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In recent years, much has been made of hoarders—in the wake of the eponymous hit A&E show, popular media has been fascinated with those suffering from pathological overconsumption. But in Gwendolyn Knapp’s hilarious debut memoir, a collection of novelistic vignettes about growing up in a junk-filled house in redneck Florida within a family of “eccentric crackers,” and afterward carving out a life in New Orleans, only to have her mother Margie pack up her copious baggage and follow her daughter to the Big Easy, the hoarding is atmospheric—it never takes center stage. It doesn’t overshadow Knapp’s wonderful stories about family feuds, failed relationships, and inane jobs. Knapp, for instance, works at a cocktail convention and a cheese shop and has a food column, despite her lifelong battle with IBS, and her sister becomes a goth after getting a job at a fast-food joint. Rather, it’s a fast-paced book about, to some extent at least, the junk that makes us who we are.
The humor here is as wacky and multi-layered as the crap that takes over Knapp’s childhood home—think hair-care items ordered from infomercials, stacks of the Utne Reader and lightly damaged CD cases. Knapp’s sense of humor, however, is of the gallows variety—she doesn’t sugarcoat the pain of her oxycontin addict aunt’s eventual death, the struggles of growing up poor, the family fights that teeter between hilarity and violence, nor the anguish that comes with dating a serial cheater.
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In After a While You Just Get Used to It (Penguin Random House, 2015), the hilarious meets the heartbreaking. Readers come to know a dive bar palm reader who calls herself the Disco Queen Taiwan; a slumlord with a penis-of-the-day listserv; and Betty, the middle-aged cocktail convention volunteer who soils her pants on a party bus and is dealt with in the worst possible way. Throughout it all, Knapp’s honesty is a force as strong and compelling as her rollicking wit, bawdy jokes, and knack for assembling pages-long parades of the most zany and entertaining metaphors I can recall encountering.
Knapp, a sixth-generation Floridian, now resides in New Orleans, where she serves as the editor of Eater NOLA, and as a freelance food writer. The very entertaining author recently spoke with me about place-based writing, the art of balancing the heavy and the funny, and how comedy tends to translate to the page. Oh, and we also talked cheese.
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There’s a definite flow to this book, but the chapters themselves stand on their own quite well. Did you write them as personal essays first, or did you plan on penning a memoir all along?
I did not originally set out to write a long-form piece. Earlier versions of some of these essays had already been published on their own, and some other published essays about my life didn’t make it into the book. But it quickly became evident that publishers weren’t particularly interested in essay collections, so I had to find some sort of an arc in there.
Many seem to be proclaiming you as a true “Southern gothic” writer. How do you feel about this classification?
I do like that people read my writing as Southern and not just as that of a bland white person [laughs]. But I feel like if you are a writer who’s Southern, your sensibilities should probably just be organic. I grew up poor in Florida—I have a very specific sort of family—and the characters in those stories are deeply embedded in my story, and in who I am. I feel like Southerners deal with different situations and circumstances than people in other parts of the world—we have such distinct issues with poverty and social issues that don’t get addressed because you’re dealing with crazy belief systems. The Southern canon seems to be ever-changing as the South itself evolves, so I know my writing doesn’t necessarily hark back to the days of Flannery. But Southern writing is nuanced—I mean, the Florida Karen Russell writes about is vastly different from my Florida, even though both have elements of a clearly bizarre place. It’s a place of decay, and where a lot has gone very badly, but a place I love all the same. I’m very comfortable writing about Florida, but I have a harder time with New Orleans. I would never attempt to tell you, “This is what New Orleans is like!” A lot of writers, especially post-Katrina, try to speak like an authority about it, but I would never feel comfortable doing that. Nola is a weird place like that—you don’t wanna exert ownership if you’ve only been here for eight years, like me. Southerners don’t take kindly to that—you kinda have to have this almighty reverence for the place [laughs]. I feel like I can write about Florida with irreverence, but have to write about New Orleans with reverence.
You have an MFA in fiction, and you’ve published several short stories. What was it like, branching over into the nonfiction realm?
When I was in grad school, my grandma had just passed away, and my mom was starting to act like a real nut, and I was trying to work on this godforsaken novel. So I started writing some nonfiction, and really just got into it. It was refreshing to be able to study essay-writing and to be like, “Oh, I feel like I could write this sort of thing, and I also want to,” and so I did. I published fiction first, but then right around the same time, I started publishing fiction. When I graduated, I was still working on this novel that will never see the light of day, but I was probably writing more nonfiction.
