By Jonah Svihus
I developed an obsession this year. I did not know how obsessed I would become. I did not know how my appetite for information would be satiated, whether there was a definitive end to my quest. I knew the relationship between writers and substance abuse was commonplace. I took it at face value. It became a joke. I would roll into my writing classes and joke about Faulkner’s pitchers of water and whiskey, Hemingway’s bar fights, or Kerouac and Poe’s delirium tremens. Even in my moments of self-indulgent, alcoholic self-engorgement, I looked at the pantheon of Nobel Prize winning authors, and I took solace in their international recognition: Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck (If I extended this list to writers I admired outside the Nobel prize winners, I would feel even more comforted).
Things changed, though. As I learned more about writing, more about living, fear crept over me. All these famous writers whose styles I admired were alcoholics. In “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” published in 1986, Lewis Hyde notes that at the time “Four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our writers eventually killed themselves.”
What was happening? What started off as jokes and trivia knowledge became an all-consuming specter that drifted across my mind every time I went to write, edit or crack open a cold one with the boys. Why was it that so many novelists and poets were alcoholics? Is this a struggle writers must face?
That is how my obsession with addiction narratives began.
Olivia Laing’s “The Trip to Echo Spring” (2013) provided some inroads into the topic at hand. In her travel memoir Laing travels across America by train, meditating on the role alcohol played in the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. By the time Laing is riding through Berryman’s St. Paul, MN, she reflected on Hemingway’s journal entry about his father.
“As to the role of alcohol in all this: imagine the mixed relief and terror of getting that sequence down,” she wrote, referring to the vivid description Hemingway wrote of his father’s suicide. “Imagine pressing the words, letter by letter, into the page. And imagine getting up closing the door to your study and walking downstairs. What do you do, with that sudden space in your chest? You go (to) the liquor cabinet and you pour yourself a shot of the one thing no one can take from you … ”
I had felt the space in my chest. The awareness of my own use of alcohol during the creative process concerned me. My fears evolved, the aria switched strains. What I once accepted as a fun, novel practice now haunted me. I was becoming aware of my own habits, my desire to fill that space in my chest. I was looking for new ways to quell those fears.
I exorcised my fears through reading addiction memoirs. I wanted to better understand why the fatal relationship existed. Writing and drinking. It was the aria of my life sung by a charnel choir of my deepest fears. Addiction memoirs provided some answers. Bill Clegg’s 2010 memoir “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man,” was a helpful guide in navigating the relationship between writing and substance abuse.
“Acres of time, a bag of crack, company lined up, and a hotel less than a minute away,” Clegg wrote. “I’ve just missed two flights, e-mailed Kate and relinquished any say or stake in our agency, tossed my career down the chute, and stood up my beloved and no doubt frantic boyfriend. I’ve done all these things and I couldn’t be happier.”
Clegg was dealing with a crack/cocaine and alcohol addiction. Some tropes appear throughout all addiction: lack of self care, depression, not fulfilling family and professional engagements — this list goes on. I still needed to know why writing and drinking went hand-in-hand.
Clegg told me before his March 16 reading at Lewis & Clark that recovery in his two addiction memoirs plays a minor but important role in the narrative.
“It is more dramatic to watch something be destroyed,” Clegg said. To add to this, he told a story about his housemates in college. They watched abandoned buildings and shanties burn.
“At least four or five times, we came upon a burning building, and we would set up shop,” Clegg said. “We were fascinated. And not once did we ever go back to watch the rebuilding or see what was happening or how they did it. It is long and slow. Sobriety is a slow, painful process. It is hard to transcribe it, to convey it to another person.”
Clegg’s views of the recovery narrative seemed troublesome. There certainly is a train-wreck factor in addiction memoirs that is fascinating but difficult to watch. The recovery narrative was different. John Berryman’s “Recovery” demonstrates the the nuances and shortcomings of a recovery narrative. For much of the time while writing the novel, Berryman himself was going through recovery — in fact, Berryman committed suicide in ’72, before finishing the book. The narrative is self-absorbed, and Berryman concluded the only way his main character could escape the cycle of addiction was through death.
My understanding of the recovery narrative was limited. I viewed it as a necessary alternative to death in addiction narratives, the final pages. It was the part no one wanted to read. It was the re-building that no one had the patience to watch. All of that changed when I started reading Leslie Jamison.
Jamison understood that this process is long and slow, and it shows in her 544-page recovery memoir “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath,” published on April 3. In a New York Times article adapted from a section of her book, titled “Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?,” Jamison discusses her longing for a recovery narrative in literature.
“If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness — the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis — then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze” she wrote. “I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But when I got sober, I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.”
The article goes on to talk about David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” and how he published the book seven years after becoming sober. Then, the world opened up. Clegg and Jamison are living proof that great writing exists after sobriety. Sure, many of the early American Nobel winning writers did not have the same success, but today is a different time. The zany, nuanced narratives in “Infinite Jest” laugh in the face of addiction, proving that the sober mind is just as, if not more, capable of achieving poetic mastery of the English language. Jamison notes Denis Johnson’s productivity as a writer increased dramatically after he stopped using. Jamison and Clegg are flipping the script on writers and addiction. Their literary careers are only truly blossoming after they have become sober.
The relationship between writing and drinking certainly exists. My understanding of it has grown since I started out on this journey. The awareness of my own drinking and writing, along with others, has freed me. No longer am I worrying about what could happen to me. I have shored myself with the knowledge of a century’s worth of mistakes and choices made by writers. I learned not to romanticize the mistakes and horror of other writers. Whether it is Marguerite Duras’ practice of drinking a glass of wine every hour, or Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary breakfast routine replete with liquor and cocaine, it is important to remember the escapism, the pain of addiction that plagued many of these writers. Few readers like to remember the psych-ward convulsions, the overdoses, the broken families and domestic abuse; even fewer like to learn about how these writers get sober. However, Leslie Jamison, Bill Clegg and other admired writers have become proof for me that drinking and writing do not need to coexist.