Day 1,917: Not All Rowboats & Accordians

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?

beach boats coast coastal
Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

***

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.

Day 1,917.

 

Day 1,165: Now, where were we?

Well, hi there! It’s been a month since I published this essay, which was also the subject of my last post here. In case you haven’t been following along–because why would you?–it went viral. Really really viral. A blow-by-blow would  be both dull and likely inaccurate, but suffice to say that after literally thousands of emails from readers, writers, agents, editors, men who live in basements, and people I knew in kindergarten, when Neko Case tweeted praise I thought ‘okay, this has reached maximum awesomeness and maximum weirdness in one tweet.’

Famous last words. The next day brought a takedown from Slate, which I learned about when a friend texted me saying “When Slate hates you, you know you’re doing something right.” (For the record, not the greatest way to let someone totally new to celebrity know that a major media outlet is complaining about her. You’ve gotta ease into it, people!) Time and the New York Post took vaguely off-topic swipes too, and I’m currently showing up in people’s Google news feeds right on top of Donald Trump’s head, which frankly is closer than I really ever wanted to get.

So it’s been a wild ride, and maybe someday I’ll have more to say about the totality of it. But since this is a blog about being sober, what I want to share today are some ways the experience impacted me as a sober person. Because I’ve been paying attention and there are parallels all over the place, and maybe some of them will be useful to you in your own wacky life:

  1. Doing the next right thing works. When I got a Facebook message saying “Have you seen Time magazine?” I was already overwhelmed and in the middle of a stressful workday. Sure, there’s no such thing as bad press, but there are bad moments for hearing about your bad press, particularly when you have been a public figure for all of five seconds. I scanned the Time article (not really all that bad, more clueless than anything else), then sat at my desk frozen, wondering how I was supposed to function in a meeting in 12 minutes with my entire world continuing to turn itself inside-out.

    Then, thank God, a voice inside said you have 12 minutes. Use them. And I lammed it out of my office building and spent those 12 minutes walking around the block. Not thinking, not trying to be any certain way, just walking alone in the sun. And just that simple act of moving my body calmed me down enough that I made it to my 2:30 meeting merely wildly distracted, not wildly distracted, panicked, and goggle-eyed. (Baby steps, okay?) That’s just one instance of how zeroing in on just one small, immediate action has helped to keep me as grounded as I can reasonably expect to be while things swirl around me.

  2. What other people think of me is none of my business. Here’s a partial catalog of words I’ve been called since “Enjoli” published: hero, genius, star, dry drunk, liar, bitter, truth-teller, bitch, rich bitch, whiner, sage, smug, stunning, slut, judgmental, blind, man-hater, woman-hater, jealous, friendless, wonderful, astonishing, mean, brilliant, brave, goddess, victim, warrior, cunt.

    Yep. At every turn, someone is describing me–not just the 10-page artifact I published, but ME–and it’s rarely in middle-of-the-road terms like competent writer or thoughtful person or a little bit bitchy. It’s all drama and superlatives, because my essay inspired strong feelings, and those strong feelings want a person to attach themselves to. But it’s hard to be the host for all those qualities, especially the ones that confirm things I secretly already fear about myself. So you know which ones I’m accepting as truth?

    None of them. I’m rejecting all of them as applied to me, the person. If they apply to anyone, it’s to the consciously wrought version of me who narrates my equally consciously wrought essay (just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s a diary). And people can call that chick whatever they want, because the writer doesn’t control what happens between reader and text. (Much as she might like to.) Just like when I quit drinking, I have to define myself for myself, or the center’s not going to hold. (Not to mention that for a writer, praise can be as deadly as criticism.) So much as I would love to walk around thinking what a brave, talented, truth-telling goddess I must be…gonna let all those kind words drift gently back to my work where they belong.

  3. People are (mostly) wonderful, and stories save lives. I’ve received thousands of emails and other messages this month. I’ve now mostly weaned myself from reading them, because it’s just too much for an empath like me to carry around. But I’m walking away with more faith in human beings than I’ve had in decades. Because I’ve heard from men and women; the 30-years sober, the 2-days sober, normal drinkers, alcoholic drinkers, non-alcoholics who just don’t drink anymore; Mormons and Muslims and the alcohol-allergic and other lifetime teetotalers; male and female tech workers; women who fled tech in horror; Indians and Scots and Aussies (lots of Aussies) and Italians; fathers of daughters; drunk-driving widows; bartenders, and on and on. (And yes, including a handful of truly loathsome, abusive human beings.) And their stories, in aggregate and alone, are amazing–as is their generosity in sharing them with a total stranger. I feel more a part of the human community having read these stories.

    And it’s cemented my belief that if you can, you should consider recovering out loud. Emphasis on consider. I don’t know your life circumstances, or what you’re up for emotionally, or how people around you will react. What I do know is that there are TONS of us out there, but a lot of us feel alone and/or ashamed. And odds are good that whatever part of your own story you can tell–anonymously, even–will be heard by someone who needed it. Just something to think about. 

  4. Slow things down. I learned pretty early in sobriety that frantic activity and FOMO are routes to misery. Uh, and then apparently at some point I forgot, because I’ve been panicked at times this month with the quantity and quality of professional opportunities that have landed in my lap. I have more interesting, fun options than anyone (certainly anyone with a day job) can take advantage of and stay sane–and that scares me to death, because deep down I’m also convinced that the friendly person behind each of those opportunities is one “no” or “yes, but later” from saying “well, fuck her” and writing me off for life. It took a close friend saying “Look, these aren’t aunts and uncles you have to write your thank-you notes to–they’ll be around when you’re ready” to make me remember it’s okay to think strategically, and choose carefully, and all that other stuff people do when they believe in their own worth and aren’t just, you know, saying yes to the first boy who asked them to prom.
  5. Binary thinking kills. When I was drinking, everything was black/white. Either I had a catastrophic alcohol issue, or no problem at all. Either I could drink to relax, or I’d be tense forever. Either I was the niftiest person alive, or the worst. Sound familiar? I still struggle with binary thought patterns, but at least I often recognize them now. And here’s some stuff I’ve read or heard in response to my essay:
  • She thinks sobriety is the only way to live an authentic life.
  • Anyone who has an issue with this essay is probably an alcoholic in denial.
  • She’s blaming men for all her own problems.
  • She raises some good issues, but fails to provide the solution, so fuck it.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who have a tough time at work.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who struggle with alcohol.
  • She acts like women are the only ones who feel stress.
  • Any man who doesn’t like this essay is probably a misogynist.
  • If she was a real feminist she wouldn’t judge women who drink. Feminists support other women no matter what.
  • Women who say they only drink socially are lying to themselves.
  • She must really hate fun.

    People! All of us! We must stop. Life is in the gray areas. I know this. You know this. Let’s live like we know this. We will all be saner and kinder and happier. Even the assholes.

To be continued. (Maybe. 😉 )