that you need. Books don’t sell themselves, they get promoted so the more you can do to promote your book in various places, the better it will catch on for readers. I also preview my books at the gyms I work at or share with clients I think might be interested. If you have a good product and enough people read it, it will get into the right hands. Oh, and libraries and independent bookstores too! Go ask them about the policies for procuring books. Often they like to feature local authors and you can apply to have them put your book on their shelves or for bookstores, sell it with a consignment agreement.
What is one memoir you think everyone needs to read?
I would highly recommend the memoir, Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen. It was an emotionally stirring and educational read by one of my mentors in graduate school. A smooth, informational read, worth every minute.
What advice do you have for any aspiring writers?
Keep writing! Writing is a skill that takes time. The majority of my writing has not been published, but it is still valuable and was time well spent in practice! And keep reading – especially craft books. Read about what works and what doesn’t. Follow the examples of other writers and keep experimenting with your own voice. You are YOU and no one else can take away your perspective and voice in the world, so use it! The Art of Description by Mark Doty is an excellent read for any writer diving into fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.
End of Interview
Andrea Cladis Hodge holds an MFA in Writing from Fairfield University and is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Elmhurst College with degrees in English Writing, Interdisciplinary Communications, French, and Secondary Education. A former journalist and High School English teacher, she currently works as a college professor, freelance manuscript editor, ghost writer, and fitness professional. She has been published by SAGE Academic, The Greek Star, various literary journals, and several online publications including Americans for Liberty, Medium, and patch.com. She is the author of the memoir, Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018), the Christian nonfiction book, Finding the Finish Line: Navigating the Race of Life through Faith & Fitness (CrossLink Publishing, 2017), and the poetry collection, Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019). Her next book, Fearless Stride (Baker Books), will debut in October of 2019, so stay tuned! In addition to writing, Andrea loves to inspire others through high energy dance and fitness classes. And when she's not writing or dancing, you will find her cooking, reading, competing in Triathlons and marathons, playing tennis, spending time with her family, and serving at her church. Known for her local opinion columns, Andrea's writing has been described as “emotive, yet brazen, seasoned with thinly veiled cynicism, and a pinch of sarcasm.” Andrea is an Advisory Board Member for Cambridge Scholars Publishing and maintains a personal site about faith, fitness, and writing which can be explored at www.andreacladis.com. Her life verse is Proverbs 19:20.
Author of Finding the Finish Line (CrossLink Publishing, 2017)
Author of Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018)
Author of Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019)
Author of Fearless Stride (Alive Publications - Forthcoming 2019)
Tatsimou, Hold On!: A Memoir by Andrea Cladis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are certain memoirs that are difficult to critically evaluate because they compel us to unearth some of our own difficulties, and so any discussion becomes necessarily a personal one. And while I don’t want to fall into the trap of using Cladis’s book to write about myself, I do suspect that every woman who reads the book, will recognize a little of themselves in it. For men who read the book, it will more than likely be a sort of travelogue, a descriptive, yet earnest, vade mecum.
Eating disorders are generally as much of a biochemical addiction as a psychological one. Rooted in familial dysfunctions, generational malaise and our national obsessions with feminine thinness. Which is really what makes Tatsimou, Hold On! such a gripping memoir, one that delivers a primal scream of a narrative sure to resonate even with those who possess a healthy disposition towards food and weight.
Cladis is far from shy in the story she tells and the full depravity of her disordered thinking is revealed here in full detail. Her account of how paralyzed those around her were as she began to deteriorate right in front of their eyes is also, I think, both accurate and well done. She even explains how food-related behaviors and routines come together to form the depressing and obsessional life of an anorexic. If you wish to have an insightful look into this world, this is it. And while I haven't experienced this same type of hell in the same way, I do understand some of what she describes, and it's not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Cladis’s attempts at exploring the complexities of her illness do not spare her parents either, but neither are they demonized. “I can’t recall the day when I began resenting my parents,” She writes, “But there’s a good chance it was when they forced me to go to therapy sessions...” But through it all she did make an uncommonly even-handed effort in attempting to understand what role her parents did play in some of her own anxieties, and as her story unfolds she eventually acknowledges that there was in fact a genuine quality of love between them.