What type of nonfiction were you reading/finding inspiration in?
Let’s see, in terms of inspiration, Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth was really definitive. Joan Didion is big for me, too, even though I feel like I have nothing in common with her. I also read a lot of Truman Capote, Erik Larson, and David Foster Wallace, even though no one else can get away with DFW’s style of rambling on and on. Lately, I’m reading a lot of the new wave of female essayists who are sorta killing it—Eula Bill and Leslie Jamison and Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit. It’s all great, but I still feel like my style is a lot more aligned with David Sedaris and Jenny Lawson. However, I don’t limit myself to reading that kinda stuff.
You handle humor so well, I’m curious about the types of comedy that inspire you.
I’m a big fan of comedy. I grew up glued to the TV, always getting lost in SNL reruns. Carol Burnett and Tracey Ullman were both, well, I don’t want to say inspirational because that sounds cheesy, but certainly definitive. I also grew up watching a lot ofRoseanne, and I’m in awe of the writing on Arrested Development. So, I do like comedy. But not all of it—I think a lot of comedic shows and whatnot are kind of overrated, because there’s generally not as much at risk in terms of characters. It’s why I prefer the written word—on movies and V shows, I feel like things have to be watered down and made much lighter or more positive, to be widely appealing. I’ve been watching Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, for instance, which is so great in many ways. But I don’t find it as groundbreaking as everyone seems to think it is—it touches on some new stuff, but it’s yet another show about rich New Yorkers. We’re so obsessed with privilege and calling out everyone’s privilege as far as gender and race are concerned, but classism still never seems to play into things.
Tell me about readers’ reactions to your book.
I don’t think a lot of people are down with the heaviness … some people seem to think it’s really depressing or sad, but that’s life; is it not? But in any case, my mom likes it [laughs].
I have to ask—have any of the exes mentioned in the book read your memoir?
Yes, I know one has because he drunk-texted me two weeks ago, I knew he was gonna read it when it came out, because he’s a huge narcissist [laughs].
What’s next for you, writing-wise?
I’ve been researching a book about cheese, and the tricky thing is to find a way to balance all the information about farmers’ strategies and cattle and specific plans, to not just get bogged down with the mundanity of cheese production. So, I’m hoping to present what I learn in a personal essay-, personal narrative-type way. Reading about cheese is not always entertaining—most of the cheese books out there are so boring! I want to incorporate information that’s not just research-y and technical. For instance, I’m interested in writing about the relationships that dairy farmers have with others in the cheese business. So, I’m working on that, but I’m also working on a novel about door-to-door magazine scammers in Florida. As I’m doing this cheese work, it’s nice to balance it with something that’s more literary, that allows me an escape, an outlet to write about more crazy people [laughs].
So, seeing as your memoir is all about clutter, I’m dying to know—what’s on your writing desk right now?
I have part of my peanut-butter toast, a huge stack of cheese books, a squirrel eraser, some pictures of squirrels, and post-it notes about Eater posts and how to make them more SEO-friendly. I also have my calendar, some squirrel underpants, a Pez bunny, and them some random other crap [laughs]. Maybe I am the face of clutter and craziness.
After a While You Just Get Used to It is available through Penguin Random House andAmazon.
For the upcoming Conscious Mind Workshop, the purpose is to significantly improve the way you manage your mind, so you can turn your mind into a more powerful ally on your path of growth.
What does this mean? Why does it matter? What will it do for us?
In this article I’ll share some of the practical benefits of improving your mind management skills and some key benefits you can gain. This isn’t a how-to article. It’s an overview of some of the wonderful possibilities to explore.
Many people identify with their minds, treating their minds as synonymous with themselves. This is problematic when it comes to personal growth because it encourages us to wrap our egos into our mental functioning. When our minds behave poorly, we’ll tend to defend our mistakes instead of diagnosing and solving problems in our thinking.
It’s more effective to see our minds as a resource that we can utilize, train, and manage. Think of your mind as a piece of technology that you own – a combination of hardware and software. This technology is powerful, but you can also improve upon its current functioning.
Our brains are trained by experience, even while still in the womb, so our mental abilities improve as we gain experience – at least up to a point. As we mature and learn to think consciously, we can wield greater control over our mental training and thus our mental performance. We can recognize and diagnose problems in our thinking. We can find better and stronger mental patterns and retrain our old ones. We can effectively become smarter and more capable by using our intelligence to upgrade our intelligence.
