Early sobriety was ruthless. I transcribed it in order to survive it. Those winter days after I first quit drinking were spent working at a small bakery, rolling out sugar-cookie snowflakes. I took long drives on the highway across the river—this was in Iowa City, in 2010—past dead cornfields and strip malls. Being in motion, any kind of motion, was better than staying in one place. Sobriety had taken away my horizon of relief at the end of each day—the merciful blunting and cloaking and softening of booze, that plush forgiveness. This felt like waking up in the middle of a surgery during which I’d been promised unconsciousness.
In truth, I’d been promised nothing, and it wasn’t as dramatic as all that. My life wasn’t full of blades or deathbeds. It held more mundane sources of discomfort: a relationship saturated by tension and arguments, and a hopeless fear that perhaps nothing else would ever make me feel as good as booze had once felt.
I started writing about sobriety not because mine seemed remarkable, but because it didn’t. It was full of strip malls and snowdrifts and endless rows of withered cornstalks, raw cookies and burnt cookies and more cookies on the production list. I needed to believe that inside of these ordinary things dwelled some kind of meaning that matched how powerful the experience of sobriety felt. It was a state of ongoing attention. I wanted to turn that attention into something enchanting. At first, it was a species of magical thinking, a spoiled child’s bargaining with the world: I wanted sobriety to give me back something beautiful, to compensate for the relief I was learning to live without.
Writing sober didn’t come easily at first. I was living in the same place where I’d learned to drink. It was where I’d fallen in love with the mythology of the tortured alcoholic genius, excavating brilliance from his crisis. Now I spent evenings with my laptop in too-bright coffee shops, perched at windows facing the bars where I’d once gotten drunk, and willed the words to come—to prove that sobriety was going to show me a voice, and a way to save my relationship, that I couldn’t have otherwise found.
When Dave and I moved back to New Haven, where we were both doctoral students in literature, I understood our move as a new beginning for our relationship and for my writing. Smuggled inside the Trojan horse of my doctoral dissertation, I was going to ask the world a question: What does sober creativity look like? I was going to let the archives answer.
The first archive was a disappointment. Charles Jackson was famous for his novel about alcoholic dysfunction—The Lost Weekend, about a single extended bender—but I’d grown excited when I learned that he’d been working on a sequel about sobriety during his on-again off-again bouts of recovery. His papers were at Dartmouth, and they had a gloriously disorganized feel—as if I were actually shuffling through old boxes in his attic. His drinking was curiously absent from his letters, but it was everywhere in his wife’s. Rhoda wrote about his obsession with success, the tentative camaraderie he found in AA fellowship, and the crippling frustration of his relapses.
I found a letter where he wrote about finding creative inspiration in recovery, describing—in not exactly humble terms—the epic novel he was working on, which he’d hilariously titled, simply, What Happened: “it’s far & away the best thing I’ve done, simpler, more honest, and, for the first time, out of myself—that is, not self-tortured or -absorbed or -eviscerated. No, it’s about people—life, if I may say so. . . . My stopping-drinking and my enormous interest in AA, if you’ll pardon the expression, have a lot to do with this new attitude—well, everything to do with it, I think.”
But the manuscript itself—just a loose pile of pages in a box—was tedious, tired, repetitive, and meandering. It lacked urgency. The manuscript bore out some of my worst fears about sobriety: that it was destined to force you into a state of plotless abstraction, a string of empty evenings, a life lit by the sallow fluorescence of church basement bromides rather than the glow of dive-bar neon signs. His pages lacked the heat and sizzle of catastrophe. They lacked the heat and sizzle, even, of events. It was unclear what was happening, or if anything was happening. The prose was hopelessly abstract:
What life means, it came to him (or he seemed to overhear it), it means all the time, not just at isolated dramatic moments that never happened. If life means anything at all, it means whatever it means every hour, every minute, through any episode big or small, if only one has the awareness to sense it . . . each step, the dramatic and the humdrum alike—every fleeting second of the way.
