Category: Book Blogs

In order to be a better writer and creative, I need to read. I’ll share some of the thoughts on the books I’ve read and blog about them.

How Cal Newport and Digital Minimalism Influenced My Life and Blog

Over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about what this blog means to me and how it fits into my life, and I hadn’t realized how much Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has changed my entire perception of my work and digital life. I started this blog when I first began freelancing almost eight years ago, chronicling my journey to building a life around writing. Now, I write every single day, tallying up words for novels, essays, and short stories while working on my craft within my career as a digital marketing professional. I have a great career where I help tell stories for universities.

So, I’ve been thinking, where does this blog fit into my life that I’m no longer a freelancer?

Honestly, my blog exhausted me (in a similar way to my podcast, The Working Poet Radio Show), because it began to seem like a burden rather than a passion. I know that sounds awful, especially to those people who have read or listened, but what I noticed is that the reason these projects were feeling like a burden was: 1. I was really busy at work, writing, and with my family, so something had to give. 2. I was focused on the wrong metrics — organic traffic, shares, page views — and not connecting with an audience.

As a digital marketing professional, I have learned to realize the value and the tools to increasing a digital presence, and I still see the value in this for any writing professional, but they consume me. I dedicate my day to helping our clients achieve these goals, and I thought, well, shouldn’t I be doing the same thing for my own blog? I pursued writing for this blog in the same way I approached my work: SEO optimized blog posts, listicles, social boosting. But it struck me this week: I don’t care about those things anymore for my own personal work. They are exhausting.

My thoughts have really started to change after reading Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism.” It’s a book that explores a lifestyle where you use digital technologies to support value, true value, rather than allowing the behavioral techniques that Silicon Valley — and digital marketing professionals like myself — employ so that a user keeps scrolling, keeps sharing, keeps you on your device. Newport’s book proved to be one of the most useful books I have ever read, and it helped me reorientate myself to what I care about: building a career and a community, writing books, and being there for my family.

Because of this book, I have written six chapters of a new novel and read 18 books in a month and a half, which I will catalogue at the end of this blog and flag the ones I recommend.  During this time, I’ve come to a conclusion: I need to start writing without caring about being read. Well, maybe that’s not right. Clearly, I want to care about an audience. Maybe it’s more on the lines of: Be yourself and your audience will find you. That could be it. I don’t know. Realize what you value and focus on that…maybe. I don’t know.

Books:

  • The Line Becomes a River, Francisco Cantu (Recommend. Reminded of Kerouac if he was working at the border)
  • The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascareenhas (Don’t recommend)
  • Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport (One of the most useful books I’ve ever read)
  • How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper (Recommend)
  • Ultralearning, Scott H. Young
  • Churchgoers, Patrick Coleman (Alert, San Diego author)
  • This is Not Propaganda, Pete Pomeranstev (Awesome read)
  • Writing to Persuade, Trish Hall
  • The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (Excellent, party time)
  • The War of Kindness, Jamil Zaki (Pass)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
  • The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Siegel (Awesome)
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker (Incredible style book)
  • Paper Towns, John Green (Amazing!)
  • The Disordered Mind, Eric R. Kandel
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger (Not as good as I remembered)

Mental Health and Family: New Essay at Narratively

Last week I had my essay, “How to Get Your Paranoid Mother into the Poisonous Ambulance,” published at Narratively — considered a top 50 website by Time Magazine. Besides having the capability to tell my story on such an incredible platform, I was lucky enough to have the piece accompanied by illustrations from Danielle Chenette, an animator, illustrator, and printmaker originally from Millbury, Massachusetts, living and working in Chicago. I love her illustrations, and it really helped capture the theme of Mommy Dearest, which was the editorial focus of Narratively for the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

This publication was special for many reasons, but it ultimately marked a completion of a difficult journey within my writing. If you haven’t read the piece, then let me fill you in a bit. It’s the story of when I hard to return home when my mother was off her medicine and missing in Massachusetts. She has bipolar, and for most of my life, our family has had to handle the ups and downs of the disorder. It was November, 2013, and I flew home to try to convince my mother (with the of my brother) to voluntarily head into a hospital with a higher level of care to help her find equilibrium.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Well, writing this essay — and even that above paragraph — is truly monumental for me, because it marks a major transition artistically and personally. For most of my life, I’ve kept my mother’s illness a secret, but I have often felt the need to write about it. In fact, it’s almost been a compulsion, and I’ve told versions of this story before, but I’ve never told it in the memoir form and put the stamp of truth upon the pages…until now. The story of dealing with mental illness is so important because most people keep it a secret. But why is it such a secret? Why are we so embarrassed with the imbalance of the mind? How do we tell the stories we so desperately need to tell?

