Articulate

S5 E19 | FULL EPISODE

Power Through Purpose

John Darnielle: From Self-Destruction To Self-Construction; Darnielle has excelled as a front-man, songwriter and author;
Elizabeth Acevedo’s Literary Realizations: As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized that the books she had needed as a child still didn’t exist; Meg Saligman: The Big Picture
The scale of Meg Saligman’s murals is difficult to grasp close-up.

AIRED: February 14, 2020 | 0:26:46
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

(uplifting music)

- Welcome to "Articulate", the show that explores

the big ideas behind great creative expression.

I'm Jim Cotter and on this episode, power through purpose.

John Darnielle has excelled as a front man,

songwriter, and author by overcoming

an innately self-destructive personality.

- I view most of my addictive behaviors

of my teens and early, early 20s

as responses to where I was at then.

That's no longer in my nature.

- [Jim] As a grownup, Elizabeth Acevedo realized

that the books she had needed

as a child still didn't exist,

so, as Tori Marchione reports, she wrote them herself.

- There's a way that we can say

this is the best form that I can depict this emotion

and it might not be true, but it is honest.

- [Jim] And the scale of Meg Saligman's murals

is difficult to grasp close up,

but the stories they tell are all there in the details.

- We come into the community and it's not

like we're placing the art there,

we're finding what is in the community.

- [Jim] That's all ahead on "Articulate".

(gentle music)

- And the song is called "No Children".

(audience cheering) One, two, three,

one, two, three.

- [Jim] John Darnielle is an indie rockstar and a novelist.

His band, The Mountain Goats,

have been going strong for nearly three decades.

(upbeat rock music)

♪ I hope that our few remaining friends ♪

♪ Give up on trying to save us

♪ I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot ♪

♪ To piss off the dumb few that forgave us ♪

♪ I hope the fences we mended

♪ Fall down beneath their own weight ♪

♪ And I hope we hang on past the last exit ♪

♪ I hope it's already too late

- [Jim] Fans flocked to his candor, his darkness, his depth.

A Christian throughout his adult life,

biblical references pepper Darnielle's lyrics.

But he isn't trying to convert

anyone to his way of thinking,

he's just turning his imagination

to the philosophical possibilities of the universe

and doing his best to call it like he sees it.

- On most days, because I'm a child of the 20th century,

it seems obvious to me that the universe is mechanistic

and that any meaning we give to it,

we put there to keep ourselves from going mad

and from doing monstrous things.

We invent a whole framework within which

to be our better selves, which is awesome,

but I call that God and on the days that I like best,

I think it's just the sky God who pre-exists,

who exists before the universe exists,

and again, in terms of Jesus' life,

I wanna put scare quotes around it,

sends his son, okay, but who makes a great sacrifice,

who takes on human, I'm gonna get excited about it--

- Frailty.

- Frailty, who puts on flesh to dwell with us.

Sorry.

That to me is a beautiful idea

'cause it enables us to imagine ourselves

as better than what we know we are on our worst days.

- [Jim] And the 52-year-old Darnielle

has seen his own share of bad days.

Growing up with his mom and an abusive stepdad

in San Luis Obispo, California,

the young Darnielle was eager

to escape his reality in any way he could.

Looking back, he says, his high school years

were far from the best of his life.

- So a weird thing about Americans

is that they wanna say that being a teenager

was the greatest thing in the world,

but it is great to say, well,

I'm gonna rise or fall on my own merits

and nobody really gets to make my decisions for me.

Adulthood, that's huge (laughs)

and people, they tend to miss that.

- [Jim] At age 16, Darnielle landed in the hospital

for a nearly fatal dose of prescription meds.

Soon after, his birth father helped him

move to Portland, Oregon to recover.

Instead, the teenager started doing heroin and meth.

At 19 he overdosed again.

A few months into his recovery,

Darnielle's therapist asked him

what exactly he planned to do with his life.

- I hadn't thought about this question

and so I said, "I wanna do what you do."

And he said, "Well, when will you do that,

"'cause you can go into a psychiatric nursing program?"

And so I did.

It was something to do.

A lot of my decisions have been accidental.

- [Jim] Darnielle worked as a psychiatric nurse technician

for several years, picking up a cocaine habit along the way.

During day-long binges, he entertained himself

by writing songs and poems,

and gradually making art took over from taking drugs.

- It's primal for me almost,

something I very much enjoy doing

that gives me pleasure all by itself,

that I feel like I was made to do,

that when I am doing it, I feel useful

and I want to feel useful.