I am like a moth to the flame when it comes to taking an in-depth exploration into someone’s psyche. The more complex, the better. I love to learn how people think, the experiences that shape them, and how they maneuver through life’s obstacles and especially the obstacles within their own minds. I love to cut through the bullshit and the formalities and get right to the heart of a person. Tell me who you really are!
I savor the take-me-or-leave me relationship that develops between writer and reader, and how the writer’s innocence and vulnerabilities are the magnets that pull the reader in to the story, rather than the flowery words or intricate plot lines. I also like the trust that develops as the writer bares his or her soul to the reader, and how the reader is almost always able to find pieces of themselves in the writer. I love how reading a memoir reveals that when we peel back our layers of protection, which most of us spend our entire lives building up, we can see that we are not all that different from one another. We are all just trying to make sense of this thing called life. Some of us are just better at pretending that they actually know what they are doing than others.
Cladis ended up being her own worst enemy, as the voice inside her head pushed her to become thin and beautiful. To become perfect. In fact she talks a lot about perfection in the book. Which, when assessed clearly, is really an ideal that is based on the compulsive belief that if you proceed carefully enough, you won’t have to die. The truth is, however, that you will die anyway. And it is to Cladis’s credit, and to the readers profit, that she eventually manages to kill this golem that had laid waste to her teenage years. But as Roxane Gay writes in her memoir, Hunger, “In too many ways, the past is still with me. The past is written on my body. I carry it every single day. The past sometimes feels like it might kill me. It is a heavy burden.”
Which leads me to another, more definitive, reason as to why I am drawn to memoirs. As a writer, deep thinker, and a person of passion, I have my own story to tell. I have told some of my story in a few personal pieces that I’ve posted to this blog, and truth be told, the excavation process and exposing certain parts of myself that had not been exposed to many was both cathartic and excruciatingly terrifying. Birthing your story is not easy. It can be challenging enough just to have lived through it, but conveying it to others in a way for them to understand and empathize with requires attention not only to the craft of writing, but to your whole being.
I overheard a preacher say once that hope is a revolutionary patience; but I’d like to also add that, so is being a writer. And it is an old chestnut that great writing should give us empathy for others. But Cladis has given me something far rarer: empathy for myself. Tatsimou, Hold On!, is an unsparing, terrifying, razor-edged self-portrait that cuts right into the heart of one of the most paradoxical of psychological disorders. It’s stunning and unbelievable. A tortured-yet-compelling account of a life spent bingeing and starving. Not just for food, but for discipline, meaning, love, and even for life itself.
Tuesday, June 4, 2019
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every so often a book comes along emphasizing issues that have been highlighted in other books long before it. Poverty is a perfect example of this. It’s one of those issues we seem to keep forgetting about. Mostly because in America we have this long running myth that if you deserve it, you will have it. We’re afraid to look at our downtrodden because it undercuts that myth. Which is a fear of the poor that, regretfully, is uniquely American.
A number of years back, books about what it was like to be poor were all the rage, following the success of Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed. Which was an excellent book, albeit one that, like its imitators, was written from the vantage point of the minivan driving journalist, taking on a minimum wage job and then writing about her experiences after returning safely home to an upper middle class community. But her book missed a great deal. Most importantly what it feels like to live, the entirety of your life, in a culture that detests you.
In America to be poor is to be despised. By your former friends, your family, and most of the time, even yourself. Which makes the craving for personal dignity the force that drives much of the caustic commentary, in this gripping memoir, which started it’s life as a response to an online forum question, and who’s main argument is that the structure of the bottom end of the US labour market is unfair, demeaning and exploitative. The author buttresses these conclusions with her own unhappy experiences, anecdotes about others, and an analysis of how the lowest segment of the market actually works. In low-wage jobs, bosses don’t ask subordinates what they think. Humiliation is the rule. “Poor people” are dehumanized by “rich people” wielding contempt and hypocritical moral judgments across a stark divide.