But even a harder question: How do we tell those stories without hurting the people we love? That question has always stopped me from truly writing the way I needed to write. I always felt that I was going to hurt someone when I told these stories, but in the piece, I didn’t hold back. I had a wonderful editor during this process who pushed me to tell the truth in a way that was authentic and real.

In the end, I wasn’t just afraid of what my mother would think about the stories — or other members of my family — and I wasn’t afraid that people would judge my mother and think of her in a negative way. To provide a bit more insight, here is what I wrote on Facebook when I shared the story:

I almost didn’t share my essay that was published on Narratively yesterday to my personal Facebook page, because it’s a personal story and ultimately people will recognize the individuals involved…potentially judging them negatively. So I asked my brother what he thought (since he is in the story), and he pointed out that hopefully more good will come from sharing it than bad. Well, I hope that’s the case. Mental health shouldn’t be something we hide and ignore. I hope it’s something we can embrace while learning to empathize with the individuals who are suffering.

Illustration by Danielle Chenette
Illustration by Danielle Chenette

Only one person (at least that I’m aware of) criticized me for sharing this story, and this person was actual a member of my family. I don’t really talk to her anymore because of her attitude toward mental health, but she wrote on the Facebook post with the intention of shaming me for sharing a story about my family that she deemed personal. But there were so many other people who wrote to me either on the Facebook post or through a private message expressing how much they valued my courage in sharing the story. In fact, someone I greatly respect wrote: “Silence killed my mom. Thanks for sharing, Joseph Lapin.” So I just wanted to say thank you to all the people who read the piece without judgement and with compassion. It means the world.

Why is mental illness still such a stigma? Why are we scared to share that our minds can become just as sick as our lungs or our cells? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m suddenly more confident than ever to tell my stories. Hopefully I’ll find a way to answer some of the above questions along the way.

Why I Loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

You want to know how to evaluate the bond of a life-long love? Well, like most great aspects of life, it can be found in a book. Let me explain.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read Richard Price’s “The Whites,” Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train,” William Gibson’s, “Peripheral,” and David Sedaris’ “When You’re Engulfed in Flames,” and I’m also listening to a Stephen King book. But if you want to know about how to evaluate love, then you need to read Kazoo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant.” I want to focus on Isighuro’s book, because something took place in the novel that has stuck with me since I came across it.

The novel is set in a period of English history that would have been associated with King Arthur. It’s a magical world that blends myth, fantasy, and pieces of history into a journey about a married couple who are looking for their son. In the novel, everyone has a difficult time remembering aspects of their own lives. There is a mist (an almost memory-stealing fog) that pervades the land.

As the married couple is trying to find their son, they encounter a terrible storm. They need to seek shelter. The story structure follows the “hero’s journey” that was made famous by Christopher Vogler in his book, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.” It’s a guide for screenwriters, and it was influenced by the works of Joseph Campbell. If you’ve ever seen any movie, or heard a fascinating tale told over a campfire, then you would recognize the structure Vogler presents.

What is amazing about Ishiguro’s books is not the structure itself, but it’s the way that the structure becomes a vehicle for the voice to tap into a mythic and fantastic world, where dragons, knights, and Sir Gaiwan still exist. But it’s achieved with such artful and tasteful strokes, as if he had found a way to make King Arthur seem more like Game of Thrones…minus the sex and random killings.

Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin

So this married couple comes to a shelter in the rain, and inside the shelter, they find a boatman inside. He is on a holiday from his job, which is to take people across the lake to an incredible island. On the island, people walk alone for years. They can hear other people, but they can never find each other. They are doomed to be alone. But certain couples are brought to the island together, and they are allowed to walk in peace and harmony for the rest of their lives. The boatman only brings couples over to the island who actually have true bonds of love, and if they fail his test, then he brings just one person at a time, and they are doomed to never see each other again. You can see how this has a fairy tale feel to it.

What was so interesting to me was how the boatman decides whether the couple actually has a strong bond of love. The boatmen simply ask the couple to tell him their fondest memory with each other.

“Besides when travelers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years–that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together…”

I thought this passage was memorable, and it’s an interesting way to evaluate love. When you ask your partner what is the fondest memory, what will they say? What does their answer reveal about the quality of love? What does that say about the very nature of memory? Can a memory define love?

I dare you to ask your wife or your husband this very question tonight. Make sure to check out this new novel by Ishiguro.

Philip Levine and the Importance of Poetry

Philip Levine, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, National Book Award winner, and a scribe who turned the monotony of our working lives into extraordinary forms, died on Saturday in his home in Fresno, California. His death closes the chapter on one of poetry’s most important American voices.

He has had such a tremendous effect that it caused Dwight Garner at the New York Times to write this: “Mr. Levine’s death is a serious blow for American poetry, in part because he so vividly evoked the drudgery and hardships of working-class life in America.” The Paris Review will be posting his poems this week in tribute, and David Post at the Washington Post had this to say about the man from Detroit: “His poems have a kind of simple power that frequently reaches real transcendence, and they are deeply and nakedly autobiographical – having read most of his published work, I feel like I know a great deal about his life and he’s like an old friend – without the nasty combination of self-love and self-pity that accompanies so much autobiographical poetry.”

What Levine is known most for is that he’s a working-class poet. He worked in factories and told the stories of the individuals he met in his hometown. He was a poet of the people, and he wrote in turgid, almost Hemingway-like sentences that captured such a stunning music and imagery that he placed you dead center in his moment, in the speaker’s world, in the tangible experience that great writing creates. If you don’t understand the power of his work, the ability of his poetry to connect to everyone that comes in contact with it, then listen:

So what about what Philip Levine is…was. Many writers and critics have already discussed the importance of Philip Levine and his impact on poetry, but to make this more personal, I want to talk about what Philip Levine is…was…for me. As someone who grew up in blue-collar town in Massachusetts with empty factories on Main Street, which was parallel to the bustling center of a plastic factory (almost a perfect dichotomy of the modern world juxtaposed to the past Industrial Revolution wasteland), Philip Levine showed me that my life, my hometown, the people who I have known, are all so beautiful. He showed me that my life could be art if I told it in a way that was authentic. I’m still trying to find that, but I’m positive that not only did he have this effect me; he had this effect on a generation of people growing up in similar backgrounds. This is what made him such a great American poet, because lyricism and the sublime belong to all people and not a select group who have the leisure time to become backyard Hamlets.

I didn’t grow up as hard as Levine did; but I know what work is. When I think Philip Levine dying, perhaps this is selfish or self-centered, what comes to mind are the people I have met in my life who Levine has shown me are worth writing about. For example, his real name isn’t important, but we can call him Stan. I worked with him in a computer warehouse, and he worked in the back room on the assembly line putting parts together for data centers. He would stand there with his screwdriver as the conveyor belt pushed more parts toward him, and he would screw the sections together that needed to be screwed together. That was it. I remember how he unloaded the trucks that showed up in the loading area as if he was Atlas trying to hold up the world, and I remember him staring at the clock when there were no tasks. I remember the calluses on his hands and his yellow fingernails and the stink of cigarette smoke from the breaks he would take next to the dumpster, a spot where he thought no one was watching. I remember how I would head down to the Nashua River on lunch breaks and sit on a rock and watch the dragonflies buzz around the ferns. I would see him, sometimes, wandering around the trails. When I left for good, he told me never to come back. He was being nice.