The thing was, I agreed. I’d come to believe that life happened every hour, every minute; that it wasn’t made of dramatic climaxes so much as quiet effort and continuous presence. But I could also see how Jackson’s desperate desire to deploy his recovery wisdom had crippled his story; how he had followed his bromides away from the surges of energy—the peaks and valleys of sculpted experience—that lend urgency to narrative itself.
Dave had come with me to New Hampshire, and we were renting an attic room in a house in the woods, with chickens in the yard and a Finnish wood-burning stove heating the living room. It felt cozy. The lesbian women who lived there seemed, after years of partnership, both unsentimental and tender with each other. Dave and I, on the other hand, were falling apart. Sobriety wasn’t saving us as I’d hoped it would. The whole trip felt suffused with the taut energy of an attempt to find luminosity in things that refused to yield much glow: our relationship, Charles Jackson’s unpublished manuscript, even the terrible undergraduate production of Angels in America we attended, which looked like a bunch of schoolkids prancing around in fake beards. It made me feel old.
I spent four years visiting the archives of writers who had gotten drunk and, sometimes, tried to get sober, and—less frequently—had actually gotten there, though it was less of a destination and more of a process of constant becoming.
Paging through John Berryman’s papers in Minneapolis, I found his earnest twelve-step work on yellowed paper, and also his frustrated laments that all this twelve-step work hadn’t done him any good. It hadn’t kept him from relapsing over and over again. “So screw that first step,” he wrote on a slip of paper. “This is only a short true account of my present thinking on the subject.” But even after he wrote screw that, he turned over the slip and scribbled a message to himself on the back: “As you comb yr hair + beard in the morning, say to the mirror: ‘Berryman . . . God is interested in you, and conscious of yr struggle + yr services. Good luck,’” He kept trying to urge himself from crisis to purpose: yr struggle + yr services. His inventories kept circling back to the same futilities and frustrations: “Do I feel I’m unstoppable? (Y) Do I ever ‘go on the wagon’ to prove I can quit? (Y).” He didn’t even mark Y or N for “Do I ever get drunk?”—as if it were a question too obvious to bear answering. His whole life had already answered it.
In his archives, I tracked him wrestling with the “delusion that [his] art depended on his drinking,” before getting an Uber back to my hotel with a driver who’d recently gotten sober but was struggling to reconnect with his passion for writing Christian rap music. Berryman had wrestled, and the rest of the world was still wrestling.
At Jean Rhys’s archives in Tulsa, I read notes from one of her last caregivers about the endless battle to limit her daily drinking—how she put more ice cubes in Rhys’s tumbler, so it would have less room for booze—and I listened to a recording of Rhys’s scratchy voice singing the creole songs of her Dominican youth.
At David Foster Wallace’s archives in Austin, I stumbled across notes he’d written in the margins of his books about sobriety; beside a passage about how it can seem like alcohol glues together all your broken pieces, he’d written simply, How I feel. How could I possibly express how much it moved me, the simplicity and candor of that response? It made me feel impossibly close to the version of him that had felt this sentiment, and carefully recorded it. Even if that proximity was a projection, it was a projection in keeping with the structure of recovery itself: hearing yourself in others, and feeling consoled by that resonance. The archives were riddled with secret tunnels delivering me back into the lives of strangers who seemed to know me better than I knew myself.
The archives offered only partial glimpses, I knew: the specter of a hand stubbing out a cigarette, trying to commit himself to inventories that might save him from his own thirst; or the nostalgic voice of a woman whose heart had been able to hold so much pain and so much beauty, but who had still kept coming back to the booze anyway, unable to believe in a life without it. But these partial glimpses brought me close to the dead in particular moments—of song, of hope, of faith and frustration—and the smudged ink and off-key notes only deepened the visceral impact of their yearning. “In this class, we worship at the altar of narrative specificity,” one of my writing students had once said, and it was true that I believed in illuminating the particular grain of a scene or a life as the single best way to excavate and articulate its larger meanings. The personal inventory carried more significance when you saw its burned paper and its messy handwriting; the detail about the ice cubes said more about desperation than the word “desperation” ever could. If specificity had always been one of the cornerstones of my aesthetic, then the archives flooded me not only with the specifics of these distant lives but with the truth of desire itself, writ large in these tiny details. The sensation of feeling flooded also fed an ancient hunger—to dissolve into emotion, to collapse into intensity, my own or borrowed.
