Last week I was seated at a dinner next to a woman who’s writing a recovery memoir. When she found out I’m a published memoirist, she had questions about how I’d structured my book to make publishers like it. “Did you put the message of yours up front?” she asked. “Or tell the story first and deliver the message at the end?” I explained that my book is pure memoir, vs self-help or memoir with an advocacy point of view–that it doesn’t really have a message per se.
She looked at me like I was crazy. “So what was your purpose for writing it?”
“Well, I just find sobriety really interesting,” I said. “And I wanted to see if I could sort of crystallize little bits and pieces of what it’s like.”
“Okay, but where did you put your summary? How did you outline your main points?”
I felt like an art-school dickhead, but I also felt like she was acting sort of mad at me for no reason, so I told her the truth: “I wrote it like I was holding a prism that I just kept tilting this way and that.” She all but scowled at that, so I gave it one last shot: “I think you should just write your story and let the structure emerge from what you actually have to say. Just get it all out in a big pile, and then see where the patterns are, and you’ll start to find some kind of shape. It sucks, but it’s really the only way I know how to write. I make a huge mess and I despair over it and then I fix it.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Okay,” she said, and turned to the woman on her left.
Yesterday I was sitting in the sun at Fuel, talking to a woman who is writing a profile of me. Toward the end of our conversation, she asked if I consider Nothing Good Can Come from This a feminist book. Yes, I told her, absolutely. But not just because of its explicitly feminist content. “It’s feminist because it’s my story,” I said. I told her I’d just come back from a sober women’s conference where words like phoenix and goddess and warrior were in the atmosphere. Which is fine, I guess. Conventional recovery wisdom, written by and for men, suggests that the newly sober need to be humbled, but from what I’ve observed, what newly sober women (and surely not only women!) often need is to be built up, not broken down. You could do a whole lot worse than to go from hating yourself to feeling like a phoenix.
That said, triumphant archetypes leave me cold; they feel dehumanizing in the most complimentary way. When I think of a phoenix warrior goddess I picture Robin Wright in Wonder Woman, and it’s a gorgeous image. But even Robin Wright isn’t Robin Wright in Wonder Woman. She probably spent months in a gym, in lycra or sweats, mock-swordfighting with a hired coach. Getting comfortable on horseback somewhere in Los Angeles. And that’s actually the more interesting story to me.
So I told the woman who was interviewing me that I’d written the ordinariness and the small details of my story as a feminist act. My flaws, too, and my considerable privilege. I wanted to get myself down on the page as a human, because I don’t think the world wants me, or any woman, to be just a human being. I have trouble allowing myself to be just a human being.
So in writing the 220 pages of NGCCFT, I made myself practice just being human. I could feel when I was begging to be loved, or trying to reassure the reader of my harmlessness, and when I felt myself writing that way I tried to stop. Mostly because writing meant to ingratiate tends to be bad, dishonest writing, but also because the biggest fuck-you to the patriarchy I can think of is to refuse to make myself easy for it to digest.
I also did it because the recovery community needs new stories. In literature and pop culture, there are a few master addiction narratives: the near-death experience, the jailhouse conversion, the sudden spiritual awakening, etc. But we’re missing the smaller, more ordinary stories. Here’s a question for readers in recovery: how often in your drinking days did you think “Oh, I must not have a real problem, because I’ve never a) lost a job, b) been arrested, c) woken up in a mysterious rowboat in the port of Marseilles with an accordion I did not remember purchasing.” What if you’d understood sooner that the word “problem” was for you to define, and that it could be as non-dramatic as a sense that your life was contracting instead of expanding?
So you know what I think you should do? Write your story. YOUR story. Not your story grafted onto a master narrative. Just write exactly what happened, and what you said, and how you felt. Get yourself a copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and do what it says. Keep your hand moving. Keep it raw and close to the five senses. I don’t care where you put the message, because I don’t know that you even need to have one, unless it arises naturally for you. Try to forget all the recovery stories you’ve heard or read, including mine, and just get your ordinary, detailed truth down on paper. Let yourself be surprised by what comes up. Don’t package yourself.
And then–if you can–find a way to share what you wrote with someone else. When I was eighteen, I used summer-job money to fly to a Zen monastery in Asheville, North Carolina and take a weekend workshop with Natalie Goldberg. (I wish to god the whole thing had been filmed, because I thought of myself as a pretty sophisticated teenager, but the whole hippie-monastery-with-crew-cut-lesbians-and-yoga scene had my eyes popping and I suspect it was pretty funny to everyone around me.) We’d sit in a circle and write for ten minutes, and then people could volunteer to read aloud whatever raw, messy stuff they’d produced. There was no critique, and very little reaction from others at all–I think the rule was that if you found a line or image really striking, you could say so. Otherwise we moved on to the next volunteer.
There were professional writers in the group who probably used some of what they produced that weekend as the start of more formal work, and others who were just there to free-write. But in the circle, it didn’t matter. We were all just people sharing our raw, unpackaged words. You could start a group like that for recovering people in your town. Or you could decide to be a little more polished and blog your experience (anonymously, if you want–this blog was anonymous for the first six months). You could take a writing class and mine your recovery as a topic. Or yeah, you could jump right in and write a book. The format doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to tell your story, yours, and let it be as weird or messy as your addiction was. And as your recovery is, or will be.
25 thoughts on “Day 1,917: Not All Rowboats & Accordians”
okay, I love this so much. I’m taking a class on memoir and I read some of my writing for the first time last week. I’m pretty sure I’m younger than most of the people in the class, and I could tell they really didn’t get it. And I agree – I’ve read a lot of memoirs in the last year or so and I’m a bit burned out on exactly what you described – the phoenix rising sort of thing. So thank you.
