“Digression” is raised to an art form in Tyler Gore’s hilarious book, My Life of Crime
“[NY] is the ultimate A.D.D city—you just need to walk around a few blocks and you’re virtually guaranteed to witness something amazing or awful or hilarious or just plain weird—[focus shifts] to the next shiny object.”
The author Tyler C. Gore is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy
PLD: Your book My Life of Crime is a collection of off-beat and hilarious stories based on various episodes of your life. The telling of these comic tales has a quirky immediacy that sometimes takes a meandering route.
For example, in the book’s final novel-length piece titled, “Appendix”, you write “So I forget—did I tell you I have attention deficit disorder? Confirmed by several therapists. I even have a prescription.” In a few words, what is “attention deficit disorder” (ADD)?
TCG: I’m not an expert on ADD, I’m simply someone who has been diagnosed with it, but—Squirrel!!
I’m joking! But that popular internet meme—taken from the Pixar movie Up! —succinctly captures the defining characteristic of ADD: distractibility. People with ADD (or ADHD, as it’s often called) can have great difficulties maintaining focus on sustained tasks. You’re easily derailed by all the “squirrels” that cross your path: incoming text messages, interesting news articles, the sudden desire to reorganize your entire apartment when you have a tight deadline to meet.
Other typical characteristics include hyperactivity [the “h” in ADHD], impulsivity, forgetfulness, and general issues with “executive cognitive functions”, such as planning and organizing… my wife would be quick to note that I can be exasperatingly impulsive. (I know, I know, we’re almost an hour late to meet friends for dinner, but—Squirrel!!)
PLD: How does your ADD influence the way you tell a story? Can you give a couple of examples from My Life of Crime?
TCG: I think those ADD aspects of my personality run through all the personal stories in My Life of Crime, which cover a big chunk of my life, from my childhood in the suburbs to my early adult years in the East Village, to the long story in “Appendix” which takes place against the backdrop of my married life in Brooklyn.
In “My Life of Crime” — the title story of the collection—I’m pranking our suburban neighbors with unsolicited pizza deliveries and defacing public billboards with home-made stickers. Impulsivity? Check.
I was delighted when the writer George Prochnik noted my “flaneur’s eye for the telling detail,” but I can’t help but think that what he’s describing is rooted in the distractible nature of my personality, of having a restless, wandering attention that’s always focused on the next shiny object. In “A Day at the Beach,” for example, I get obsessed with the welfare of an errant horseshoe crab, and in “Jury Duty” I’m pondering the mystery of a half-eaten sandwich I’ve spotted on the floor of a bathroom stall.
But it’s really in “Appendix” – the book-length essay that’s the cornerstone of My Life of Crime—where you get a full portrait of the role ADD plays in my life. Not only in the details (e.g., sorting through the 8,342 unread emails in my inbox) but also in the digressive, elliptical way the story is told.
PLD: Let’s talk more about the meandering route the story takes in “Appendix”. “Appendix” begins by fulfilling its title: it describes the appendix as a vestigial organ, that (along with other vestigial organs such as tonsils and wisdom teeth) seems to have no other function than to possibly get infected one day and land its host in a medical emergency (leading generations of parents, as you point out, to warn/terrify their children about this possibility!).
But soon after that—- the story takes some big detours and veers off to many mini-stories on a variety of subjects–from your ambiguous feelings about going on ski trips, to a paranoid fear that a neighbor might want to kill your beloved cat Luna, to Luna’s bouts of anorexia, to getting immersed post-midnight in a “sea of Youtube and Netflix videos” on topics ranging from porn to Trump while swigging a Corona. Then you write,
“…I can assure you that this is indeed an appendix story. I didn’t forget. Appendix-related events will be happening. I promise. Soon. (Pretty soon, right after that long-ass section about Luna and cat puke)”
The truth is that readers almost forget too because we are so entertained by all the mini-stories on the way to the main theme of “Appendix”. You compare your style of story-telling to a road trip where, instead of going straight on the highway, the driver takes the “scenic route”. Can you say more about that?
TCG: Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, I have trouble resisting rabbit holes. Another ADD trait, for sure. That impulse to deep-dive into every new topic that presents itself tends to characterize my personal style of conversation and it’s certainly something I often have to keep in check in my writing, especially when I am constrained by deadlines and word counts.
But in “Appendix,” I decided to turn that digressive tendency into a feature, to take the reader with me along the winding pathways of my mind, where we’d have the luxury of exploring roadside attractions—little stories about my life with my wife Natasha and (of course!) our cat Luna, as well as my varied musings on The Matrix, Franz Kafka, cats, mortality, and simulated universes.
In its most seductive form, the personal essay is an invitation to inhabit the writer’s psyche, a chance to experience someone else’s worldview and thought process from the inside. In fact, the very word “essay”—in the modern sense—comes from Montaigne, the 16th-century French writer who is often considered the founder of the genre. He called his collections of personal reflections Essais—a word that meant “attempts” or “trials,” and carries with it a sense of exploring rather than proving a point.
So, the personal essay has a digressive nature built into its very DNA: a vehicle for a writer to take readers on an intimate journey full of unexpected detours. One damned thing after another.
That’s the kind of road trip I had in mind while writing “Appendix.”
PLD: Can you give some examples of the ADD challenges that led you to consult with the therapists? Are these challenges reflected in your stories? Give an example or two.
TCG: I can thoroughly lose any object—my glasses, the book I’ve been reading, an entire cup of coffee—within five seconds of handling it. Half the time it’s right in front of my eyes, and I still can’t find it.