At one point during the course of my research, I was on a panel with two other authors and the moderator asked us what we first thought of when we heard the word “surrender.” I answered, “archives.” I joked that I was so obsessed with archives that no matter what word you gave me, they would be the first thing I thought of in response. But I also insisted they were connected to the notion of surrender in powerful ways: I loved feeling surprised and thwarted by them, feeling subject to them. They disrupted my preexisting ideas and narratives with their refusal to confirm simple thesis statements about sorrow or redemption.
But it was a lie to say I’d thought of archives first. Surrender made me think of drinking first. It always would.
The more time I spent researching, the more convinced I became that the only version of my project I believed in was one that also confessed what had motivated all this research: the drinking and the quitting; all that terror and hope. It would bring together personal narrative, and literary criticism, and biographical research, and cultural history, and it would somehow do all this without coming apart at the seams. It was simultaneously liberating and terrifying to imagine a book that would confess all the baggage I’d brought to those archives—how much desire and history and hunger I was bringing to these other lives—rather than dissolving that baggage into the margins of an academic text. I imagined the personal narrative in the book as an inventory of all my psychic stowaways.
All told, The Recovering took eight years to write. But so much changed for me during that period that it started to feel like I’d begun the book inside one life and was trying to finish it inside another one. After the end of my relationship with Dave, I moved from New Haven to Brooklyn and published a collection of essays that did about a thousand times better than anyone expected it would, which meant that—quite suddenly, nearly overnight—a bulky hybrid book about addiction that would have been unsellable found itself at the center of a publishing auction.
Just about the time I was trying to pivot from endless research to actually writing the thing, I fell in love with a widower and moved into a one-bedroom apartment with him and his five-year-old daughter. They had a cat and several dollhouses and a roach problem and not one single inch of free floor space, and so I lived out of a suitcase propped against the toy shelves whenever I wasn’t flying somewhere to talk about how I still didn’t understand empathy despite having ostensibly written an entire book about it. We had only one desk and it belonged to the five-year-old. In those days, I was watching a lot of My Little Pony and trying to get better at pinning buns before ballet lessons and also teaching two adjunct classes, one in another state. You could say I was learning more about what sobriety could hold, but I certainly wasn’t getting much writing done.
I envisioned my book as an anti-memoir in which my own story was just one story among many. Though it was also true I didn’t have any idea how to make a book that looked like this. And even if I had, I couldn’t have imagined how that making would happen inside the life I was living. But I believed in a certain glimmering possibility: an echo chamber that could enact the structure of an AA meeting—its chorus of stories—and also perhaps (just to be humble about it) the sensation of being alive. Or at least, how I wanted to be alive: understanding my story in relation to other stories, my voice in relation to other voices.
This all sounded great in my head. But it was easier said than done. It felt like juggling twenty bowling pins at once. It was like juggling twenty bowling pins at once. It was impossible to outline. I kept gathering more and more material, in order to defer the task of arranging it. But the more material I had, the more impossible it felt to arrange.
Five years into this endless, self-perpetuating research, I had a monthlong residency in Marfa, a small ranch town in the West Texas desert that had become a minimalist art mecca. An arts organization was giving me a free house—and a free electric car!—for four weeks. I knew that if I was ever going to start writing, it was going to be there. It was more concentrated time packed into a month than I’d had in the last two years. No school lunches to pack, no after-school pickup, no student essays to grade—just a room of my own, and an actual desk, and the big desert sky outside. I told everyone I couldn’t wait to get started writing, but in truth I was terrified. It felt like I’d been saying, too loudly, If only I had more TIME, and now the universe had finally called my bluff. I had been gathering material for years as a way to delay this reckoning: in Marfa, I’d have to figure out how to actually write this thing, how to structure all this material I’d been gathering.
