My whole life, I wanted to be a writer. At eight years old, I had asked Santa Clause for a typewriter. At twelve, I turned my backyard treehouse into a writing studio and propped that well-used typewriter atop an overturned milk crate. I’d kneel in front of the machine for hours and, afterward, I’d mail short stories to magazines or submit poems to local contests, some of which were successful.
I was proud of the smaller pieces I wrote, but, even as a child, I also knew they were just practice. Someday I would write books, I told myself. Adulthood, for me, would be achieved not when I got married or had babies or bought a house, but when I had finished a novel. I’d dream these things as I wrote in that rundown treehouse and, when I closed my eyes, I didn’t see the spiderwebs or rotting wood. I imagined the space like a dark, warm, polished-mahogany cave; a pub, I realize, thinking back. Even on the cusp of adolescence, I was imagining an environment in which condensation rolled down amber pints and ringed manuscript pages, a place where the whisper of lead scratching moleskin-covered journals competed with bar song. Why was this idea already in my head? I don’t know, but Hemingway probably had something to do with it.
In adulthood, I was both a bit of a fuck-up and a person who wrote well, and I had made a bit of a life out of both things. I chased an English degree until an unexpected pregnancy ended my academic career, and then wrote about the experience, won a writing contest, and that essay became my first professional piece of writing. I set up a new writer’s studio in my basement, and this time it included a dry bar. After the kids went to bed, I’d drink and write and drink and write and drink until I couldn’t write anymore and then I’d just drink.
By thirty years old, I had a drinking problem but no novel. Like my younger-self’s prediction, I had all the trappings of adulthood but was nowhere near grown.
The Literary Drunk’s branding being as strong as it is, my problem became a paradox of belief: To become a real writer, I needed to write a novel. To write a novel, I needed to stop drinking. But without drink — that liquid I believed gave me the wild, gritty, edgy sophistication “real writers” had — I didn’t feel like much of a “real writer” at all.
To write a novel, I needed to stop drinking. But without drink, I didn’t feel like much of a real writer at all.
Of course, if a person has to choose between the two, it’s better to be alive than to be a writer. It’s better to protect one’s health than sacrifice it for success. And it’s better to have loving relationships than literary recognition. When I knew I had to stop drinking, I realized I needed to release any titles or aspirations I associated with drinking, and that included “tortured genius.” So, I stopped writing. I even sold my technical writing business, and I took up the sole task of becoming well.
For me, “well” meant waking up so early each morning that I had to go to sleep early each evening. Starting my day at four in the morning meant ending it at nine at night, which didn’t leave a lot of time to fall into old habits after the kids went to sleep. I spent those early morning hours in meditation, practicing yoga, and free-conscious journaling. Sometimes, I went for a run. In the daytime, I cleaned the house; I purged pantries and cupboards, organized the crawlspace, prepared freezer meals for days when I knew life would not leave me with much time to cook. I took naps, walked the dog, and listened to a lot of recovery podcasts. I was adrift, but teaching myself to swim. Money was tight — it was the first time in my life I wasn’t making any — but life seemed laser-focused: I needed to come back to me.
That period of deep healing went on for two raw, beautiful months. Then, in January 2016, I learned I had been approved for a generous creative writing grant that I’d all but forgotten even applying for. Here was a new option: I could take up the mantle of “real writer” again, produce a book, and be paid close to what was my usual yearly salary. But with this opportunity came a new risk: Could I maintain my sobriety while under deadline? I decided I could. But then again, could I even write while sober? Failure to produce the book would result in having to pay back the funds.
Could I maintain my sobriety while under deadline? I decided I could. But then again, could I even write while sober?
I took the leap. I decided to throw any confidence I still had behind my belief that I could be more than one thing at one time. I could be sober and a writer. I could be healing and creating, all at once.
I continued to spend my evenings resting and my mornings in mindful practice, but devoted daytime hours — all but my midday walks — to the page. At first, I approached it with hesitance, afraid my mind would feel blocked, creativity stifled by the hard rules associated with the boundaries I was now placing around my new lifestyle. But soon I found words flowed out of me. Mind and body clear, I could write for hours and, better still, with consistency —– no interruption of shame or fear or hangover. I could return to the same goal day after day and week after week, sometimes reaching flow states so all-encompassing I’d need to break them with a run around neighborhood trails, my whole body humming with energy. The work was good, and the energy necessary to create became predictable, meeting me at my desk almost every morning.
I realized then I had discovered a truer truth: Writers don’t drink, writers write. And, maybe, writers in recovery write even better. Here’s why:
1. You feel it all.
When your choice of numbing agent is no longer available, your emotional skin is baby-soft. This might seem difficult — and it is — but it’s also an opportunity. When you feel things, you notice things. Those things are called inspiration.
2. You have something to say.
No one comes to recovery without a story. That means you know things. It also means you’re familiar with the typical character arch that all stories need; you realize there’s nothing worth reading about if it doesn’t include change. People who find a way to tell this story, to show this change, in their own particular, unique medium, are people making art.
3. You have more hours in the day.
As a professional artist, about every third person who learns what I do for a living tells me how they would do it too, if only they had time. It’s annoying that they assume that somehow my days have more hours than theirs. Just kidding! My days do have more hours than most people.
When I was drinking, I’d usually sacrifice about three hours every evening, and about two more every morning to catch up on the night’s disturbed sleep. Now, booze-free, I can write late until bedtime if I want to and, after sleeping soundly each night, I start most days at my desk at five in the morning. That means I have about five additional hours every day to create — 35 hours a week!
4. You’ll be more consistent with those extra hours.
Spontaneity might work for some artists, but in my experience, the muse is impressed more by discipline than lip service. Abandoning a thing you have little control over — like alcohol, in my case — means it’s not liable to pop up and catch you off-guard with a surprise hang-over. Being able to count on the fact that you’ll own every sunrise makes it easy to fall into a creative routine. Through consistent practice, you learn, thrive, and strengthen, and your art quickly responds.
5. You can connect deeper with your audience.
Artists must be empathetic. If what you’re creating doesn’t touch another human being in a deep, relatable way… then what’s the point? Art holds a mirror up to the world and it should reflect the truth. People in recovery know this mirror. We aren’t scared of it — the work of gazing into it is work we perform daily.
Acknowledging the wholeness of ourselves, good and bad, contributes an element of compassion to our work that is also experienced by one’s audience.
6. You’ll probably have more years in your life, too.
One of the most amazing things about art is that the artist only becomes more skilled with age. Because the no-longer-killing-oneself-with-alcohol artist will probably live longer than previously expected, they’ll have the opportunity to create more things! This one’s a little self-explanatory.
In the end, I didn’t have to pay the grant back. By the end of the contract terms, I had completed my book. My debut novel, Always Brave, Sometimes Kind — the book I wrote in that first fraught year of sobriety — comes into the world this very month. I’m not just a “real writer” now, but also a published author, and one who’s currently writing her second book, managing a new technical writing business, teaching creativity workshops for libraries and schools, and ghostwriting someone else’s memoir.
But better yet — and always best of all -—I’m also two months shy of celebrating four years alcohol-free. Every day, I feel a little closer to the real me. And that “real me” includes “real writer” — with a pen, sans the bottle.