♪ Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts ♪

♪ That they were headed for stage lights ♪

♪ And Learjets and fortune and fame ♪

♪ So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram ♪

♪ They stenciled their drumheads ♪

♪ And their guitars with their names ♪

♪ And this was how Cyrus got sent off to the school ♪

♪ Where they told him he would never be famous ♪

♪ And this was why Jeff

♪ In the letters he would write to his friend ♪

♪ Helped develop a plan to get even ♪

♪ When you punish a person for dreaming his dream ♪

♪ Don't expect him to thank or forgive you ♪

♪ The best ever death metal band out of Denton ♪

♪ Will in time both outpace and outlive you ♪

Sing it!

♪ Hail Satan

(audience laughing)

♪ Hail Satan, tonight

♪ Hail Satan

♪ Hail sweet prince of all flesh ♪

♪ Hail, hail, hail

- [Jim] In real life, John Darnielle

isn't rooting for the antichrist,

though he admits that part of him

does live in everything he writes.

But he's also really good at making stuff up.

- You should question who the speaker is in all my songs.

I'm always hoping people will come in

with the assumption that it's not

a person just sharing their experience,

but a fictive narrator who probably

has their own baggage attached.

There are very few, probably no songs

that's just unmediated me saying here's how I live

because one, I don't know how to live.

I'm not an authority on that at all.

And two, what's interesting to me

is characters who give advice,

or spin out their philosophies, or describe the world.

What's interesting to me is the difference

between the things that they think

and some more imaginarily objective reality

that exists somewhere on the other side

of their own motivations for telling these stories.

A part of me comes out no matter what,

but it's not me giving advice.

- [Jim] In 2014, the seasoned front man

turned his hand to fiction,

debuting with "Wolf in White Van".

It's the story of a reclusive, manipulative

game designer named Sean

who as a teenager survived an incident

that left his face mangled.

- I understand a little the social dictate

to not stare at misshapen people.

You wanna spare their feelings.

You don't want them to feel ugly.

At the same time though, even before I became what I am,

I used to wonder, isn't it okay to stare

if something seems to stand out?

Why not stare?

My own perspective is probably tainted by having spent

long hours before mirrors after the accident.

It would be pretty hard to make me feel ugly.

Words like pretty and ugly exist in a different vocabulary

from the one you might invent to describe a face

that had to be put back together by a team of surgeons.

My face is strange and terrible.

It merits a little staring.

- [Jim] "Wolf in White Van" was nominated

for a National Book Award just days after it was published.

Three years later came the horror story

"Universal Harvester" about an Iowa video store clerk

who discovers mysterious clips

recorded over the store's VHS tapes.

And though he still leans towards dark subject matter,

today the 52-year-old Darnielle

is healthy in body and mind,

but his recovery hasn't meant total sobriety.

For five years he was part of Alcoholics Anonymous,

the abstinence-only support group

that sustains millions of members worldwide

with its 12 steps and commitment to a higher power.

Darnielle says the program did help him,

but ultimately he couldn't accept the doctrine

that addiction is for life.

- I view most of my addictive behaviors

of my teens and early, early 20s

as responses to where I was at then.

- So can you, I mean, tell me to mind my own business,

can you safely drink now?

- Yeah, I mean, but not all the time.

Every once in a while I will overdo it,

and I imagine it's true of a lot of people.

I mean the five years I did in the program

were incredibly valuable to me,

I'd probably be dead without them,

but I gave it a shot while I was out on tour

after five years away with my original bassist,

we had literally a shot after a show,

and to my great surprise I didn't

then drink five more and then

go find out where the cocaine was at. (laughs)

- Mazel tov.

- Well this was my old pattern,

as I would get real drunk and as soon as I got drunk enough,

I'd go you know, there's way better stuff

like five miles from here.

That's no longer in my nature.

Whatever happened to it, it went away.

I don't ever want anybody to say

well, of John can do it, I can do it.

I'm not a good example. - No, no, no, no.

But also did you have a higher power all the way through?

Were you always a believer, were you always a Christian?

- Yeah, yeah. - And was God

always present in your life?

'Cause normally a lot of the time

people go into AA and they're like,

get yourself a higher power,

I don't believe in God, I can't do that.

- Yeah, yeah, no, that wasn't my problem.

- Do you feel that God is watching over you now

as you navigate this--

- Well, what do you mean by watching over?

- Like making sure that you don't go

looking for the cocaine. - No, that's not God's job.

That's my job.

God is there to love you whether

you're making good decisions or bad decisions,

but it's not God's job to make your decisions for you.

Let's take God as a father and you have children, right?

You truly love your children

when you let them make their own decisions,

no matter what they are.

- But as it turns out it could be that Jack or Johnny Walker

could be making your decisions for you, right?

- But in the case of God I don't think of God

as staying my hand or turning the wheel,

I think of God as the person to whom I can cry in need

and who'll be present in whichever way

will be useful to me then,

but I don't have the semi-invisible Jesus

who stands between me and the car wreck.