But what’s most remarkable and upsetting about this book, to me, is that, given the story Tirado tells, of the injustice and indignities, that she, and millions of other Americans living the same story have to endure, aren’t angrier. Going to work forces us to give up power over our own lives, we sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others and to have someone look down their nose at us for that, is the gravest insult I can imagine.
But, realistically, few working class people have the luxury of indignation. Enervated by swing shifts, cash shortfalls and too little sleep, they are badgered by the American creed that anyone who works hard can prosper, and many internalize the belief that those who don’t prosper are themselves to blame. “I wouldn’t even mind the degradations of my work life so much if the privileged and powerful were honest about it,” Tirado writes. “Instead, we’re told to work harder and be grateful we have jobs, food and a roof over our heads. . . . We are. But in exchange for all that work we’re doing, and all our miserable work conditions, we’re not allowed to demand anything in return. No sense of accomplishment, or respect from above or job security. We are expected not to feel entitled to these things.”
The one thing this book does to great effect, or I should say doesn’t do, is provide its readers with a chronological structure. Which is good, otherwise it would have made it far too easy for critics to intervene and cast judgement—that’s where you went wrong, or there—and miss the books larger point, that in a system of winners and losers, “poverty is a potential outcome for all of us.”
Tirado’s refusal to flatter her reader, is also what gives the book it’s undeniable authority. This isn’t a sob story, although it could very well make you weep with frustration; it’s a confrontation with the way that poor people are seen and judged day after day, by good liberals as well as evil conservatives, by the 99% as well as the 0.01%. And just as we dismiss those who deny the evidence of global climate change, so should we mock those who insist that if people only tried harder they wouldn’t be poor. It’s a lie, and Hand to Mouth shows us, in painstaking human detail, how it is a lie and why it is a lie.
I have been poor more often than I have been not poor. And I was told, all throughout my childhood, by guidance counselors, the media, and many adults, that if I no longer wanted to be poor, I had to work hard and go to college. I was told that that was the only way to not be poor. But that was a lie. And what I was promised has yet to materialize. But the most frustrating thing about it is that now those same people, those same authority figures, whom I trusted, and believed, and who sold me, as they sell so many, on the promises of the American Dream. Now blame me for, not only my failures, but for theirs as well.
Casting millennials as petulant adults trapped in adolescence has allowed previous generations to dismiss our concerns. Millennial bashing is, after all, as Mattias Lehman has written, simply a new form of “class warfare.”
Millennials have had to come of age in one of the worst economic climates since the Great Depression. We have grown up watching the selfishness of our parents in action. And we watched how the recklessness of the housing boom and bust wreaked havoc on our society and forced us to reach adulthood in a world in which opportunity is nonexistent. But we do not benefit from the selfishness of our parents. And hopefully we will not emulate it either.
Most of us are now entering into mid-adulthood, and most of us are still lagging far behind from where our parents were when they were our age. We have far less savings, far less equity, far less stability, and far, far more student debt. The “greatest generation” had the Depression and the GI Bill; boomers had the golden age of capitalism; Gen-X had deregulation and trickle-down economics. And millennials? We’ve got venture capital, but we’ve also got the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class and the rise of the 1%, and the steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment. A new study has even confirmed that millennials are the poorest generation to date. Millennials really do have it harder than previous generations. But somehow, the narrative of spoiled, petted young people still prevails.
Yet the more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. Instead we internalize that we’re not striving hard enough.
I never once imagined myself having to struggle this much in my thirties and perhaps it’s my fault, but perhaps, someone else is making it harder than it needs to be.
I’m never not thinking about money. I’m constantly running our budget through my head, trying to reassure myself that the numbers will work out this month. I dread going to the store or having to buy gas because each purchase moves us closer back down to that zero balance. The question always running through my mind is, what’s going to happen when the month comes that we can’t make it all work? The anxiety over our finances never quite goes away.