If you’ve ever consciously captured a new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, figuring out how to use a new app, or learning to eat a different diet, then you’ve already experienced the benefits of mental upgrading. But have you considered how many other ways you could train your mind to gain abilities and increase performance? Have you tackled some of the most fundamental upgrades that could add tremendous richness to your life?
Let’s consider some of these foundation-level upgrades…
One of the most practical gains from mental development is sleep hacking and its various long-term benefits. If your sleep habits are poor, this can drag down your results almost every day. Who needs that?
When I was 20 years old, I used to sleep in late, often till the afternoon. It was really hard to get myself to wake up at any particular time. I’d get a sluggish start to each day. This dragged down my self-esteem at the time, and I didn’t feel very ambitious. How could I think highly of myself when I had a hard time just getting out of bed?
I made some gradual improvements until my 30s, when I finally made a push to put my sleep habits under my conscious control. I learned how to become an early riser and how to get up right away when the alarm goes off. I built skill in lucid dreaming (staying conscious in my dreams). I explored polyphasic sleep and biphasic sleep. I gained the permanent ability to fall asleep in less than 30 seconds when I want to sleep. My sleep became more efficient, more restful, and more flexible. And I mastered the ability to take restorative naps in less than 20 minutes.
Poor mental management often goes hand-in-hand with poor sleep habits. If you increase the level of control you have over your mind, you can cultivate sleep habits that work for you instead of against you. Since sleep is something you do every day, taking control of this one area can create ongoing positive ripples that last for decades.
Would you want to maintain your current sleep habits for the rest of your life, or would you prefer to upgrade them? If your honest answer is that you’d like an upgrade, I invite you to make the effort to do so. You’ll surely appreciate the long-term payoff.
If you’ve already made some upgrades here, consider the benefits you’ve gained. Doesn’t it feel amazing to wield such control over something so basic and frequent? And doesn’t this encourage you to tackle another upgrade in some other part of your life, knowing that there’s a real payoff to be captured?
We live in an age of constant learning. If you haven’t figured that out yet, you’re surely falling behind.
Not only is it important for us to learn faster, but we also need to be more discerning, choosing the right types of information to learn, so we can maximize our benefits.
I treasure mental hacks that can help me learn faster, retain knowledge, and turn ideas into practical actions. I shun social media because it’s mental junk food. It does me little good to see status updates about people’s meals, pets, and yoga poses. Instead, I cherish my Amazon and Audible accounts and voraciously devour new books. I especially favor books and articles that my most intelligent friends recommend, and these friends tend to avoid social media for similar reasons.
I typically read about 100 books per year (roughly 2 per week), and I’m pretty good at remembering what I’ve read. People have often told me during conversations how they find it remarkable that I can pull so many odd facts and pieces of data from my memory. When I’m really in an immersive research mode, I’ve sometimes read five or more books per week for a while.
Much of what I learned about accelerated learning came to me through a trial-by-fire approach during my early 20s, when I tackled the goal of earning a computer science degree in only three semesters instead of four years. Not only did I successfully earn the degree, but I also picked up a double major (with mathematics being the second degree), and upon graduation I was given an Outstanding Undergraduate Award for being rated by the faculty as the top computer science student that year. I learned numerous simple hacks that helped me learn faster, eliminate educational inefficiencies, and stay motivated. Each semester I kept improving upon my improvements. In my final semester, I took 37 units and even had time to program a four-pack of computer games on the side, which were published the following year. Those games earned enough in royalties to pay for my entire university education and then some. Consequently, I’m a huge fan of accelerated learning techniques because they did wonders for me when I really needed those benefits.
Our bureaucratic educational systems are ridiculously outdated. Fortunately, we don’t have to saddle ourselves with such archaic learning approaches anymore. If we want to zoom ahead, we can do so.
Because these techniques are so beneficial, I incorporate accelerated learning methods into our workshops to help attendees learn faster as well. This is why the workshops are so interactive and not just lecture. Even the lecture parts include lots of stories because people naturally remember stories better than mere facts and data. When people remember the stories, they remember the key points as well.
If you feel like your mind is sometimes slow and sluggish, you can speed it up. Your mind could be buzzing with a delightful flow of motivation, ideas, and energy each day. If you can increase your ability to absorb quality input, your internal processing will speed up as well, and this in turn will help speed up your creative output. As you learn faster, you’ll be able to create faster as well.
Why do I have an endless supply of creative ideas for fresh articles? Partly this is because I consume a huge amount of quality input, so my mind is frequently discovering new connections between old ideas and new ones. And yet I also retain the ability to keep my mind relaxed and peaceful when I want it to be.
