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May 2, 2022
By PW Staff
Four guest authors selected the finalists for the BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest.

The judges for the 2021 BookLife Prize Nonfiction Contest each bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to their roles. Here, we meet the four authors who selected the finalists for the prize and hear from them why they selected the books they did. Stay tuned for a Q&A with the four finalists and the announcement of the grand prize winner on May 23.

Charlie Gilkey

Business/Personal Finance
 
Charlie Gilkey is a business leader and author of Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done (Sounds True), which was a PW Top 10 Business and Economics book in 2019. Gilkey selected Mission First People Always: The Definitive Guide to Balancing People and Performance by Mike Patterson as the finalist for the Business/Personal Finance category. Gilkey described the book as being "universally relevant without falling into the trap of being over-general" and noted that "new leaders will find it to be a great overview and primer; experienced leaders will find it a helpful refresher."
 
 
Tell me about "Productive Flourishing" and how you came to develop it.
 
Productive Flourishing is a website and community that helps people do better work and live better lives. It's intentionally broad, but our main focus is helping people finish more of the stuff that matters most.
 
I started Productive Flourishing in 2007 in response to the gap I found in the existing conversations. The productivity conversations felt too granular, task-centric, and soulless; the personal development conversations felt too high-level, aspirational, and hand-wavy about how to do the work to develop. I and so many others were struggling in between these in the messy middle of projects, schedules, and responsibilities. Our work at Productive Flourishing centers this messy middle and help people tie what matters to what's on their schedule and getting done.
 
Why is following through and completing projects so challenging and what's the first step individuals can take toward reaching their full potential?
 
The more I got into this work, the more I had to grapple with the following mystery: why is it that we don't do the things we most want and yearn to do? It's easy to explain why we don't do what we don't want to do, but less simple to explain why we don't do what we do want to do.
 
The simple answer is that following through and completing projects is so challenging because, unlike ideas, projects experience friction with the world. The bigger and more important the project, the more friction it's going to face. And, often, the biggest friction comes not from the external world, but from our internal world.
 
The first step individuals can take toward reaching their full potential is to give themselves permission to prioritize what matters most to them. Too many of us are living our lives prioritizing other people's priorities, such that even when we do know what we want and what matters to us, we don't prioritize and projectize it. As long as what matters to you lives in "someday/later" land, you're not going to reach your full potential. For what it's worth, thinking about "reaching your full potential" may be a fool's errand that's creating overwhelm, burnout, and exasperation. We can thrive without reaching our full potential. Consider what shifts for you if you think about how far you are from thriving vs. reaching your full potential. Focus on the attainable and radical goal of thriving, not actualizing potential.
 
Have you always been a writer? How did Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done come about? What surprised you most about the writing process?
 
I've always been a reader, but it wasn't until high school that I realized that I could be a writer. Part of that is because I grew up poor and Black in Arkansas in the '80s; I didn't see any writers who looked like me anywhere and I didn't have exposure to the amazing Black intellectuals that I now existed. The other part, though, was that writing fiction was what everybody talked about writers doing. I didn't have any great novel ideas, plays, etc. in me, so it didn't feel like I could be a writer. I had an amazing English teacher in high school that assigned a lot of essays and it was the first time someone asked me to share what I thought about a piece or an idea rather than telling them what someone else's story was about. That was my beginning as an essayist, and I later went on to study philosophy and am ABD (All but Dissertation) in Philosophy.

 

Start Finishing is my second book but my first full-length, traditionally published book. I knew relatively early on that I'd be writing a book that fused productivity and personal development. I had amassed a body of work on Productive Flourishing and it was simply time to make it a more rigorous, structured, and coherent body of work in a book. The biggest surprise with Start Finishing was how difficult it was to explain simple concepts that I have been teaching live for a while. Chapter six was especially challenging because the content is spatial rather than linear; it's similar to writing about how to create a Lego design without having pictures of pieces or the model. I realized while doing it why there are so few books that try to do it. That one chapter took a third of my actual writing time to stick.

 
From your perspective, what are the ingredients that go into a successful business book?
 