Then there was the carpenter in Massachusetts…Al. We worked together on a maze. (Yes, it was a corn maze.) I helped him build the wood structures around the facility. He lived close by in a home that seemed to fit the structural and design needs for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s serial killers, and he would always show up late…real late. He would pull down the door in his truck on the job site, and the beer cans would fall out. He would ask me to hold the nail for the hammer, and I would make up excuses or pray.

I remember living in Detroit. It was 2007 through 2008, and it was when America’s economy tumbled, and I was in the hub of its destruction. I remember meeting Len. He lived near me, and he was a fine-art painter who was out of work, too, just like me. He was almost 75-years old, and I remember him and his wife coming home late drunk and screaming into the blackness. At one time, he painted exhibits that were showcased at the Olympics, and to make money, he used to paint the billboards between the skyscrapers. Later, he would find that there was no need for him to paint the billboards, as machines could do it now. We ended up painting houses together until the winter came. We tracked my hours on a piece of paper, and I was grateful, so grateful, for the work, for knowing him, for witnessing his struggle and feeling the pain he felt.

These are the type of people Levine seems to encourage writers to explore. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Philip Levine when he was poet laureate. When I called him up, I was so nervous. Levine is kind of my hero, and I prepared for this interview as if I was researching ways to convince Peter to allow me into heaven. I wanted to know so much from him. I wanted to know how to write poetry. I wanted to know how to tell stories. I didn’t get that from the interview, but I was able to find something just as special. I remember him talking about how he first decided to write about Detroit. He was living in California at the time, and he was trying to find his voice. This is an excerpt from the piece at the LA Weekly:

[Levine] recounts the first time he started to write his now-famous poems [about Detroit]: “One morning I woke up [in Fresno], having had a dream about working with a particular guy. In the dream, my buddy Lemon calls me from Bakersfield. Lemon’s been driving with his wife and kid all the way from Detroit. … He wants to know what he should do in California. I tell him about the things he ought to see in Los Angeles — the Miracle Mile, Venice Beach, this kind of crap. I lay this shit on him. And in the dream, I can see him in the phone booth and the two people in the car. He says thanks and hangs up. In the dream I can see him walking to his car. He gets in. … I know he’s saying, ‘That schmuck, why didn’t he invite me up there?'”

Later that morning over breakfast, Levine had a discussion with his wife about the dream. She told him that it was a warning. “You can’t become a professor in your poetic life or in your soul. You have to be who you are. Who your history is.” Levine then went back to bed with a pad of writing paper and a pencil, and he started writing about Detroit while living in California. He wrote six poems in a week and published them all.

What I will take away from Philip Levine is the knowledge that drudgery, work — the minor moments of life that create your existence — can be poetry. I will forever be grateful to Philip Levine for showing me what work is and how it can be lyrical and beautiful and transcendental. May you continue to inspire future Americans long after your death.

My Response to OkCupid’s Defense of Social Experimentation

Design by Joseph Lapin
Design by Joseph Lapin

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Review” section, Christian Rudder, president and one of the founders of OkCupid, wrote an article titled “When Websites Spy on Private Lives,” where the Harvard math grad discusses the experiments he runs on the data generated from OkCupid. It’s an incredibly engaging read that does two things: 1. Creates a bunch of buzz about his new book “Dataclysm” and 2. complicates how data mining and collecting private information from the traces we leave on the Internet should be perceived. His article was in response to the backlash he received when he published a post on OkCupid’s company blog outlining some of the experiments his site has been conducting. The title of the blog post: “We Experiment on Human Beings!

Basically, in the article, Rudder is trying to, clearly, defend his actions, promote his book, and cause trouble, but he’s also posing a question that is absolutely fundamental to our contemporary lives: Is mining the data of our personal information a benefit to society?

Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.
Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.

To sum it up, Rudder is arguing that his company is not just benefiting from the mining of consumer data; the world is too. “Websites are amassing information that holds enormous social potential,” Rudder writes. “The data our users generate helps companies improve their sites and make money; that’s a story that most people know. But that same data could also unlock new ways of understanding society and new kinds of science.”

