On Saturday, I realized I’m going to have to restructure the novel I’m working on, which means a lot of long days for a while. So, I hope you won’t mind if, for this post, I use an essay that was published a while back in THE LITERARY REVIEW (Farleigh Dickinson University), entitled When There’s No Sky Left:
There is a moment of sweet tension as I hold the glass in my hand. The peat-rich fumes rise to my nose. The color is amber promise. I raise the glass to my lips. Molten honey in the gut. The switch flips. Sweet warmth begins to flow from my belly to my fingertips. The mind becomes soft and fluid. Images appear. I drink more. I’m feeling deeply now, deeper than I do without the booze. I’m seeing the truth of things. The landscape of the page becomes languid and it seems possible to get what appears in my head down onto the page accurately, precisely, and completely. I drink more and begin to write – frantically, feverishly, propelled by the urgent volume of all the perfect sentences pressing up against my brain. I drink more, not wanting to slip even a millimeter from the peerless pinnacle. Purity. Prismatic perfection. Write. Sip. Write. Sip. And so on, until things become bleary, unclear, swirling concrete weights, black shadowed water . . .
4:00 a.m. I wake up with a jangled sense of anxiety in a sour-smelling bed. I rise early, not out of enthusiasm for the day, but because I feel so crappy I can’t sleep. I scrabble through the papers lying around my desk and find what I’ve written the night before. Always that moment of hope — is it as good in the light of day as it seemed under the fuzzy gloom of evening? The first sentence, good, the second, not bad, and then, by the end of that first page. . . Crap. I’ve done it again – written the world’s best first paragraph (or so I’d thought last night) followed by nothing but self-indulgent shit. Where did all the wonderful words go? They used to come and stay and sing in the dawn. But for so long there’s been nothing but by-blows, changelings, twisted imps… My stomach churns and my nerves rattle. I’m frightened. I vow I won’t do it again. I put everything I have into that vow.
I’ve made the same vow the day before and broken it, and the day before that, but today will be different.
That was the daily cycle. Of course this was a few years into my career as a drinking writer and even as I said the words to myself I knew I was lying. I knew that by six o’clock I’d be back at my desk with a glass of scotch in my hand, chasing the muse. And there’s the crux of it, really. How could I, a person whose craft depends on piercing through the layers of mucky garbage to get at the shining truth, expect to succeed when I began the day with a Big Fat Lie?
When I was asked to submit an essay on the secret life of writers, the first thing that came to mind was to write about alcohol. Why? Because for years being an alcoholic was The Great Secret, The Central Secret, The Defining Secret of my life. I spent decades floating in the shadowy waters of addiction and the effects of that addiction on my work and my life were as devastating as a North Atlantic gale. But then I thought: I can’t write about alcoholism and writers. What the hell is there new to say? Maybe nothing. But maybe even if it’s been said before it bears repeating, for the truth of this disease and its siren call to writers is that it wants not to be talked about, or written about. It wants to scuttle back into its crepuscular cove and wait there to ambush another unsuspecting scribe.
The first problem begins with definition. What is an alcoholic? It’s the age-old question. Where is the line drawn between those who merely drink heavily and the alcoholic? How much drinking is too much drinking? For me, an alcoholic is someone who continues drinking in spite of the negative consequences. Those consequences include physical, financial, emotional, sexual, and creative tolls. How much drinking a person has to do to qualify is profoundly personal. I could guzzle a gallon more hooch than Michael, my 6’4 280 pound friend. We’d go scotch for scotch and I’d send him home in a cab. But I have friends who are recovering alcoholics who’d get blind drunk on a beer. No matter what the amount, the results were the same: even when drinking led to bad things, we didn’t stop doing it. Every time I picked up a drink I thought that this time would be different, this time there would be no consequences, and of course, I was wrong and I’d get up the next day and do it again. I was a daily drinker, but many people who call themselves alcoholics aren’t daily drinkers; they binge drink on weekends, or once a month, or whenever. But the truth is this, alcoholics just don’t drink like other people and it doesn’t feel the same for us. There will come a point for every alcoholic where they just can’t quit drinking and, if they continue, one of several things will inevitably happen: they will die, they will go crazy, or they will end up in jail. Having said all that though, and knowing that most people know someone they think is an alcoholic, it is generally a self-diagnosed disease. If you’re an alcoholic, you know it. You might deny it, especially to others, often to yourself, but deep down, you know. You’re a drunk.
