A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: May, 2014

Pimping the Minotaur

mosaic-alzIt was Dementia Awareness Week last week, which would have been a good time to promote my Mosaic feature on Alzheimer’s disease, except that I failed to spot the opportunity. A shame, as my piece is languishing as the least-read piece on the site when I had hoped it would by now be giving people a genuinely useful new way to think about what dementia really is.

I’ve probably said it before, but I struggle rather with the need for self-promotion. I recognise that the quality of writing doesn’t matter one jot if no one starts to read it, and so marketing is as important to a piece’s success as the writing of it; I just don’t like that that’s the way of the world. It leads to vicious/virtuous circles, whereby a piece that is marketed well gets more readers, increasing the chances – if it is decently written – of people recommending it through the various channels we have to do that nowadays, bringing more readers and so on. Whereas a less overtly marketable piece gets fewer readers and fewer opportunities for word-of-mouth promotion, even though it may be very good despite (or even because of) its lack of marketability. So the judgement of what is marketable becomes key and I don’t seem to fulfill the criteria.

It’s difficult even to broach the subject, because I don’t dare to assume that my writing is good enough to warrant marketing, even if it were considered marketable. There have been nice comments about my Alzheimer’s piece, and it was the first Mosaic article to be republished by Pacific Standard, but reader numbers are the yardstick we use to assess success and I am bottom of the pile – for whatever reasons. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough.

Understanding through stories

It’s a shame, because I was trying to do something useful with my article. I found out it was Dementia Awareness Week last week when John Humphreys mentioned it on the radio this morning. In his introduction to the segment, he repeated what is in danger of becoming a cliche: that dementia is frightening because we understand it so poorly (‘we’ being the general public, patients and their families, as opposed to the scientific ‘we’ of the doctors and researchers, who also understand it pretty poorly but more than ‘we’ ever did before). Well, my piece was an attempt to address this and give people a handle with which to comprehend what dementia means beyond a diagnosis, beyond practical, clinical descriptions of mental decline.

An ambitious goal, perhaps, but I felt I had found a suitable metaphor, one that resonated with early 20th century attempts by Freud and his ilk to comprehend psychological conditions through mythological narratives. Joining the Oedipus Complex and so on in the popular conception of psychological disorders, I saw (in my hubris, perhaps) the ‘Minotaur Complex’ as a metaphor for dementia. Read my piece to see why I thought it could – assuming I communicated the thought successfully, that is.

The only trouble with my description of my aims here is that they applied retrospectively, after writing the damned thing, which languished drafted and edited and fact-checked and sub-edited for months prior to publication. So what I have here declared to be my motivation for writing the piece did not motivate the writing of it. Which may explain why I (and the rest of the team) find it hard to promote – there is a germ of a potentially useful idea in it but maybe it leaves too much to interpretation, and the interpretation of a very particular reader (ie the writer, ie me), to become readable in the published text.

Well so be it; I have to move on. It was a first attempt in many ways, and I hope with future pieces I can realise (in both senses) my aims during the writing rather than after it. And hopefully that will make them more marketable, and more read. But while “The Alzheimer’s Enigma” remains my only published Mosaic feature, I can’t seem to leave it alone; I keep worrying away at it ineffectually and wishing it would, somehow, find its market share of readers and switch the circle from a vicious one to a virtuous one, giving more people the chance to understand the spectre of dementia through the familiar story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth.

Milwaukee April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

Milwaukee, April 2014

As well as India, I’ve had the pleasure of a trip to the States this year: I flew from London to Chicago, then drove to Milwaukee, then flew to Boston and from Boston to London – all in the space of three days! By Boston, I was feeling pretty ragged, so only pictures (6) of Milwaukee here….

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India, Feb/Mar 2014

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

Looking over the rooftops of Bhumihin camp, Delhi

I’ve been travelling a bit for work so far this year: India and the US were the big trips researching stories for Mosaic. While I work on the draft of my India piece (about migration and health), I thought I could at least post some (8) of the photos I took. I am no photographer* but they give you a sense of what I went to see.

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* I was accompanied to India by Ben, our fantastic in-house photographer, so the pictures to accompany the feature will be so much better than this!