God doesn't mind the car wreck,

God's investment is not in this body.

(upbeat rock music)

♪ My brothers picked me up out of the rushes ♪

♪ Traded me into the company of evil men ♪

♪ Well I have inched my way down the eastern seaboard ♪

♪ I am coming to Atlanta again

♪ Yes I came to the gates of the fabled pink city ♪

♪ Hungry and tired, mad as all hell ♪

♪ Swing low sweet jewel-encrusted chariot ♪

♪ Make me young again

♪ Make me well

(audience cheering)

- [Jim] John Darnielle is a seeker,

a survivor, a storyteller, who uses his platform

to encourage earnest, honest reflection

on himself and in others.

♪ I am the killer dressed in pilgrim's clothing ♪

♪ I am the hard to get stations on the AM band ♪

♪ I am the white sky high over Tripoli ♪

♪ I am the land mine hidden in the sand ♪

♪ And I came to the gates of the fabled pink city ♪

♪ Hungry and tired, alone

♪ Swing low, swing low sweet chariot ♪

♪ Coming forth to carry me home ♪

(audience cheering) (audience applauding)

(uplifting music)

(relaxing music)

- [Tori] It can be difficult

to pinpoint when a journey begins,

but for the National Book Award-winning

young adult author, Elizabeth Acevedo,

a daughter of Dominican immigrants who spoke little English,

this story starts with a three-year-old and her mother.

- My youngest memory that I have

is sitting in this auditorium with my mom

after work, trying to learn English,

that I learned English because my mom

sat me down and was like,

we're gonna read this book together

in a language she barely spoke,

even though it was hard for her,

even though she had done all of this

work all day and then still sat down,

and is like, this is is an important thing for you to learn.

So English is my educational tongue,

English is my expressive tongue,

English is my storytelling tongue,

and I think it's because of that moment.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] The English language gave her power,

but it also brought responsibility.

At some point, we all find out

that our parents are just people, fallible human beings,

but as the designated household spokesperson,

she discovered this earlier than most.

- So I knew young that my parents

weren't always gonna be the teacher,

that sometimes I was the one

who had to convey information,

and explain things, and read the letters,

and then say this is what it's saying,

and what it means to want to turn to someone

and say, "You should know, you should know.

"You're the adult", but then also knowing

that that would be hurtful,

and when you're a kid moving through

all of these feelings and wanting to lash out,

but this person is relying on you,

then it's this also sense of guilt

and like I owe you, I owe you at least this.

- [Tori] It was in high school that Acevedo

fully embraced her own voice,

and for the following decade she made a name for herself

as a poet, winning prestigious spoken word competitions

and building a fan base.

- Where I'm from, hood schemes birth hood dreams

so hood teams grow hoodwinked.

- [Tori] But poetry alone wasn't enough.

While teaching English at a DC middle school

and a juvenile detention center,

she realized that the books her students were assigned

didn't reflect their lived experiences.

So for six years, she worked towards a private dream

that she could become part of the solution.

- Fiction was what I wrote on the Metro.

It was this secret thing that

I was working on to see if I could do it,

but I didn't know what it would become.

So it was still for me,

and I think that that's a different pressure.

- [Tori] This time and pressure culminated

in Acevedo's 2018 debut, "The Poet X".

It tells the story of a young poet named Xiomara,

who in many ways resembles a young Liz.

In the story, a Dominican-American,

New York City-raised teenager butts heads

with her traditional Catholic parents

and other kids in her neighborhood.

- I am unhide-able.

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said

was "a little to much body for such a young girl."

I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips

so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school

now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.

The other girls call me conceited, ho, thot, fast.

When your body takes up more room than your voice,

you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,

which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.

Which is why I learned to shrug

when my name was replaced by insults.

I forced my skin just as thick as I am.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Elizabeth Acevedo's novels

are informed by her own life, but they're not based on it.

Her second novel for young adults

was the bestseller, "With the Fire on High",

which tells the story of a teen mom from Philadelphia

who doggedly pursues her dream of becoming a chef.

Just three months after the book hit shelves,

the film rights were purchased by the same company

that made the Oscar-sweeping film, "La La Land".

Her next novel, out May 5th 2020 from Harper Collins,

is called "Clap When You Land".

It explores the lives of two girls

who discover they're half-sisters

following the death of their father.

And even though she hasn't lived everything she writes,

Acevedo believes fiction can still

communicate something real, something candid and sincere.

- There's a difference between

the pursuit and display of truth as a curious fact

versus here is honesty, here is an honest emotion,

here is an honest conflict,

here is a character who is not sure,

and you are not going to be sure about her,

because sometimes we are not sure about people,

that that feels a little bit different.