I have to preface my answer here by saying that I do not like business parables and some of the most successful business books are parables. Take that for what it's worth. That caveat aside, here are some ingredients that I think make successful business books:
  • The idea of the book is simple enough that it sticks with you but multiple reads deepen your understanding of the idea.
  •  It's either universally relevant without falling into the trap of being over-general or fully owns its narrow audience or scope.
  •  It nicely balances story, research, frameworks, utility, and action orientation.
  • The structure of the book is sound while the parts can still be read in whatever order best serves the reader. (This is harder to pull off than people think.)
  • The book has chapter summaries and key takeaways.
 
What are you working on now?
 
My current book project is on team habits. We know how powerful habits are for our personal development, but we're not talking enough about the habits we do as teams. It turns out that our teams don't rise to the level of their potential; they fall to the level of their habits. We're also launching our new app, Momentum, that's based on a lot of the concepts of Start Finishing. The app is unique in that it helps you get your goals, projects, and schedule into one place. It takes what was so difficult to write about in Chapter six and creates a tool that helps people do it.
 

 Eric Minton

Inspirational/Spiritual

Eric Minton is the author of It's Not You, It's Everything: What Our Pain Reveals About the Anxious Pursuit of the Good Life (Broadleaf). A PW review of the book said the following: "Minton’s astute observations about how capitalism drives unending cycles of want (“Discontentment is both capitalism’s oxygen and its carbon dioxide”) succeed in bringing a candid class consciousness to Christian self-help. This unorthodox guide blends humor, theology, and social commentary to potent effect."

Minton selected Butterfly Awakens: A Memoir of Transformation Through Grief by Meg Nocero as the finalist for the Inspirational/Spiritual category of the prize.
 

Minto wrote this about Nocero's book: "From cancer to Oprah to the complicated feelings accompanying all of us whenever we lose something or someone who gives our lives gravity, Meg Nocero’s Butterfly Awakens reminds us that grief can be its own kind of faith. In Nocero’s capable hands, our grief might not always make sense, or initially seem helpful, but much like a gift we never wanted but now find we need, our grief might one day finally become saving, transformative, resurrecting, even, if we’ll let it. But the letting it, to Nocero’s point, is the hard part."

 

Can you share a bit about your background and your writing?

As a licensed psychotherapist specializing in marriage and family therapy, as well as an ordained Baptist minister formerly employed by churches to passionately talk about things none of us know for sure (like the afterlife!), telling people what “I do for a living” at dinner parties or on Zoom meetings where I don’t know anyone can be terribly fraught. What I mean is that telling people who I am and what I do is mostly an effort at seeing how long it takes for whoever I’m talking to, to eventually excuse themselves to go to the bathroom and never return to our conversation. I always assume this happens because they’re afraid I’m going to baptize them or tell them their dad never loved them (hypothetically), when in fact it’s likely they left because talking to people after spending the last almost-2.5-years avoiding everyone is terrifying, or that during the pandemic I’ve become incredibly boring to talk to. And with an introduction like that, it’s a wonder I haven’t already become famous on Instagram, right? 
 
For the most part, my work as a psychotherapist, a pastor, and a writer all seem to mirror my desires as a human to uncover what makes any of us attempt to do anything interesting, or generous, or creative in a world ruled by bottomless productivity, scarcity, and militant individualism. Naturally, this means asking a lot of questions about the things many of us were taught about what it means to be successful, to be faithful, to be unwell, to be “good,” to be sad, and to be happy. These days, my work typically involves asking distressed teenagers and adults coming into my office as individuals, couples, or whole families, what they want from life, from each other, and from the next moments on the other side of the hour we spend together. In my opinion, the best kind of writing offers similar opportunities for us as readers, to both rethink whatever truth has dictated terms to us, and to consider what new possibilities await us in the next few moments after we finish reading. 
 

We live in a culture of quick fixes… but these “fixes” don’t usually fix anything. How can we adjust our thinking to ensure we are more comfortable with ambiguity and/or a degree of discomfort in our daily lives?

In my experience as a therapist, I find most Americans to be quite capable of living in the midst of discomfort. Many of us work in jobs that continually mistreat us, refuse to compensate us fairly, allow us time off to care for our children or aging parents, and communicate to us constantly that we should be “grateful” that we aren’t unemployed. Our for-profit healthcare industry asks us, with almost minute-by-minute consistency, how much our lives and the lives of those closest to us are worth, literally, down to the penny. And, if we get the math wrong or decide we can’t forego exorbitantly expensive, life-saving treatment, we can join the roughly half-million Americans mired in bankruptcy each year courtesy of the “best healthcare system in the world.” A system, I like to point out, that paid its 178 CEOs during the pandemic a combined $3.2 billion. My argument isn’t that Americans should be more comfortable with discomfort, I think the record shows we’re actually excellent at that. 