When I showed up, I made a grocery store run for saltines and lunch meat and copious amounts of Topo Chico mineral water, and then stared at my computer screen for two days until I finally turned my gaze to the floor. So much space! This was what gave me the idea: I’d make myself a map. So I took a stack of blank white sheets of paper and wrote down all the stories I wanted to tell, from my own life and the lives of others, and began to arrange these pieces of paper on the hardwood in a way that would hopefully comprise a continuous story, one that might illuminate their points of contact: Charles Jackson relapsing after writing his best-selling sobriety novel, Berryman trying to write the story of his recovery before he’d fully lived it, and my own decision to start drinking again after telling everyone in my life that I was an alcoholic.
When I was done, I had spread almost sixty pieces of paper at my feet. They made me feel gathered. They brought back memories of my daily production lists at my bakery job during early sobriety. I was no longer facing the infinitude of the project every time I sat down to write. Now, all I had to do was pick up each piece of paper and follow its instructions. It was not lost on me that I found relief in granting a certain kind of authority to this massive map. I’d built this structure, and now all I had to do was submit to it. It was another kind of surrender.
During that month in Marfa, it was a relief to move back and forth between my life and the lives of strangers. When I got sick of my own remembered loneliness, I turned my gaze toward the drinking habits of an elderly Jean Rhys, who had also been sick of her own loneliness. I was still looking at loneliness, but at least it was a different loneliness than mine. And when I got tired of piecing together the archival records of institutional leisure at the Lexington Narcotic Farm (hundreds of hours of bowling logged in 1939!), I turned back to the particular pulse of my own past, to describe a sober ladies’ night full of board games in an Iowa City subdivision.
It wasn’t that some parts of the book were easier to write than others. They were just hard in different ways. It was like workouts for my high-school cross-country team, how we intentionally taxed different muscles on different days, hurt our bodies in different ways so that they could become stronger. If this alternation between storylines felt like relief to me, I was hoping that it would feel that way to my readers, too; that it meant there was something promising about the varied textures of these modes—history, criticism, memoir—and the ways they could intertwine and diverge at once.
One afternoon I took a break from writing and visited the house that the artist Donald Judd had renovated for himself in town after converting a nearby decommissioned army base into a set of permanent art installations. Often described as a minimalist, Judd didn’t care for the term, though his house was pretty minimalist too—sleek lines, barely furnished. It looked like a shrine to restraint. My first thought was: no kids lived here. But as it turned out, they did. You could even see their two bedrooms, one covered with stickers from the local sports teams.
Judd’s house didn’t exactly give me faith in the possibility of a life that held both the purity of art and the mess of children, but it did challenge the part of me that wanted to call them mutually exclusive, that wanted to say: I live in the shadow of a four-foot gothic dollhouse! I will never write this book! Others had done it. I couldn’t say it was impossible.
There was something about Judd’s minimalism—the sleek house where he’d lived, the simple table he’d eaten upon, the array of gleaming aluminum boxes that constituted his largest permanent installation—that made me feel vaguely scolded. My own work felt decidedly maximalist. This big book that was only getting bigger, its ever-expanding outline on the wooden office floor. Maximalism felt messy and arrogant in contrast to the cool restraint of Judd’s art. But there was something about the maximal structure that I felt deeply committed to: it would ask my readers to engage with story after story, one after another; and it would coax the sustained attention from them that recovery meetings had asked of me. It was a request I’d felt surprisingly, consistently enlarged by.
From the beginning, I’d known the book needed to be full of the voices of strangers, and that these strangers wouldn’t all be famous writers. I wanted some of these voices to belong to ordinary people, like the people I’d met in recovery. What was “ordinary,” anyway? I wanted to question the idea of ordinariness entirely—to insist that every single life was infinite, that it held truths you could find nowhere else and also, in variations, everywhere else.
But where would I find these strangers? I didn’t want to rely on people I’d met through recovery, didn’t want to exploit anyone. I wanted to approach people as a writer instead, with full transparency. Before I could do that, however, a stranger came to me. After I published a column about clichés in the New York Times, I got a letter from a man named Sawyer. He’d loved my defense of clichés, he said, and had himself come to love clichés during his time in recovery. In fact, he’d started a rehab center in a ramshackle old fishing lodge by the Potomac. It was called Seneca House. He wanted to tell me its story, and I wanted to hear it.
