We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.
The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies.
While writing her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr was so exhausted she napped every day like a cross-country trucker. This was unusual for her, a single mom and a full-time college professor who usually needed just a few hours of sleep at night. Eventually, she identified the cause: The intense emotional workout of writing a memoir was causing her actual, physical exhaustion.
“I’ve heard that from other writers, too,” she told me. Compared to writing fiction, revisiting your own past just beats you up, she said. And a newfound urge to sleep is only one side effect of drafting a memoir: People who are long dead can slowly come alive in your mind; you can hear and smell them almost as vividly as if you were having a full-blown hallucination. Your memories will change, as truths you long held about your life begin to unravel. Ultimately, you may end up a different person altogether. “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right,” Karr writes in her most recent book, (The Art of Memoir*, which was released in paperback last fall. “The form always has profound psychological consequences on its author.”
The book’s cover depicts an anonymous capped crusader: a carpenter waving triumphantly from the steel skeleton of the Empire State Building, rising from the heart of Manhattan in 1930 to defy the Depression.
This was the decade that defined the skyline, that delivered New York personalities like Barbara Hutton, Fiorello H. La Guardia, Eugene O’Neill and Walter Winchell to global audiences, and that experienced intellectual foment in the Harlem Renaissance and an infusion of refugees from Nazi persecution.
It’s not that I don’t sympathise with your frustration at being unable to fulfil your dream and be published. I’ve been there, as have many now-published authors; the many more who still wish to be published will share your despair. We’ve all felt “bewildered” that the publishing industry failed to recognise our genius. We have all looked at our work – our “masterpieces”, in your words – and wondered the same as you: “How can I fail?”
And we have all failed. But you aren’t a failed novelist. You’ve had precisely two books on submission to publishers. “Years of work and emotional investment wasted,” you write. “I finally gave up, to save my sanity.”
Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.
The physical objects known as books have a call I cannot ignore. A true addict, I often enter a book store and experience a momentary lapse of consciousness before coming to with my arms full of new books as I try to forget my to-read pile at home. This guilt was assuaged for a few years when I had a specific mission: to find the fairy tales, specifically a large bluish book with Rose Red and Snow White painted on the cover, called My Bookhouse; Up One Pair of Stairs, a collection edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. When I was a child, the greatest treat in the world was spending the night at my grandparents’ because my grandmother would read me to sleep. After she passed away, my extended family swiftly packed up her belongings, and I believed My Bookhouse lost.
I used to love Frappuccinos. But now I hate them. There’s a lot of barista-hate against the Frappuccino. They throw off your whole routine. They’re not that hard to make, but if you’re by yourself and you have to run back and forth between making hot-bar espresso drinks and doing a Frappuccino, it’s tricky, timing-wise. Espresso drinks take like 15 to 30 seconds, but the Frappuccino takes about ten seconds.
And people order the most ridiculous Frappuccinos, which makes you want to cry all day on the inside. The other day, someone ordered extra caramel drizzle and ten pumps of caramel. Usually, it only comes with two in a venti size. So a venti with ten pumps of caramel, extra caramel drizzle, whipped cream, and nonfat milk. People order a Java Chip Frappuccino, but they’ll put like 20 different syrups in it, and they’ll want to make it like decaf — or they’ll want to add extra shots to it. Today, someone ordered a Frappuccino with five extra shots. I don’t understand why, at that point, you don’t just order an espresso.