There is one line of thinking that says alcoholism is a genetic illness, often connected to an enzyme deficiency in the liver, which makes it impossible for certain people to metabolize alcohol properly. Certain ethnic groups seems to suffer from the disease more than others, such as the Inuit and other First Nations People, making this a tempting theory. Another line of thinking says that alcoholism is a learned behavior and that one can, by abusing alcohol over a period of time, ‘become’ alcoholic. And then there are those people who suffer from mental disorders and use alcohol as a method of self-medication. To me, this all this is an interesting intellectual exercise, but no more. I don’t really care how I became an alcoholic, born or built, the fact is I am one and that’s all that matters to me.
People from all walks of life suffer from alcoholism. I know that. I don’t think writers are ‘special’. My adoptive father was a business executive, my birth father was too. My paternal adoptive grandfather was a railroad engineer. My maternal adoptive grandmother was a housewife. My birth mother is as well. Alcoholics all. I know alcoholic teachers and pilots and doctors and priests, to name but a few. But statistically, looking at my friends in recovery, there’s no doubt about it: there are a hell of a lot of writers trying to put down the bottle. And when I look at my writer friends who are not in recovery, more than half of them admit to having a ‘drinking problem.’
No one can say for sure why, or even prove there’s a link between creativity and alcoholism, but the anecdotal evidence sure piles up. And
you have to wonder at how much has been lost. I know that some people feel that some of the extraordinary literature we have available to us has come to us by way of the bottle. That had someone like Dylan Thomas not been so self-destructive and sozzled, he wouldn’t have been able to write what he did. Perhaps. But it’s been my experience that life as an alcoholic is hellish and that creating, if it happened at all, happened when I fought against my addiction. Upton Sinclair in The Cup of Fury said this about Sinclair Lewis and his drinking: “Through a miracle of physical stamina, [he] made it to the age of 66. More tragic than any shortage of years was the loss of productivity, the absence of joy.” What would have happened if Dylan Thomas had lived, or Gwendolyn MacEwen, or Hart Crane, or Jack London, to name just a few? How much extraordinary literature has been lost along with the battle against the booze? And where, oh where, do the dots become connected?
As I’ve said, the only thing I can offer is my own experience with alcohol, so here goes. I don’t know exactly when alcohol and writing became linked in my own mind, but at some point I knew: writers, Real Writers, drank. Sometime in my late teens the desire to write and the craving to be a Real Writer, i.e. one who drank and lived hard, mixed like vermouth and gin, like scotch and soda, like vodka and anything, into a potent potion.
Of course, no cocktail hour is complete without hors d’oeuvres. A little tragedy on toast rounded out the menu. The spice of self-pity. Damage. Pain. Suffering. I thought there was something romantic about tear-salted wine and pasted up photos of the dead to inspire me. Margaret Laurence. James Agee. Raymond Carver.
I had a certain amount of family drama as a child on which to draw. A friend of mine calls it The Writer’s Pack ‘O Family and Friends. An alcoholic father, an unhappy mother, the loneliness of an only child in a less-than-jolly family. Some illnesses thrown in. Being the ‘weird’ kid in school: adopted, insecure, bookish, and too eager to please. So I had some small measure of sorrow, and at the age of sixteen I added more. I left school, married a man ten years my senior and moved with him many hundreds of miles from home. The marriage lasted about six months. It was a predictable failure, but at least it had drawn the line in the sand. I was on my own. I could begin. Some bad things happened. I was hurt in many ways. I had my heart broken more than once. I was raped. I was robbed. At one notably low point I lived on Tang, cream of wheat and sardines for three months. Millions of people have been through much worse, but there were times that seemed plenty bad enough to me.