I thought, here are my strangers.
Over the course of the next year, I interviewed sober alcoholics who had gone through Seneca House: a woman who had promised her young children that she would get help, looking at them through hair stringy with vomit; a man who had sensed danger the first time he’d smoked crack (too sweet, too sweet, too sweet, he’d thought); a woman who had cruised for booze at night with her kids in the backseat of her car, telling them the letters to look for (L-I-Q-U-O-R) because they couldn’t read.
Interviewing sober alcoholics was gratifying for many of the same reasons it was frustrating: they were already used to narrating their most traumatic and shameful experiences. This meant they were comfortable sharing these experiences in our interviews, but they’d also told these stories many times before. They were almost too comfortable. A dutiful Janet Malcolm acolyte, I was always seeking spaces of discomfort during these talks, ears pricked for signs that a conversation was summoning an awareness my subject hadn’t ever shared before. I was trying to coax from them the same thing I was always trying to coax from myself when I wrote: a version of the story that challenged the version I’d become comfortable with.
In Portland, for example, I spent the better part of a week with a woman named Shirley: going to meetings, chatting in her apartment, and driving around town to see the landmarks of her life. We saw the hospital where she’d been treated for breast cancer, and ate at the Italian restaurant where she’d waited to hear if she was still in remission (and where she’d purposefully ordered the most expensive thing on the menu—lobster pasta—because she refused to act as if her life was on hiatus because of her illness). We drove out to Mount Hood, where as a young girl she’d always dreamed of staying in the Timberline Lodge. She told me that when the dream finally came true, she was in early sobriety and raising two young kids as a single mom; the trip wasn’t exactly how she’d imagined it. But that captured an important truth about her sobriety, or anyone’s: like life, it doesn’t always follow the script you imagined. You find meaning in whatever happens instead.
It was striking to see how much it mattered to be in motion with Shirley, how moving across the landscape—the winding roads and restaurant parking lots—evoked the pieces of her story that lay beyond its well-practiced grooves. Crossing the Burnside Bridge over the Willamette River summoned the memory of a suicide attempt she hadn’t previously mentioned across days of talking and weeks of telephone calls.
Shirley’s apartment was another kind of archive: it held the partially deflated balloons from her most recent sobriety birthdays, drawings from her young granddaughter, a clipping from her daughter’s college newspaper that profiled her daughter’s unique sense of style—which Shirley traced back to how she let her daughter choose her own clothes as a girl, and how that desire to grant her kids more autonomy, in turn, was a product of her sobriety, of letting go of controlling others. I could see a thousand glimmering threads connecting all the ordinary, beautiful pieces of her life.
On my red-eye flight back to New York, I stayed up all night typing notes from the visit. I felt guilty about being away from home; at the same time, I was glad to have gone. More than anything, I was giddy from encountering the infinitude of another life. This thrill was closely, inevitably attended by the daunting pressure of attempting its finite—always, inescapably finite—conjuring on the page.
The book kept getting bigger. It was like it had a disease. The more I wrote, the less complete it seemed. The logic wasn’t unfamiliar: wanting more—more booze, more men, more sentences—and then perpetually feeling that they weren’t enough.
The guiding questions of the book were endless. Or rather, each one had a trapdoor in its floor that revealed more questions beneath. It was easy to call it a book about drinking, but maybe it was really a book about storytelling itself: the idea of telling stories in order to create something beautiful from pain, the idea of telling stories in order to survive your own life. Maybe it was a book about narrative disguised as a book about drinking? Maybe it was a book about ambition disguised as a book about narrative disguised as a book about drinking?
Was the desire to write a book this big simply a sign of my ego? Did it run against the ethos of humility that the book was ostensibly celebrating, that sense of feeling yourself become smaller in a room full of strangers? So much of my drinking had been about numbing the constant siren call of my own ambition. Maybe this was just the path my ambition was taking in sobriety.
In any case, the word count kept creeping up. The book grew to a hundred thousand words, a hundred and twenty thousand words, a hundred and fifty thousand words. I’d always had an aversion to taking up too much space—I’d restricted my eating for years, for just that reason—and maybe this ballooning draft was asking me to push back against that shame. Here I was, taking up space. But I still felt the shame of excess. Writing too much personal narrative felt like drunkenly cornering someone at a party and forcing him to listen to me talk about my feelings for hours.