There is so much fascinating knowledge to acquire that will enhance and enrich your life. But you have to rev up this engine and keep it fueled with quality input.
Turning Fear Into Confidence
Most of our fears are irrational. We experience stress, hesitation, anxiety, and nervousness over events that aren’t actually dangerous. These emotions can cause us to hold back when taking action is more advantageous, so we miss opportunities again and again. In the distant past, such mental habits may have helped us survive under harsh conditions. In the modern world, however, they mostly just get in our way.
What could you do if you had more courage? You could enjoy a richer relationship life. You could make significantly more money at work because you’d ask for more raises and promotions, or you’d take more risks as an entrepreneur. You could enjoy a richer lifestyle to be sure.
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Many years ago I recognized that I had a fear of public speaking. Why should my mind generate such irrational signals when I find myself in front of an audience (or when only imagining the experience)? This is unintelligent behavior for the modern world.
I decided to upgrade my mental programming to resolve this mental defect. It took me a while to find the right reframes, but eventually I went way beyond my initial goal. This culminated with doing the three-day Conscious Heart Workshop in 2015, which involved speaking off the cuff with no plan, no prepared content, and no notes, including coming up with interactive exercises along the way. I had a great time doing it, and the attendees gave the workshop delightfully positive reviews afterwards. Moreover, I experienced no fear or nervousness before or during the event.
With a series of simple mental transformations, I retrained my mind to stop generating this irrational fear and to replace it with happiness, confidence, and excitement. This one change gives me access to a lifetime of anxiety-free public speaking, whether I prepare content in advance or not. The additional income generation from this outlet made this transformation well worth the time investment, but for me the more important aspect was the personal victory over what had been an embarrassing stumbling block during my youth.
Where are irrational fears holding you back? What if you could train your mind to stop generating fear in such situations and to generate positive motivation, happiness, and excitement instead? Or perhaps you’d prefer to experience serenity, calmness, and inner peace? Imagine what that would do for your life. And realize that this is possible. Many people have already done it. This is a learnable skill. You can indeed train your mind to stop generating irrational fear.
Boosting Your Productivity
Can you get yourself to sit down and do quality, focused work for hours at a time? Can you do this consistently?Do you find it easy to motivate yourself to work? Or do you suffer from procrastination, self-doubt, perfectionism, or other mental maladies?
When you manage your mind well, solid productivity and a strong work ethic are powerful benefits. These benefits cascade into other benefits like increased self-reliance, self-confidence, and self-esteem. Knowing that you have the work ethic to successfully manage any reasonable challenge makes you more tolerant of risks and less fearful of setbacks since you know you can rely on your work ethic to quickly bounce back. This is especially important for entrepreneurs and people whose results depend on high levels of self motivation to move the ball forward.
If you don’t manage your mind well, your productivity will suffer. Bad habits will suck you down. This in turn drags down your confidence, self-reliance, and self-esteem.
Making Good Decisions Efficiently
A key benefit of mental mastery is being able to make good decisions. Many of my readers have told me they get stuck in analysis paralysis when facing big decisions. They keep second-guessing themselves. This is especially common among people who are thinking about starting a business. They have trouble getting something practical up and running because they’re perpetually stuck in the idea stage.
It makes sense to spend some time weighing options to increase the quality of our decisions, but if we do this to excess, life passes us by, and we have nothing to show for our analysis. Analyzing options doesn’t produce results. If your mind keeps thinking itself in circles, you have a mental defect to overcome.
A well-managed mind is decisive but also flexible. It can weigh options quickly and carefully, get into action, and adjust course as needed.
There are many good processes for making decisions. A simple one I often use is a decision matrix. I list reasonable options, score them on several factors, and rank them. I used such a matrix to decide which workshops to do this year. I invited my readers to suggest topics, narrowed the list down to 12 possibilities, and then surveyed my readers to assess interest. I scored each workshop on several factors such as reader appeal and alignment with my knowledge, skills, and experience. I selected the four workshops with the best scores.
Most of the time I just make decisions intuitively because I’ve already spent years studying decision making techniques, so those methods are pretty well internalized now. Consequently, my gut instinct tends to align well with any logical or analytical process I might use.
Some people are too hesitant. Some people are too reckless. Both are symptoms of a weak decision-making process. Fortunately you can train yourself to make quality decisions in a reasonable amount of time, act on them, and adapt as you go. This requires a combination of skills, but they’re all learnable.