I wrote a lot in those days, proving my theory about the relationship between loneliness, alienation and creativity. In fact, by the time I was twenty, I did more writing than I did anything else. Miles and miles of astoundingly bad poems which were wisely rejected by a number of prominent literary magazines. But I kept going, knowing that rejection was part of being a Real Writer, too. I sat at my little desk at the end of my bed, writing far into the night, filling notebook after notebook with observations and snippets of dialogue and reflections. In the morning I went to my clerical job at a university, and between typing assignments I wrote more. And sometime during that time I began drinking. I don’t think I’d turned into an alcoholic then, but I did drink heavily, and I could drink the boys under the table. I began to gravitate to those people who drank like I did. I fell in love and lived with a boxer for four years. He was also a drug addict and alcoholic. Compared to him my drinking wasn’t so bad, so I kidded myself into thinking I didn’t have a problem — I was just living the sort of life Real Writers lived: chaotic, troubled, painful, spiky with extreme emotional highs and lows.
I was nearly thirty when I first admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic. I’d left the boxer by that time and married a rock musician. He neither drank nor did drugs. I think, looking back on it now, that that was part of what attracted me to him. I suspect I was trying to live a life where I wouldn’t end up a sodden lush, but would still be interesting enough to feed my ‘art’. For the three years we were together I didn’t drink either. I also wrote less and less. I began to fear I might not be a Real Writer after all. The night the marriage broke up a girl friend of mine called and asked if I was all right.
“No,” I said between sobs.
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to go out and get drunk,” I said.
By the end of that evening I was thinking maybe my marriage could be saved if I kept a bottle of vodka stashed in the back of the cupboard. I wrote a short story about the end of marriage. The husband went. The vodka stayed.
I drank every day for ten years. I wrote again – into the night, which by then was ending fairly early after the bottle of wine was finished – at my office during the day, when I really should have been doing my job. I became thin and edgy and wild. I lived in bars and cafes and had dangerous friends. My work was full of pain and angst and sorrow. I met another man, a good man, a kind man, who seemed to find me interesting, despite my drinking. For some mysterious and magical reason, we fell in love – a feat of wisdom on my part that still baffles me, as he has no tattoos, doesn’t play an instrument and has never been to prison. We married.
My life became less wild, but my drinking increased. The good man I had married began to ask pointed questions about the amount of scotch that disappeared every time he went on a business trip. He’d leave and there’d be ¾ of a bottle. He’d get back three days later and there’d be ¼ of a bottle. Of course, what he didn’t know was that I would have drunk that ¾ of a bottle the first night, replaced it the next day, drunk that, replaced it with another and meant to have drunk only a quarter of that, but well, drunk ¾ of it instead. At night I would wait until everyone on my street was sleeping and then tip-toe from house to house in my pajamas and parka, leaving empty bottles in other people’s recycling bins. By the end of the fifth year, I didn’t write at all any more. I just drank and fell asleep and woke up and vowed I wouldn’t drink that day and then, a couple of hours later, when my stomach stopped churning, I thought about drinking again, and I’d go to the store and tell myself I’d just have one or two and by ten o’clock I was passed out cold.
One day my husband told me, through tears, that he didn’t think I was on his side any more. He was right. I wasn’t on anybody’s side. There was
no side, just a great, polluted sea and me bobbing in the middle, losing my grip on the slippery spar of reality. I’d like to say I quit drinking as soon as I knew this, but I didn’t. It took another year of misery before I’d had enough.
I have heard it said that “Alcohol gave me wings, then it took away the sky.” So it was for me. Ultimately, the reason I quit drinking was that it didn’t work anymore. It didn’t make me feel good. It didn’t make me funnier, smarter and certainly not prettier, as I believed it had when I first began using it. Once upon a time it relaxed me — at the end it made me edgy and tense. Once it gave me confidence, at the end it only made me afraid of where it would lead. Once it made me feel like I belonged, at the end my friends and loved ones avoid me. Once it opened the door to that sacred space, that temenos, where the words floated around, waiting to be plucked from the air and put on the page. It sure as hell hadn’t done that in a long time. Alcohol had promised me pleasure and relief from pain, from insecurity, from alienation. It had fulfilled its promise for a while and there had been some great times, but the price was huge. For so long there had been nothing but the opposite of everything I’d been promised, and as far as writing was concerned there was only the terrifying silence of the void.
With the alcohol gone the question remained. Would I be a Real Writer, without it? I knew I wasn’t able to approach writing through the same gate. I had to find a new door, one that didn’t rely on the dubious enchantment of transformative elixirs. I went back to school. Humbled, I chose to learn my craft the old fashioned way. I studied, I found a mentor, I practiced. Like a violinist, I spent hours daily training myself. It was slow work, but slow was good. I learned not to be afraid of stillness, to find the truth in my hushed mind, and I began to use the page as a place to sift through the chaos of my life and begin to make meaning.