We’re trying to get back on our feet. We account for every dollar we make, and we don’t make any purchases without carefully considering our finances. It is just impossible to get ahead when every month seems to bring us a new setback, a visit to urgent care, a growing child who needs new shoes. Every step we take forward is followed by two steps backward and it’s exhausting. There’s no catching up when you’re behind; you just struggle to maintain. We’ve also learned to never try too hard to be middle class, as it only serves to make our situation worse. All of this obviously has a psychological and emotional impact. I’ve even flirted with addiction several times, but I’ve never let myself go there completely because I think it’d be too much of a relief and I’d never be able to come back.
I feel frustrated by all of this, but mostly embarrassed. It feels like I’m always climbing up the same hill, always trying to at least make it to neutral. But I don’t have the stamina of Sisyphus to keep going for much longer. And one day I’ll stop and put a bullet in my head. Anger is really the driving motivation that keeps me going. Honestly, if it wasn’t for anger, that bullet would have found it’s way into my cerebral cortex a long time ago. A running thread through all of the topics covered in the book is actually about the logic of anger as a means of survival: Speaking of mental health services, for example, Tirado concludes, "Professionals seem to only want to talk about my anger. They talk about my fatalism, my caustic outlook. They see these things as problems to be fixed. Personally, I think that anger is the only rational response to my world sometimes." It’s certainly the most productive.
Moreover, the problem isn’t just one of being undervalued either. As Tirado explains, “it’s, also, that it feels as though people go out of their way to make sure you know how useless you are.”
In the poor persons world, medical practitioners are condescending and unreasonably preachy, caseworkers are cruelly imperious, and government systems are Kafkaesque. Which is not even to mention the foaming resentment that spews from the mouths of those lucky enough to live a more middle class existence. “Why do they waste money on cigarettes and booze? Why do they eat junk food? Why do they have kids they can’t afford?” But a better question is, why do we keep hammering poor people with such supercilious judgments, for their habits, their pleasures, their health, their parenting, in a word, their very lives? Because double standards, directed at the poor, are used, first and foremost, to force poor people out of the public sphere and delegitimize their own testimony about their lives and needs.
Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that maybe there’s merit to be found in the lower classes. The stigma and prejudice that’s attached to poverty creates the assumption that poor people can’t be smart, so anyone who is smart can’t be poor. It’s a perfect circle that ensures that no poor person who talks about their experience is seen as credible. Unless, like J.D. Vance in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the working class people in question are careful to position themselves as exceptionally meritorious and decry the immorality and poor work ethic of their peers. Poor people who cosign prejudice against poor people are lauded. Everyone else is dismissed. It’s just easier to dismiss poor people than to listen to them.
Our political system is also utterly, and embarrassingly, unresponsive to the needs of poor and low-income people; they cannot be counted on for campaign contributions, after all, they don’t hire lobbyists, and are less likely to vote, not because they are apathetic, but because the U.S. makes voting complicated and time-consuming, and they don’t think it matters anyway. Which it doesn’t. If our system depends on the right person, or persons, being in power, it’s by definition a bad system.
Much of the criticism, however, surrounding this book, and much of which has been aimed directly at Tirado herself, mainly concerns what the proper poor person should look like. If you’re going to ask for help in America, critics invariably insist, you’d better be really, truly, abjectly, miserably poor, and you’d better perform that poverty for the benefit of the more fortunate. But a far more legitimate criticism of Tirado, would be the same one that I often levy against religion. Neither of them have any real incentive to want to see poverty eliminated completely, simply because they both make money from it. Which isn’t so much a criticism as it is a question concerning both parties underlying motivations. Nonetheless, Tirado’s book vehemently accosts it’s readers with the ugly and painful realities of poverty and challenges us not to look away from it. As Noah Berlatsky once said, “If we didn’t hate the poor, the poor wouldn’t exist.”
But, today I’m afraid, the humanitarian conviction that we all have a collective national responsibility to the poorest among us, can no longer offer us a scythe sharp enough to fell the stalks of capitalist ideology. And because of this I maintain that we are now entering a terminal phase of human existence, that, unfortunately for us, doesn’t look very likely that we will survive it. In order to survive it, we would need drastic changes to take place. But, in order for real change to occur people would have to at least be willing to give up their greed, and they’ll never pay that price for freedom.