There's a way that we can say

this is the best form that I can depict this emotion

and it might not be true, but it is honest.

(gentle music)

- [Tori] Elizabeth Acevedo sets a powerful example,

writing what she knows the world needs,

and in the process reframing reality.

- We are not here to save lives.

We are all just working on our own mosaic of aches.

So when the girl at the detention center asks you again,

"Why we gotta write these damn poems anyways?"

Tell her we write to remind ourselves we are still here

and that we can still heal.

(uplifting music)

(upbeat music)

- [Jim] Meg Saligman paints big at home and abroad,

but her creations are never about her,

they're about the communities where her work will live.

She calls herself a vessel with a vision.

- I do not start with the idea, I start with what I hear.

The first part of the process

is culling and collecting content,

and that's what inspires me.

- [Jim] Saligman calls this

first part of the process seeking.

It leads to absorbing and creating and finally sharing.

Underlying all this is an understanding

that she must approach each new project as an outsider.

This was especially true in 2015

when she and her collaborator, Lizzie Kripke,

were commissioned to help create

what would become one of the largest

public murals in the United States: the MLK Mural,

"We Will Not Be Satisfied Until" in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It wasn't until they arrived to start work

that they became aware of the theme

the community had chosen: gentrification.

- So now we have a situation where we're

two white women painting about

gentrification in a black community.

So it's like (hisses) but then you have to

look inside and see do we think this

is something we should be doing,

and to me the answer was yes.

One of the reasons was our process

is we come into the community

and it's not like we're placing the art there,

we're finding what is in the community.

We had a team of nine working with us from Chattanooga,

so we believed in getting a team of us working together

to create the work, and also I felt that

it wasn't as though there was someone

in Chattanooga who could do this.

If there was, I might have deferred.

(intriguing music) (people chattering)

- [Woman] Perfect.

- [Jim] In 2013, Meg Saligman was invited

to apply her skills even father from home

when she helped decorate a new water tower

at a girls school in Central Tanzania.

This part of Africa has a long

history of problems with water,

periods of intense flooding followed by severe droughts,

sanitation and infrastructure are limited,

and the burden of collecting safe water

rests on the shoulders of women and girls,

an arduous task that can

put them in danger of sexual assault,

as Saligman discovered in early

correspondences with the girls from the school.

- We actually got back one sheet of paper

that said water makes girls get raped

because they have to walk by themselves

for five hours everyday to get it.

So they equated water with rape

and just that subject to me seemed to be

one that we could learn a lot from exploring together.

- This changes this entire society for the women in it

because there's now water on tap, literally,

whereas before it was a labor of gathering water.

- Well, this is a water tower that

collects enough water for three months of the year,

and it's an ongoing issue at this school

to get water for the full season.

They had a salinated plan and they're still doing it,

they're still trying to solve--

- So this doesn't solve the problem,

well it's more than a bandaid,

maybe it's a bandage on the problem,

it fixed the problem for-- - They're surviving with it.

- [Jim] Though it's only a partial solution

to a perennial problem, it's likely that this water tower

and the art that adorns it

will remain for many years to come.

This is not the case for all of Saligman's projects,

which have in some cases been painted over or demolished.

But she says permanence is not her priority.

- Think of the work that goes into

a stage set at the Metropolitan Opera House

and then how often does that get seen?

Then it could get thrown away, or reclaimed,

or stored if it was really successful,

so I think that the notion of exterior public murals

have really bright lives

even if the longevity is not guaranteed,

for me, is a really great trade-off.

Let's say even if I'm a blue chip artist

and the gallery is selling my work,

how many people see it when

it goes into someone's private home,

or in a museum, that's a self-selecting crowd?

So I love public being able to see it, which way balances.

I also strongly believe I make a work,

put it within the community.

If they don't want it there in two weeks,

it shouldn't be there.

It's not up to me what happens to it

and let it takes its life,

and it's far more interesting and potent that way.

(intriguing music)

- [Jim] Meg Saligman thinks deeply about

the world and her own place in it,

but her work has never been led

by the desire to tell her own story,

but to help others to tell theirs.

(traffic gently roars)

(uplifting music)

For more "Articulate", find us on social media

or on our website, articulateshow.org.

On the next "Articulate", the bestselling author

Jonathan Safran Foer writes to interrogate

his own past and all of our futures.

- I only feel lost most of the time

and through writing I feel less confused

and less alienated from others,

from myself, from my own weird stew

of contradictory thoughts and feelings.

Writing clarifies me to me.

- [Jim] Tori Marchione profiles

the superstar graphic novelist Nate Powell,

who's known for beautifully rendered comics

with a strong moral code.

And the Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel

is on mission to sell harmony

in the concert hall and beyond.

I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next "Articulate".

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(upbeat music)

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