 

My argument is, instead, that Americans must begin admitting to themselves and those around them that the discomfort we are experiencing, together, collectively, as some of the most anxious and depressed humans on Earth, and the ambiguity we feel about the orthodoxy of the American dream we’ve been sold in a world where people sleep outside in tents behind the McDonald’s near my house isn’t representative of some deep moral, biological, or psychological failure. The discomfort and ambiguity, in my experience at least, is the truth attempting to get our attention. 

And, if we give our pain enough space to speak freely, I would argue it is attempting to tell us that no matter how much we scroll, earn, work, or convince ourselves that any of this is normal or meaningful, America will drown us if we let it. 
 
It shouldn’t be, but it’s somewhat radical to suggest that anxiety, depression, and distress are normal responses to a world in turmoil. Why do you think people spend so much time running from what are valid emotions?
 

I don’t know about you dear reader, but personally, I spend way too much time on the Internet in general, and social media in particular (even though I speak regularly (and high-mindedly) about the individually and socially destabilizing influences of Zuckerberg’s monster). Because I am a regular consumer of content created by brands pretending to be people and people pretending to brands on Instagram, is that I’m learning to think about and see every granular moment of my life as a possible curated proof-text for whether or not I am successful, well-liked, interesting, and fashionable. 

To be fair to Zuckerberg (although, you shouldn’t be), we’ve been doing this kind of branding and curation for years as Americans anxious to let each other know-how “busy” or “awesome” or “fine” we all are despite living in a country that has enshrined desperate competition as the only right way to make decisions about everything from parenting to parking to the kinds of jelly available to you at the grocery store. I’m saying that we lie to each other constantly about what it feels like to live in this country because we were told if we didn’t do this kind of branding all the time, it would only get worse for us, and our kids.
 
University of Toronto Psychologist Brett Ford argues that this kind of disavowal of our own interior experience (what she terms “meta-emotion,” or our feelings about our feelings) makes Americans prone to some of the worst mental health outcomes in the world despite having our country’s rather healthy bottom line. I’m asking people to simply be honest with themselves and one another — to feel the weight of what’s happening around us without self-judgment or increased productivity — as an act of resistance to a world desperate to alienate us from one another in order to convert us into consumable content as a way of making money for other people.  
 
For those who might not consider themselves to be “religious,” but are seeking to find wholeness and some semblance of faith, can you offer any guidance?
 

In a speech to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, David Foster Wallace once famously said that “there is no such thing as not worshipping,” and I’ve always been rather fond of that. What I think Wallace was getting at is the idea that most of us have been trained to trust that something — whether that something be God, or our parents, or Wall Street, or the Free Market, or our careers, or a political party within our polarized and sclerotic democracy, or our physical attractiveness, or some other institutional measure of human worthiness — will eventually save us if we work hard enough to please it. I have this idea, and I talk a bit about it in the book, that the one thing knitting our disparate American faith traditions together is the orthodoxy of self-interest as an unimpeachable motivational impulse for good governance, good religion, and good economic policy. If self-interest saves us, even while damning others, then it’s good, then it’s fair, then it’s just the cost of doing business in an imperfect world. 

As a former pastor and now sometimes burned out psychotherapist caring for people attempting to survive the on-again/off-again end of our world, I’ve found that I have little time for any faith tradition willing to sacrifice the lives and experiences of other people as a way of saving itself and protecting its power. As a sometimes-still-practicing-Christian, I was introduced to a God who, instead of sacrificing others on the altar of this God’s unending glory, power, and might, chose to die in order to resurrect something more interesting than a religious institution hell-bent on living forever no matter the cost. 

So, my recommendation would be to begin searching out a God or a tradition willing to give you enough strength to take a day off once a week even if it feels impossible, a God or a tradition willing to love you independent of what you do for this God or tradition in return, a God or tradition unafraid of your unpopular and complicated weirdness and occasional questions about this God’s or tradition’s parenting practices. I suppose I’m asking you to begin looking for a God or a tradition who is so okay with itself that this God or tradition is willing to contemplate its own end in order to bring something newer, truer, and more beautiful into the world for other people no matter the cost. 