It’s hard to argue with Rudder that mining data can help people understand society, but it’s also hard to take that argument in concert with how that data benefits his company financially. As Rudder illustrates in the experiments on the people who are searching companionship and love on his site, the data is able to help him better understand what his users are looking for in relationships. He can improve his business. But strangely, the experiments helped point out that users are more likely to connect with other users if the site tells them they are compatible even if they’re not. In a sense, his experiment showed that users on OkCupid wanted to be told who is a companion, and their algorithm was not nearly as important as persuasion.

Rudder’s tone comes across like a mad-scientist entrepreneur who thinks he’s figured out how to crack social problems by mining data, and while he seems a little gruff and inappropriate, he does illustrate how OkCupid’s experiments can lead to interesting social behavior, because he can examine  behavior from users when these users think no one is watching, even though Rudder clearly is. For example, in the blog post on experiments, he learns that there is some racism happening in the online dating world. The New York Times pulled this from Rudder’s new book:

“As a group, for instance, Latino men rated Latinas as 13 percent more attractive than the average for the site, while they rated African-American women 25 percent less attractive. In fact, Mr. Rudder reports, black women on the site receive about 25 percent fewer first messages than other women do. For Mr. Rudder, these numbers unequivocally tell a story of racism.”

Okay, so you learned that we’re racist from our data. No shit.

Yes, clearly we can learn a lot about social behavior from the traces we leave behind on the Internet, from our clicks, from the content of our messages (even though you don’t need to mine the content of website to find racism still exists), but I’m not sure that I gave anyone permission to use me in a social experiment. In fact, I don’t think Rudder has the right to conduct social experiments. Sure, I understand what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s trying to argue that the collection of the content of messages, our clicks, our responses to other personalities online, when collected and analyzed will inform the world on human behavior; but it will also fuel his company. It also still feels like a major injustice to privacy. I just imagine Rudder sitting on the hill in his evil mansion, trying to find the thread that runs through all of humanity to figure us out. This is a strange, social engineering conceit that makes me uncomfortable.

I see the benefits of using my data, but what I think is the problem is that many people don’t really understand the lengths our information is used for social experimentation, targeted marketing, etc. Sure, the data is said to be collected anonymously and swirled around in some metaphorical vat of binary code or whatever bullshit they’re selling, but that data is me in there. I might only be a small portion of that data, but it’s me. And I believe my identity isn’t something you should just be able to trade and sell like a commodity.

Design by Joseph Lapin
Design by Joseph Lapin

But here is where things get complicated for me. I do see the benefit of collection of data from smart phones for smart cities. For example, if there was a city-run system where data could be collected and communicated with other parts of the city and DOT, then traffic could be handled differently. The collection of data from our homes could inform better environmental practices. There are benefits to collecting data and analyzing from a health perspective, too. Think about how Big Data could help the Ebola crisis? And perhaps I would be comfortable with this type of data collection if it was anonymous.

(What does anonymous collection of data actually mean? Who is out there ensuring that it is anonymous?)

The truth is that now we know how much our browsing history, our clicks, our time spent on a page can inform others about our behavior, well, I think it’s just time that we start seeing our computers, our smart phones, as an extension of our mind. We have the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. For example, our conscious mind is our browsing behavior, but the information mined from our data can provide insight into our subconscious mind. I don’t want marketing companies knowing more about my identity than a psychologist. I don’t want the Christian Rudders of the world sifting through the collected mind of America to try and better understand who we are. I don’t want him to rationalize data collection and privacy invasion by hiding behind social experimentation. I don’t want dating services, Google, Facebook, etc, to rationalize their creepy experiments without our consent by hiding behind the phrase: “We’re gaining a deeper understanding of humanity.”  I want transparency.

If making society a better place through understanding is a company’s goal, then they should say it up front. Don’t hide behind  terms and agreements. Be up front with people. Make that a part of your business. Be transparent.

In reality, I do think we can learn a lot about humanity through Big Data, but that power in the wrong hands scares me. The power to manipulate countless people through a change to a website is just a bit bizarre — almost Dr. Moreau-like. I don’t have an answer to the privacy debate. In fact, I feel that we’re already down a huge rabbit hole, and I have very little control over the outcome of how privacy will be defined in the 21st century, but I just wanted to stand up and say, slow down. My mind is not for you to experiment with. And neither is my browsing history.