You Must Change Your Life: A Conversation with Shane Anderson

By Rob MadoleJune 3, 2022

You Must Change Your Life: A Conversation with Shane Anderson
FOR YEARS, I knew Shane Anderson as a bookseller at St. George’s, my favorite English-language bookstore in Berlin. I moved to the city in my early 20s, a wannabe sophisticate, and to me Shane had both an aspirational job and aspirational tastes — as well as the all-important clout of having arrived in the city a few years earlier. I’d always feel slightly timorous as I trucked my books to the counter to be entered in St. George’s inexplicably complicated accounting spreadsheet, preparing for Shane to riff on my purchases and make off-the-cuff recommendations of deep cuts and authors I hadn’t heard of. It’s possible I spent a few hundred euros purchasing books at St. George’s I never intended to read, hoping to impress him.

Shane’s poetry was also familiar from Berlin’s expatriate scene, through the reading series he organized at St. George’s and through chapbooks such as Études des Gottnarrenmaschinen (2012) and Soft Passer (2015). Avowedly avant-garde, his work had an abstract rigor that was both alluring and cunningly enigmatic. So, I was taken by surprise when I discovered a few months ago that Shane had published an unusual hybrid of memoir, sports journalism, and self-help book about his lifelong relationship with the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors called After the Oracle, or: How the Golden State Warriors’ Four Core Values Can Change Your Life Like They Changed Mine. 

The book details how, following a divorce, a difficult back surgery, and a failed suicide attempt in a Sonnenallee bar, Shane found himself at a profoundly low ebb in his life. Whether by circumstance or fate, this happened to correspond with the surprising rise to prominence of his childhood basketball team, the Warriors, which had been revitalized by the commitment of their head coach, Steve Kerr, to a program of “four core values”: joy, mindfulness, compassion, and competition. Deciding to adopt these values as leitmotifs, Shane embarked on a project of rebuilding his life from the ground up.

After the Oracle, Shane writes, is a “document of my attempt to change my life,” and it’s a brilliantly unconventional read. Bracingly honest, tender, and formally inventive, the book manages to find a new approach to an age-old question: what does it take to live a meaningful life? Although I’m an avowed Golden State hater — hard feelings persist from 2007, when my Dallas Mavericks suffered an ignominious defeat at the Warriors’ hands — Shane agreed to talk to me about his book.


ROB MADOLE: After the Oracle starts with a scene of you watching a disastrous game early in Steph Curry’s career from your apartment in Berlin in the middle of, basically, a very dark period of your life. What was basketball offering you?

SHANE ANDERSON: Escape. Something else to concentrate on besides my own worries, and obsessions, and paranoias, and just general malaise. It was something where I could just turn off for an hour, two hours, whatever. I could forget myself … but it was also something grounding. It was something I knew I liked. And everything else around me, I wasn’t so sure I liked. Or maybe I wanted to like it and didn’t. Some combination of that.

And I just knew basketball was a place I could go that was familiar. Also, I was struggling a lot at the time — and it comes out in the book in different ways — with the concept of home. I’d been in Berlin for a while, and I had no real reason to be here. I had a constant debate in my head: “Should I go home? Should I go home?” And I was like, “What is home?” In a way, basketball was home. It was both a way to ignore and a way to connect. Like everything else in my life, it was very conflicted.

I feel your book really captures the mood of Berlin when we both arrived there in the late aughts, a time when rents were extremely cheap yet jobs for foreigners were scarce. There’s a feeling of drift you describe beautifully — “the weight of absolute freedom in a city where you could live on next to nothing and thus had no excuse to not do the things you came here to do.” What made that freedom so problematic?

I think problems and constraints create something for you to work against. If you have financial obligations, then you know: “All right, I have to take care of these bills.” And you can maybe be a bit more structured with your time, because you have to be. You don’t have endless time. I came to Berlin with hopes of writing. And for a writer, the dream is always that you have endless time, right? And then I was seeing how my friends were struggling back in the States, and I just thought, “Okay, if I want to do this writing thing, and I want to take it seriously, I should probably stay here.” Because it allowed a lot of freedom. But then once you’re doing that, and if you don’t have any mentors, and if everybody around you is doing the exact same thing — and the only people really going forward are sharks, and you’re not a shark by nature — then you’re just basically part of this international art class. Everybody’s from whatever nation, in their mid-20s, going to shows, going to clubs afterward. Over time it started to feel heavy, because everybody was just floating, you know? For me, it felt like I was just treading water. Not even floating. It felt like being very, very stuck. I don’t know how you felt at the time.

Very similar. I felt like I needed to get better at living. Because there wasn’t any template for it in our world.

That’s how it is when you want to live outside the norms, right? We all kind of left to escape a normative lifestyle. There are examples, there are people we could look up — the Situationists and groups like them — but when you’re really trying to enact it, it becomes difficult. I do ask myself what my life would’ve been like if I’d discovered this set of core values 10 years earlier. It’s something I thought about while writing the book. Because I had the conditions to make magic. And if I’d had something to hold on to, it would’ve been very different. But that’s just not how life works.

You describe the moment you decided to rebuild your life around the Warriors’ four core values as a sort of oracular experience. You were reading Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” after a failed suicide attempt, and you encountered its famous final line, “You must change your life.” You tie this to the consulting of oracles in the Greek world. What’s the role of an oracle, or an ocular message, when confronting the need for change?