And, as Jesus reminds us, those who seek this kind of God, eventually, they find it. I guess I’ve always been rather fond of that, too.

What do you hope readers ultimately take away from reading It’s Not You, It’s Everything? What are you working on now?

I hope that anyone who happens upon my book will grow in empathy and appreciation for the pain they feel as people attempting to survive a complicated and oftentimes unsafe world. I hope that as all of us grow in our abilities to care for and listen to our own pain, that we will find ourselves open to opportunities to listen to and connect with the pain of others, across the divides that keep us so often alienated and in competition with each other. Lastly and maybe most passionately, I hope all of us will return to the truth of who we are underneath all the branding and baggage and bullshit, complicated humans held afloat by a force bigger and wider than anxious self-interest. Because if we can do that, who knows what we can do together, next. 

 

Erin Khar

Memoir/Autobiography 

Erin Khar is the author of Strung Out: One Last Hit and Other Lies That Nearly Killed Me, a memoir about her experience with a drug addiction that began as a child. PW called Strung Out a “heartbreaking yet heartwarming memoir [that] puts a human face on the drug crisis and the factors that lead to addiction.

Khar selected The Burning Light of Two Stars by Laura Davis as the finalist for the Memoir/Autobiography category of the prize. Khar praised the book, saying that “Laura Davis has beautifully captured the complexity and nuance of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. At once universal and personal, Davis renders the interwoven stories and timelines of her relationship with her mother into a compelling narrative— one that stands out for its clarity and compassion.” 

What are some misconceptions about addiction and how can memoirs like your own help to refresh familiar narratives about the topic?

There are several misconceptions about addiction. One of my greatest motivators for writing Strung Out was to be able to illuminate the experience of addiction for those who have never experienced it. Historically, addiction has been judged by many as a moral issue. But addiction is a public health issue. It’s not a moral failing. We are human beings struggling with a human condition. 

Another misconception about addiction is that the only solution is abstinence. That’s a very narrow path to recovery. I do a lot of public speaking about addiction, and the most critical message I drive home in these talks is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addiction. We have to be willing to meet people where they are at. Recovery is about recovering one’s life from a place of dysfunction to being functional. Some folks need MAT (medication-assisted treatment), and many, if not most, people need mental health services as so much of addiction is rooted in trauma and coexisting mental health issues.
 
Recovery is a process, and it will look different for every individual. I believe memoirs, like Strung Out, can make people feel seen and open up the conversation around addiction because we should be talking about this at the dinner table, especially with our children. 

 

You write so candidly about your painful past experiences in Strung Out. What did it take for you to accomplish this feat?

In terms of time, I had the gift of distance from my years of active addiction. I have 19 years in recovery now and had 15 years in recovery when I was writing the book. That distance allowed me the space to inhabit my role as a narrator and go where I needed to go as a “character” at various ages. I also made sure that I had a support system in place. For me, this meant my psychiatrist and therapist, my friends and family, and my writer’s group. Writing a memoir is a unique writing experience because people respond to your writing and you as a “character" in the book. 
 

We live in such a judgmental world when it comes to addiction, among other things. What’s a helpful and healing alternative?

I have learned that telling the truth alleviates the confinement that shame brings. I spent so many years running and hiding, believing that if people knew the truth about me, they wouldn’t like me/love me/or accept me. 

In Strung Out, I compared my years of active addiction to being in a room on fire. With each passing year, with each line I crossed that I’d said I wouldn’t, those flames got bigger and closer. And I couldn’t figure a way out of the room. Every exit I approached was too thick with smoke and fire to get through. Finally, the last time I detoxed—when I was pregnant with my oldest child—I knew that I couldn’t stay in that room any longer, that staying in that room would kill us both. I decided to walk through the flames and fortunately made it out. I didn’t know until I’d walked right through that it had been the solution. It was challenging but straightforward. 
 
Can you offer some words of encouragement to writers working on their own memoirs?
 

For your first draft, write as if no one will ever read it. Don’t worry about being unlikeable or writing what you are afraid to write; just get it down on the page. 