When your mind is well-trained, you’ll also enjoy making decisions more, especially important ones. It’s stimulating and rewarding to direct your mind to carefully consider options and make a wise and intelligent choice.
Turning Your Inner Critic Into an Inner Coach
Many people have overly critical self-talk, which usually does them more harm than good. This inner voice can be consciously re-trained to serve as an unwavering ally.
Imagine having a positive and supportive inner coach. This coach is always on your side. This coach keeps searching for opportunities and helps you focus your energy. This coach never gives up.
I’ve worked with a couple of different personal coaches in the past, but I haven’t felt the need for one in many years because my own mind does a pretty good job of coaching me. My inner voice challenges me a lot, but he’s also incredibly supportive and encouraging. When I have a setback, he builds me back up again. When I have a victory, he celebrates with me. When I’ve been coasting for a while, he nudges me to set new goals and get back to the sweet spot of challenge and flow.
It’s so much easier to succeed when you have a strong inner coach that won’t let you give up, get down on yourself, or coast for too long. With some mental training, you can design and unleash your own inner coach, which will help you set goals, overcome obstacles, and more. Think of this coach as your brain’s internal cheerleader.
What About the Time Investment?
Conscious mind management is powerful indeed. Just one shift in a single area of your life can create massive positive ripples that pay off for decades. But what about time investment required to discover, test, and apply all of these hacks?
There is a time investment to be sure. But the time is going to pass anyway. At some point you’ll be 10 years older. At another point you’ll be 20 years older. You can drag your current mental dysfunctions with you into those future decades, or you can perform serious upgrades and find yourself in a far more advantaged position on those future decades. How much do you care about your future self? Someday that future self will be you.
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Understand and accept that if you do nothing, you’re going to drag your worst qualities into your future by default, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. In some cases your habits and behaviors will cascade into further downgrades, such as poor health habits impairing your mental functioning and making it harder to focus as you get older.
You can copy my approach and immerse yourself in personal growth for years. Or you can be more casual about it. Either way, you’ll discover some gems and gradually improve. As I shared in the previous article about patterns of success, the good news is that people who strive to grow usually do succeed in the long run.
If you want to make faster progress, I encourage you to train up with me in person, so I can teach you the best mental management tools, strategies, and techniques that I’ve learned thus far. I will of course continue to blog about such topics from time to time, but there’s no substitute for doing immersive deep dives together in the same room with a motivated group of like-minded people. If this appeals you you, I invite you to attend the three-day Conscious Mind Workshop in Las Vegas this month. It’s less than two weeks away: August 19-21, 2016. In terms of the sheer volume, breadth, and depth of material we’ll cover, this will be the most content-rich workshop we’ve ever done.
We’re going to do deep dives into all of the topics I mentioned above – sleep mastery, accelerated learning, turning fear into confidence, productivity, decision making, self coaching – and so much more.
Much of what I’ll share at the workshop has never been mentioned in my blog. If this workshop was turned into a single blog post, it would be about 150,000 words long, which is about 50 times the length of this article. At these workshops you’ll have plenty of opportunity to ask questions too, so we can adapt the solutions to fit your situation.
Most of the time when I run a workshop, I run it only once. I expect that will be the case with this one, and I have no plans or intentions to repeat it. It won’t be filmed or recorded either. Since my articles can stay online indefinitely, I feel there’s something special about creating and sharing an experience that has a singular fixed location in time and space. It’s a way to create a memory that’s unlike any other.
After a workshop I normally like to go out to dinner with people who are interested, so we can continue to discuss the ideas as you’re still processing them. After the last workshop in July, we had group dinners on the Sunday night and Monday night after the workshop, and after the Monday night one, a group of us went for a walk on the Vegas Strip together while Rachelle and I played tour guides. I find it fun and stimulating to connect with such wonderful, vibrant, growth-oriented people. We all share and cross-pollinate even more good ideas that way too.
Even if you only apply a small number of the ideas from the Conscious Mind Workshop, I think you’ll see some powerful benefits. The nice thing about mind hacking is that one change unlocks another, then another, and then another. I think what’s most important about this workshop is the incredible exposure you’ll have to such a tremendous variety of quality ideas, many of which are easy to apply, so before you even go home, you’ll have made numerous upgrades in your thinking patterns.
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Don’t settle for sluggish, defective mental software. Upgrading your mindware may not be as easy as upgrading an app on your computer, but it is doable, especially when you have help.
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