It’s the chicken and the egg, of course. Are we writers because we’re drunks and the isolation, the self-obsession, the melancholy and extreme ups and downs of that disease lends itself to a writer’s lifestyle, or is it the writer’s life — isolated, self-obsessed, melancholy, full of highs and lows, that leads to drink? For myself, I know I was born alcoholic, coming from a long line of drunks. But I also know that there are certain character traits that all the alcoholics of my acquaintance seem to have. We are insecure, brittle, over-sensitive to criticism, desperate for approval and praise, prone to depression and appallingly self-centered. We are egomaniacs with insecurity complexes. Also, alcoholics often come from fairly damaging families, and that can make us hyper-aware of other’s motivations. We have to know what’s going on in other people’s heads; often our survival as children depended on it. I’ve found these are useful traits as a writer when I’m trying to get the truth of people onto the page in a way that resonates to others.
Then there’s the dual process of the writing life.
The first is the going within part — where the writing is actually done. It’s lonely in there. It can get crazy and dark. I spend hours a day all by myself, surrounded, as Annie Dillard said, only with little bits of paper. Well, that and my own obsessions, for why write about anything that doesn’t obsess me? It can be scary down there in the tangled places of my own mind. I start to think a little shot of something would make it easier, because sometimes when I’m writing it can be so sad, or so frightening, so nerve-wracking. A drink would make it hurt less. And writing can be exhausting, so perhaps a wee dram would warm me, keep the fires stoked a little longer? Or maybe the work hasn’t moved at all, hasn’t budged an inch. Surely a glass of Chablis would loosen me up, help lubricate the creativity gears?
There are any number of excuses to drink while I’m writing, and when I send my work out into the world the reasons triple. The vile, sour-tasting cup of rejection from which the writer must so often drink leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. I send my work off in a hopeful brown envelope, dutifully including return postage, and then I sit and wait. I try not to, I try to work on other things, but always the flutter of hope tickles the back of my mind. I’m so sure this story is the best I’ve ever written, or at least I was when I sent it out. By the end of a mute month, I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m just a hack, a fraud, a poser, after all. Then the rejection letter appears in my betraying mailbox and often it’s not even a letter, just a tiny photocopied piece of paper, impersonal and beyond appeal. I realize that almost no one ever gets published. And besides that I’m going through a blank patch, unable to write anything even vaguely interesting or original. My relatives have stopped asking me how the book is going. Even good friends are less enthusiastic, as I sit in the corner through another dinner party, whining about how I just can’t find the right point of view in my new novel. And all the while other writers are getting published, winning awards, getting fat advances.
Rejection, jealousy, self-doubt, fear, depression. Do I suffer because I’m drinking too much, or am I drinking too much because I’m suffering? It hurts and alcohol makes the pain go away, if only for a while. If I were a failed fire fighter, tax accountant, veterinarian, would it be different? And I don’t think success is any easier to manage. I’ve seen so many writers, young writers in particular who publish early and find themselves unable to cope with the pressures, or the public eye, or the roller coaster ride of spotlight-followed-by-isolation. When I look back at the emotional condition I was in during my twenties and thirties, and think what it would have felt like to have added the pressures of publishing and touring and reviews and agents and editors. . . I break out in a clammy sweat. I can just see myself, filled with that poisonous mix of grandiosity and terror, bottle of Glenfiddich stashed in my book-bag, trying not to puke on the nice lady who’s asked me to sign her book. Thankfully, I didn’t publish anything until I was sober and forty. Had I published when I was younger, back when I was still drinking, I don’t think I’d be alive today. Or maybe I would be, but I can guarantee my reputation in the literary world would not be a good one.
And yet still no matter what, there is this addiction to writing, which is stronger, it seems than any drug. For my alcoholic-self, a life as a writer, successful or otherwise, was attractive precisely because it was so uncertain, so isolated, so fraught with danger and drama and ultimate longing. And why is that attractive? Because it mirrors the hunger going on inside me. For alcoholics, the most tantalizing thing in the world is MORE. We are gulpers, wanting more of everything. Emotionally speaking that means more joy, pain, drama, intrigue, and above all else: self-pity. This is because the alcoholic part of me wants to stay alive and extremes of emotion will drive me, in a circle of the damned, right back to a reaso
n to drink, which in turn makes my life more painful, more chaotic, crazier, which leads to fear, resentment, rage, grandiosity, self-pity and then right back to the drink.