When writing about others, don’t fill in the blanks for their stories. You’ll find that there are details of other people’s personal lives that can be left out without detracting from your narrative. 

This was helpful for me, and I hope it is for you: There are three versions of you when you write a memoir. First, you are the author, crafting a narrative out of part of your life. There is you as the narrator, telling the story. Finally, you are the protagonist, moving through time in the narrative. This helped me sort out shifting the voice to add perspective to the book. 

Lastly, be open to feedback and edits. Sometimes critical feedback is not spot on but is just an indication that something isn’t working. The best part about editing is that you can try suggestions and edits, and if they don’t work, you don’t have to use them. But they are all worth exploring. 

 

Allison Raskin 

Self-Help/Relationships 

Allison Raskin is a blogger, advice columnist, and podcaster. She’s the author of Overthinking About You: Navigating Romantic Relationships When You Have Anxiety, OCD, and/or Depression. PW called the book “an invaluable and empowering primer.” Raskin is also the coauthor (with Gaby Dunn) of I Hate Everyone but You and Please Send Help. Raskin and Dunn also operate a YouTube channel called Just Between Us.
 
​Raskin had this to say about Stigma: Breaking the Asian American Silence on Mental Health, the finalist for the Self-Help and Relationships category: “Stigma starts an important and needed conversation about the mental health needs of the AAPI community. By combining research with real and intimate first-hand accounts, Kollipara accomplishes her goal of destigmatizing mental health struggles and highlighting the importance of seeking help--despite cultural pressure not to do so. This much-needed resource will hopefully help create a bridge between the AAPI community and the far too often white and western-centric mental health field.   
 
Was Overthinking About You your first foray into nonfiction and self-help? How was the writing experience different than for your novels?
 
It actually was my first big attempt in this new space, which make it rather intimidating. After years of screenwriting and writing epistolary novels that were heavy on dialogue, I was worried I didn’t have the skill set to write pure prose. I had also never interwoven interviews before in my writing and at the beginning of the process, I felt like an imposter. But once I started doing the interviews and gathering incredible insights, I realized my job wasn’t to come up with enough content to fill an entire book on my own. My job was to take all this valuable information from other people and make it accessible and readable. That took a lot of the pressure off and allowed me to more easily incorporate my own story into the book.

 

I can’t think of another book that so directly addresses dating and mental health. How did the book come about and what were your goals as you were developing it?

It’s wild to me that in many ways this is the first book of its kind. It’s sort of one of those situations where the book I needed when I was younger didn’t exist, so I decided to write it. The idea came about when I noticed back in 2019 that I was starting to engage with dating in a different and healthier way after years of unhealthy patterns and behavior. I thought, “This is interesting! I wonder if sharing my journey would be helpful to other people?” I wanted people to know that our dating past doesn’t need to dictate our dating future and even if you’ve struggled with your mental health, you deserve a healthy and loving partnership as much as anyone else. You might just need some extra tools to get there.
 

Can you share some details about your research process?

It was a lot of cold calling (and by that, I mean cold dming) people on the internet who I thought would be a great resource. I was also lucky to have established relationships with a few therapists who introduced me to colleagues who were open to being interviewed. The entire process was incredibly uncomfortable because I hate reaching out and asking people for favors, but I knew that’s what I needed to do to get the job done. I was extremely lucky that people were willing to be so generous with their time and insight.
 

The pandemic has changed everything, including the way we date. Are there certain benefits to dating in the age of zoom, particularly for those struggling with their mental health?

I think the pandemic has allowed people to be even more direct about what they want. It’s a bit easier to say you only want to meet up in real life if the other person is looking for a committed relationship because there is more on the line. I also think that people should always FaceTime or Zoom before moving things from the apps to the real world. It’s a great way to not waste time on someone you aren’t compatible with. And lowering your amount of IRL dates because you screen your potential partners first helps prevent you from burning out and having more bad experiences that might turn you off dating or exacerbate your mental struggles.

 

What are you working on now?

I have a mental health-focused Substack called Emotional Support Lady that includes weekly blogs, an advice column, and a podcast. I’m also writing my next book that looks at modern marriage through the lens of having an anxious mind. It examines how to set yourself up for success while also giving yourself to grace to fail. And I have a weekly podcast called Just Between Us and a live weekly radio show on Amp called A Nightmare To Date!

 

 

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