It’s frankly amazing how good I am at losing stuff—it’s almost like a superpower. At times, I’ve wondered if there’s some mysterious quantum phenomenon in play, and I’ll seriously entertain the possibility that my missing cup of coffee might have literally winked out of existence for twenty minutes and then popped back into reality—because, dammit, it’s right there on my desk and that’s the very first place I looked!
So that’s one way I wind up wasting a lot of time. But not the only one. I’m chronically disorganized, and I have a lot of trouble planning and prioritizing. I can fall into long ruminations and forget what I’m supposed to be doing. All of that can be painfully frustrating, and it definitely impacts my quality of life.
I was always the kind of kid who got DOES NOT FOLLOW DIRECTIONS checked on his report card, and I think you can see the trajectory of that kind of personality in the shorter essays in Crime, which are largely centered on my childhood and early adult years—as in “Clinton Street Days,” for example, when I decide to abandon my apartment on Avenue C after falling three months behind on the rent.
Like most adults with ADD, I’ve tried to develop all sorts of “systems”—with only partial success—to compensate. Calendars, to-do lists, rituals like putting my keys in a bowl as soon as I enter the house—something I specifically mention in “Appendix.”
I’m wary of anything that might disrupt the fragile routines I’ve set up to box in the chaos. That’s what I meant when I wrote in “Appendix” that I’m “impulsive, but sadly, not very spontaneous.” Early on in that essay, I talk about my chronic anxiety about traveling – not because I don’t like to visit other places (I do!) but because I’m afraid I might forget to turn off the stove or make arrangements to feed the cat.
PLD: In “Appendix”, referring to your ADD, you write, “Not to worry. I have learned to manage it.” The “routines” you’ve just described are one way of managing. Another, perhaps, is taking a kind of “meta-view” of your meandering attention and seeing its comic possibilities. What would you say about that?
TCG: Humor is central to my writing, and I think comedy works best when it’s rooted in pathos and compassion. It’s not funny unless it hurts a little.
There’s something redemptive, almost divine, about that capacity, to be able to step outside of yourself, to take the lousy parts of your life and turn it all into a big cosmic joke—because when you look at it through the right lens, life really is terribly funny.
There is a great power and beauty in that, although it’s not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you realize that you’ve left your only pair of glasses on the train that’s just pulling out of the station.
|“I strongly feel that both my sense of humor and my creativity are connected to my ADD, and that seems like a fair trade-off for occasionally losing my glasses on the train.”|
PLD: As you may know, the month of March includes “Neurodiversity Celebration Week”. It featured some online seminars where the positive sides of neurodivergent traits such as ADD were highlighted.
One is that ADD can go together with a kind of super-focus on things that capture its host’s interest. Would you identify with that description?
TCG: Only sort of.
My super-focus, at least in my own assessment, tends towards less-enriching activities, such as deciding, late in the evening, to binge-watch an entire television series.
Or it can manifest itself as perfectionism, which is not always a good thing. To bring a project to completion is usually far more important than getting every single detail right, but it’s often hard for me to tear myself away from that compulsion.
But there are some rewarding aspects to how my weird brain works.
I think ADD has gifted me with a peculiar sense of observation, picking up on the strange details that others might overlook: listening in on the conversation of a random group of strangers in a hospital emergency room, or stopping in the park to watch a homeless man scold his friend for hurling a stale baguette at the pigeons.
I strongly feel that both my sense of humor and my creativity are connected to my ADD, and that seems like a fair trade-off for occasionally losing my glasses on the train.
PLD: –Do you experience any other form of neurodivergence? “Synesthesia” can exist alongside other neurodivergent conditions. I believe you experience grapheme-color and “ticker-tape synesthesia”—where the words you hear appear written out in your mind’s eye. Does this influence your writing process in any way?”
TCG: Yes. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I can slip into it easily, I don’t really notice. I think it helps with writing because so much of writing is moving around clauses and chunks…and I can easily visualize that in my mind’s eye.
PLD: Is there anything else you would like to say about My Life of Crime?
TCG: Taken as a whole, My Life of Crime is a kind of love letter to New York City, the place I’ve called home for most of my adult life. This is, after all, the ultimate ADD city, presenting endless shiny objects. You just need to walk around for a few blocks and you’re virtually guaranteed to witness something amazing or awful or hilarious or just plain weird. Where else would you see an angel on a bicycle dragging an enormous harp through rush-hour traffic?
The city has been very generous to me as a writer, endlessly serving up the odd characters and bizarre details that populate the stories in Crime.
One thing that’s been interesting to me has been the response to “Appendix.” Because that essay winds through so many different facets of my life, there’s been a lot of variation on the specific aspects of the story people latch onto. The domestic comedy of our marriage, for example, or our very meaningful relationship with our cat Luna. Or the bizarre experience of living in New York during the first year of the pandemic.
And I’ve been surprised to hear from several people who have suffered through some very serious life-or-death medical crises—far more harrowing than my “routine” appendix surgery—who felt that “Appendix” really captured the awful but often hilariously absurd experience of being a hospital patient. That’s been particularly gratifying to hear.
PLD: What is your next project?
TCG: I had been working on a long personal story—a book-length project—about a particularly difficult period of my adult life, which I had to put aside while working on “Appendix”.
And I’ve long been interested in writing about the complex, troubled relationship between humans and animals, and have collected a lot of notes on that subject.
Those are both long projects. These days, I’ve been most interested in working on some shorter pieces that I’ve wanted to write about for a while. For example, that time in high school, my best friend and I got arrested for allegedly trying to rob a convenience store. (Allegedly!) Or—when I was twenty—the amazing adventure I had with two friends hopping freight trains in the southwest.
That’s the good part about having impulsive behavior—you wind up with a lot of interesting stories.
To purchase My Life of Crime:
Tyler Gore’s web site:
Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out. Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.