Thursday, February 4, 2016

Q&A with Barry Yourgrau

Barry Yourgrau, photo by Charles Raben/Urban Face
Barry Yourgrau is the author of the new book Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act. His other books include Wearing Dad's Head and The Sadness of Sex, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: The place I use is my girlfriend’s old apartment—I use it as a writing studio. It had gotten progressively cluttered and really out of control…One day, she tried to come in and I wouldn’t let her in. I didn’t want to share with anyone the state of the place. She got fed up.

I decided to make my cleanup a larger project—to use the issue of cleaning my place to include studying the issue of clutter and the collecting of objects and [being] overwhelmed. I started with a fish story, and ended up with Moby Dick!

Q: So did you see it as a book from the beginning?

A: I figured I would keep a chronicle, and maybe make a book of it. It helped.

Q: I was going to ask whether the idea of the book was helpful, yes.

A: It helped, and it distracted. Sometimes I would stop and not clean up—I was also taking photos—I would ask, should I stop and clean up before I do this? By the end of the project, I needed some non-project cleaning. The project was getting in my way!...

It’s not a completely clean apartment [now]. It’s functionally decluttered. The heavy-duty stuff is gone. There’s a term of psychology, “good enough” decluttering.

I was originally trying to get a grip on the stuff. I found myself sympathetic to the notion that a lot of this is personal style. If you can’t get out the door, that’s obviously a problem. But some people like objects, some don’t. It’s not a blanket description. I am not a minimalist.

[Clutter expert and author] Marie Kondo is pretty prescriptive….I like Marie Kondo in a certain way—she formulated things charmingly. The idea of sparking joy is kind of cool. The whole thing about letting go—I had my own ceremonial—I would make performances for myself and play music as I threw things out. She said you can’t play music as you declutter….

Q: You ask, “What differentiates a collector from a hoarder?” How would you answer that?

A: It’s a useful distinction, but like many, there’s a lot of overlap. Generally, is the stuff orderly enough? Collecting involves focus: I don’t want this, I want that. Hoarders have an open field. A collector maintains his collection…

I went to visit a guy in England, advertised as the world’s greatest hoarder. He calls himself a collector. He collects newspapers. He focuses on the Daily Mail, like the New York Post in England. Who would want even one copy? But he has a couple of foci. The stuff is just mouldering. A lot of those places began to remind me of outsider art. It’s so extreme…

Q: Are there any suggestions you might have for other people who find themselves in a similar situation, overwhelmed by their stuff?

A: I would say take it slow. Marie Kondo says do it all at once. I would say take it slow. Take one area as a beachhead. I did the dining room table, and a shelf in the kitchen.

Another thing, it’s super-difficult to do it by yourself. You need an expert, someone with a lot of patience. It’s a difficult process. It’s all about letting go. If you never throw anything out, it would pile to the ceiling. I found little ceremonies to mark passages. I can’t recommend everyone write a book about it or do an art project, but those things do help deflect [the pressure].

There’s a writer, Redmond O’Hanlon, who undertakes harebrained dangerous adventures, and he writes thoroughly erudite and funny books. I said to him, How are you able to maintain your equilibrium? He said, Because I was taking pictures and writing a book, I was able to distance myself.

That happens to me. I was drummed out of one self-help group—I was seen as too much of a know-it-all by the leader of the group, but it was funny [as something to write about].

Q: We’ve talked about the difference between a hoarder and a collector, but how would you describe the difference between a hoarder and someone who just has clutter sitting around?

A: It’s really a question of scale. Hoarders aren’t troglodytes in mossy caves. They’re often totally competent in the outside world, and more intelligent [than average]…

They are not sociable about their stuff—it’s something they’re ashamed of. It’s not easy to entertain if you can’t get through the door. But they are highly functioning professionals. Having them try to throw things away is deeply impossible.

Even though I don’t think of myself as a hoarder, I get deeply attached to objects. I’m sentimental about objects. I thought that was universal, but it isn’t. Richard Wallace in the U.K., [the world’s greatest hoarder,] I said, Are you very sentimental? He said, Not at all! I just like having the information around. There are no universal principles that adhere.

I started out not sympathetic to psychoanalysis…I became, by the end of the project, so sympathetic to the psychoanalysts I’d spoken to. They understand people can want something and not want something. The duality is embedded in human [lives].

You can map a lot of symptoms hoarders share—at least psychoanalysts see the problem and want to solve it. It’s hard to work with hoarders. You can work with clutterers.

Q: So it’s a question of degree.

A: Yes. People with hoarding issues often report more trauma. My situation got out of hand here—I was holding on to plastic grocery bags…not [just] knick-knacks. Clearly there was something going on psychologically.

It flowered after a health crisis with my girlfriend…I started to hang onto this stuff. People who hoard often do so in response to trauma, so you have to go very carefully…We all need respect.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: One of the things that happen when you publish nonfiction is that you write all the support stuff…I’ve been doing a lot to make sure the book gets a good and rich life. I’m mainly a fiction writer. I’m thinking of another project…I like the deep but comic approach to things.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It was fun using fiction-styling things [such as] pseudonyms for my girlfriend. At one point I thought she would take over writing the book, but we decided that would be pushing it.

Clutter doesn’t just accumulate, it also hides things. I had to go into my father’s stuff, family stuff—it was a revelation, [it was] jolting. There’s another book in that.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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