Writers and alcoholism is a marriage made in hell, but a marriage nonetheless, and one that produces offspring: stories, novels, poems, essays – often damaged, flawed, sick, unfinished, but sometimes, especially at the beginning, extraordinary, sublime, transcendent. If they were all horrible, perhaps I’d have put the booze down much quicker, but they weren’t. Sometimes even my own drunken writing was pretty amazing and it didn’t feel like I’d written it. Certainly it didn’t seem like anything I could write sober. I’d be chasing the ghost of Agee in LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, or Dylan Thomas, or Faulkner, works that are marvelous, other-worldly in their glory, and that’s what kept me coming back, I think, for nothing’s more addictive than random gratification, where I could never depend on it to return, and could never get my fill. Eventually even that stopped though. At the end it wasn’t random, it was never. And then there were choices: a) Keep drinking and never write anything decent again. b) Kill myself. c) Stop drinking.
So, what’s an alcoholic writer to do when they can’t drink any more? Well, the good news is that many of the things that I know about myself as an alcoholic are things I can use in my life as a writer. Many alcoholics talk about a hollow bowl at the core of their souls that they used alcohol to try and fill. Because for me alcohol no longer fills that bowl, I’m forced to look for something else that will. I’ve found it in that which I loved long before I loved alcohol: language and making meaning of the world through writing. I’ve found that the process of attempting to knit something coherent and cohesive from the tangled skeins of what I see and hear around me is a deeply satisfying process, regardless of the outcome. It’s far more satisfying that alcohol ever was and it can be relied on to be there consistently, as long as I’m there for it, practicing daily.
I don’t believe, any longer, that you need to be a drunk to be a Real Writer. I have come to believe you can be a Real Writer in spite of being a drunk. There are, of course, writers I know who turn out excellent work even thought they’re active alcoholics. God bless ’em. I can’t do it. As an alcoholic writer, when I’m hurt (which, anathematized with being the sensitive little soul that I am, happens fairly often), I have to just feel it and move one rather than anaesthetize it. I must watch myself carefully, ever vigilant for such character defects as negativity, resentment, jealousy, fear, anger, and self-pity, the emotions that will lead me back to a drink. And when I find them present, I am required, if I want to stay sober and continue writing, to attempt to confront them, analyze them, come to terms with them and transform them into optimism, forgiveness, generosity, faith, serenity and concern for others. I say attempt because, let’s face it, I rarely manage to do any of those good and soulful things very well. The point is to keep trying. Practicing, on a daily basis, this sort of scrutiny, is not only good for the soul, but its damn good for the art as well because even when I fail miserably, I’m still failing on the page and that improves the work. I suspect this is what writers who aren’t alcoholic have known all along. Writing itself becomes something that teaches me, and provides me with a way to give back, if only in a small way, to the very world that formed me. I become an observer, not only of myself, but of others as well.
I will be an alcoholic for the rest of my life, whether I drink or not, the same way I would always be diabetic, or allergic to shellfish. I may be a recovered (or recovering) alcoholic, but still an alcoholic. Am I grateful for being an alcoholic? No, not really. It would have been lovely not to live they way I did for all those years and sometimes I mourn the work I might have done had I not been drinking. However, I believe that every life has dark periods; and regret, for me at least, comes only when I can’t move past those points, when I can’t find a way to make healthy use of them in the present. I don’t know why so many writers are alcoholics, can’t decide which condition comes first, but this much I do know: I would not be the writer I am if I hadn’t lived through the experiences I have, and I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I didn’t now use the very same tools I use to stay sober and apply them to my work as a writer. I’m still obsessive, still a perfectionist, still insecure, egocentric, and on many days, wracked with self-doubt. The difference is that now I don’t try and change that with chemicals. Now I try and get that down on the page.
Of course, it’s ironic that only by putting down the bottle was I able to finally write, consistently, work I could be satisfied with, sometimes even proud of. Day after day, page after page, beginning to end. I am an imperfect writer, but the secret is, as long as I am sober and writing, it is enough.