I forgot all about Natalie’s book! Back in my songwriting days it was my bible. Then I stopped writing. Then I stopped playing and singing, but the all neighborhod bartenders knew my name. And I never had a problem because I didn’t drink vodka out of the bottle or get a DUI, but Good Lord, did my world get small. Today is Day 24. Not coincidentally, started after I read your book. Thank you for helping me open up my world.
I had forgotten all about her book too! Happy day 24 plus…about two weeks? Keep it up and your world will keep getting bigger, I can virtually promise. xo
Loved your book. Love your writing. And so you know, to me it totally felt like a prism.
Thank you! And I’m glad the prism thing isn’t all in my head. 🙂
Thanks for this! It reminded me to keep writing, so I went and I wrote 🙂
would this be the right time to tell you that you’re on day 1,931 today? 🙂 love, your sober penpal.
LOL! I definitely trust your count above my own, too. Thanks for letting me know I’m EVEN MORE SOBER than I thought. 😉
As a feminist recovering older woman
I have gratitude for your unapologetic honesty about your own journey of discovery. I have always wanted to write but avoided the plunge because I have feared my writing would be too much memoir and who cares about me?
You have the gift of being painfully honest without being maudlin and self indulgent. Your writing causes me to often say ” That is me! I get it!” So I am realizing that memoir, writ your way, is anything but self indulgent and truly does portray your humanness . My recovery is almost too private. With friends I refer to it in passing as though I just tried a new haircut. I devour your insights and am on the way to my local book store to pick up your book.
Thank you for the sentence about male driven recovery models falling short. After a year of flagellation in the rooms, I have taken a break from that model. The demands and expectations of the rooms are patriarchal and presume there is a Lois holding everything up behind the scenes. What if you are both Bill W and Lois for your family.
There’s a book called (I think) A Woman’s Path Through the 12 Steps that sort of looks at the AA model through a modern/feminist lens, keeping what’s useful but tweaking where necessary to accommodate for the fact that women have really different experiences in the world than men do. You might find it interesting!
Thank you for the solid advice. I’m buying your book today!
This piece makes me want to write until my hand is raw. Just me, my memories and my now.
Thank you Kristi.
How do You get beyond the fear to do it? How do you deal with the result of being vulnerable and sharing intimate details?
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You do it by taking baby steps. For instance, this blog was anonymous for at least 6 months. And then I introduced myself, but people still had to find the blog first–I wasn’t pulling readers in. And then I published a post on Facebook for the first time…and so on, and so on. Teeny tiny steps as you feel comfortable. What I have found is that 95% of the time, even what I think are my weirdest, most shameful secrets turn out to be almost *common.* The vulnerability is real, though, and once you’ve put something into the world it’s out of your control. But even that is (usually!) worth it. All in your own time, though.
I listened to you reading your memoir on Audible and felt as if I’d been on a journey to new places, so thank you for that. For getting it down, and for giving it to the world – a world that needs it, as it needs all our stories.
The immediacy of writing a blog has been hugely helpful to me. Some of the posts I wrote in the early days felt as if I were carving out my own heart, laying it at the feet of the Internet, and walking away. I couldn’t recreate that intensity now, I think, so I’m glad I have a record of them now, even just for my own sake.
Great to read you, as ever – whichever day you are on – that made me laugh as I never remember either! I stick to months – I can count those on my fingers!
It’s funny–I never *planned* to title entries by day count forever. I don’t think in terms of day count anymore (and per Belle’s note above, that’s probably a good thing because I’m often wrong anyway!). But at some point a reader commented that he loved the specificity of it and I thought ‘well, I guess it’s sort of a trademark by now.’ Sometimes it seems like a giant pile of days and sometimes I think ‘that’s all?’
So I’m off to order your book! Very funny coincidence — I could sober at that retreat center in Asheville. The Art of Living Retreat Center. I sent myself on a one week detox and just wrote and had massages, basically. And I’m writing it about it now. Thanks for the inspiration!
Oh, that is a great coincidence! I wish I could remember what the place was called when I was there. Later on, my uncle became a Buddhist monk and lived there for several years before moving to upstate NY.
I actually meant to say Boone, NC. I get them mixed up as a relative newcomer to this part of the state. I went to The Art of Living Retreat Center. It’s a great place for yoga/empowerment workshops. If you’re ever considering doing something there, I’d love to attend. 😀
The problem with the rowboat accordion analogy is it almost makes blackouts sound appealing. No, never mind. I’d rather remember buying that sweet accordion.
I bought your book because a sober woman whom I follow on Instagram was reading it in her book club. Then I carried it around in my purse for a week. Yesterday, I read it in two sittings. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing what you did about wanting to want to quit, but realizing that instead, you could just do something you didn’t want to do. THANK YOU. That makes sense. THAT I can do. And I am also writing my story. My therapist recommended this about 5 years ago but I was too busy [drunk] to do so. Thank you…a lot.
Thank YOU for telling me. And yes, write your story! I can almost promise you’ll come to understand parts of it in a new way. xo
I adore you so much. You are so smart and such a compelling and gifted writer and yet you’re not snobby about it and I always feel so encouraged to keep going with both my writing and my sobriety whenever I read anything you write-even the lipstick related fb posts;)
So: thank you. Sincerely.
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What do you think about healing powers of recovery/addiction centers? Everyone is on their own journey, and I am thinking of trying one out. Writing and reading seems to help, but some sort of cleansing action seems like the next step for me. Wondering if you have any experience or know anyone who has experience with a recovery/addiction center. I am in California! If anyone here has some suggestions, please let me know.