In a sense, there are two oracles. There’s the oracle of Rilke, telling me I have to change my life, finding me in a position where I’ve reached a dead end. It’s either this or death. And then there’s the oracle of Steve Kerr. Both of them were presenting me with a challenge I couldn’t understand. It’s kind of like an oracle will tell you something that’s the truth to come, but you’re incapable of understanding because of all of your predispositions, because of your problems, because of your own ego getting in the way. In a sense, the Steve Kerr message ended up being the more mysterious, because the core values are such big, simple words that we’ve had thrown around at us, you know? “Joy, mindfulness, compassion, competition.” These are things we all have a relationship to, in a way, but we might not always know what they really mean. We kind of take them for granted.

After the Oracle is really difficult to describe in terms of genre. It reads like a hybrid of memoir, philosophy, sports journalism, even self-help. Maybe the simplest description is when you call it “a document of my attempt to change my life.” As you were writing the book, how did you envision what you were doing?

I think I described it in different ways at different times. My first attempt was just, “Oh, I’m going to write an essay about the Warriors’ core values, I find this really interesting.” And then I realized that wasn’t the full story. So, I thought maybe I’d write little personal essays, or something like that. “Joy” came first, a version of it. And it just kind of came to me, as a sort of flash. That ended up being the structure in a way.

I think before starting the book I was really embarrassed to write about myself. For one thing, I’ve majorly class-hopped, and I found my story very embarrassing. Especially when we’re talking about this period in Berlin, where most of these kids were, like, trustafarians, you know? And I always found my story — what was actually going on in my life — petrifying to talk about. And then for intellectual reasons, I never really wanted to write about myself, because I don’t like things, necessarily, that over-dramatize one’s own personal life. And memoirs, per se, I’ve always been suspicious of, simply because they end up focusing so much on the self. When really I think we’re such amalgamations of everything that’s around us.

So, it took me a long time to be able to talk about myself, and also to be able to look at all of these things that were so painful … and potentially also painful for my family, for instance. I didn’t want to do anyone injustice, but I also didn’t want to pretend like they didn’t happen. That’s when it went from an essay that was more philosophical, to something with a memoir element added on top. And then I was trying to extrapolate all of the lessons from the core values. Like, what do these things really mean? What do they mean in conjunction? How do they work? What’s the system? They seem sort of opposed to one another, in some ways, especially “competition” with the other values. So, I wanted to understand it — philosophically, politically. I felt there was a lot there, in that regard. And I just wanted to figure it out.

It seems like a mission statement for the book is to probe at things that make you uneasy, that you might previously have avoided addressing in your writing.

Yeah, very much. Everything, you know, from the form to the subject matter — to, I mean, the multiple subject matters, you know? Even basketball! That was something serious people don’t talk about! It’s only now, slowly, that I’m realizing there are lots of intellectuals who like basketball.

As you take us through your attempts to enact the different core values, your book is full of really interesting philosophical digressions and arguments. One of the questions you touch on is sports as an aesthetic experience. The Warriors, in particular, are famous for their free-flowing style of play, which for a lot of people amounts to, basically, the height of basketball pleasure. Yet you experienced their play almost as a moral or ethical call to action. Was there something about the aesthetic experience of Warriors basketball that you felt spurred you to a lifestyle change?

I think aesthetics is always tied to ethics. This is probably not a very popular opinion, but I do think that way. I think that the work I like usually has strong ethical foundations … a strong, moral base, one that’s more interested in truth than in simply pleasing the eye. And I found the Warriors to be the same thing. It’s not just about making the game pretty. It’s also about enacting these four core values, which have a moral dimension. I would say that about lots of artwork I admire.

You wrote about Kevin Durant: “There’s an elegance to his game that now touches my aesthetic sensibility much more than contemporary forms of art and poetry that express disdain for their audience or that purposefully remain obfuscating.” Was there a period of your life where you were making what you saw as obfuscational work? Did confronting the four core values change how you approached your own poetry?

For sure. I mean, I haven’t been able to write a poem since then. Because I don’t know what one would look like. At some point, I just became more interested in actually communicating. And it’s funny, because I think the experimental poetry I was writing became more navel-gazing in its attempt to be not navel-gazing, you know? Because I was always aware of the risk of navel-gazing, rather than just starting from the self and letting the self be the anchor or the net. Letting everything filter through … and just admitting there was a net, and letting it really be visible.

Is that the difference between navel-gazing and honesty? The net? The making explicit of the filter?

Well, I think navel-gazing has a lot to do with the glorification of oneself. It’s really about prizing the ego. And what I was trying to do before was deny the ego. But by denying the ego I was very much involved in this dialectic. The universe doesn’t hear “not.” You say you don’t want something and what ends up happening? That thing happens. What you can do is, you can look in the mirror and say, “I am this person. And this is where I stand. And these are my experiences, this is how I want to write.” I don’t know, somehow just watching the Warriors’ game … it’s simple, you know? It’s simple and complex at the same time. But it’s not overly complex. It’s not trying to fool you. And I feel like that became really important to me as a writer. Standing straight up and saying, “Here are all these things.” I’m not trying to fool myself or anyone.


Rob Madole is a writer, translator, and former editor of ARCH+ in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @rob_madole.

LARB Contributor

Rob Madole is a writer, translator, and former editor of ARCH+ in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @rob_madole.


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