One afternoon, one of my graduate students asked me, “Why is my story worth telling, anyway?” This was the question they were always asking, even though they also consistently wanted more personal narrative from other students’ essays. This particular student looked out my office window and started pointing at strangers walking the pathways below. “Why is my story more important than his?” she asked, indicating a boy smoking in the courtyard. “Or hers? Or his? Or hers?”
“It’s not,” I said. “You don’t have to pretend it is, in order to write about it.”
I was saying what I believed, and what I needed to believe. My book was my own version of pointing at strangers out the window and saying: his story is just as important as mine. And hers, and hers too.
But when did it end? I hadn’t figured that part out.
It felt impossible—or at least irresponsible—to tell the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid-1930s, for example, without talking about how the War on Drugs was kicking into high gear at exactly the same time. I couldn’t tell the story of our national cognitive dissonance without narrating both parts of the paradox: addiction as disease and addiction as crime.
Also: how could I tell the stories of all these white male literary geniuses without telling the stories of people who hadn’t been white, and hadn’t been men? Being black or white or male or female meant your addiction story got marked as a different genre. It started to feel impossible to tell my own story without exploring the whiteness at its core. It felt important to insist that my story—the story of a nice white girl who drank too much—was not unrelated to the stories of addiction that were told as stories of vice, guilt, monstrosity, or moral failure. Why had I gotten the camaraderie of church basements and phone numbers and lukewarm coffee, while a woman addicted to meth in Arizona had gotten sentenced, in the same year I’d gotten sober, to an infamous tent city, where she eventually died of heatstroke in a desert cage?
I knew the risks of writing a book that tried to bring these stories together: some people would believe I was forcing an absurd equivalence between my pain and hers. Juxtaposition would become conflation. The point, of course, was to illuminate the differences, rather than pretend they didn’t exist. To ask: Why did her dependence go down one road, while mine went down another?
In this way, the structure of the book reflected one of the ethical dilemmas it was trying to explore. How do you examine resonance without forcing conflation? How could the chorus of my book honor what felt beautiful about a meeting—in which people who had lived very different lives might find some common ground—without becoming ridiculously naïve? This dilemma showed up in meetings as well: How much is shared in this space? If it was offensive to overestimate resonance, it was also offensive to minimize it.
I wanted the book’s juxtapositions to force a certain discomfort on its readers. But maybe this was a nobler story I told myself to intellectualize the crude truths of my voyeurism. Maybe I just wanted to include the story of a woman dying in the desert because it was horrifying. Maybe I just wanted to electrify my narrative with the dark power of her unjust death.
As legend has it, the Winchester family mansion is haunted by all the people killed by Winchester rifles, and even its architecture is spooked and strange: narrow staircases leading nowhere, trick doors on creaky hinges at the back of closets, unexpected doorways at the end of dim hallways. When I first read about it, I thought: that’s my book. Not just full of expanding hallways and sudden portals, but haunted, too—by all the folks who hadn’t made it, while I got to drink my coffee and chew my pen caps. My pages swelled with their ghosts.
Meanwhile, the writing happened in an apartment that was not an ever-expanding mansion. It was full of Legos and homework assignments and ham-and-guacamole sandwiches tucked into lunchboxes, which were then retrieved uneaten after they’d been smushed into wedge-like lumps in their plastic baggies. The writing happened during evenings spent washing dishes, and chipping away at inboxes full of student requests, and propping the hot, whirring laptop on my knees so my husband and I could watch the Mother of Dragons take three eggs in a burning funeral pyre and emerge with three fucking dragons!
Which is to say that writing happened in the midst of living. It always does. It happened in little bursts on the subway, notes typed into my phone as I clutched a metal pole during the crush of rush hour. It happened in stolen pockets at airport departure gates, and in hotel rooms in Des Moines, Kalamazoo, Rochester, Boston, Seattle, San Marcos; where I woke up at five in the morning to write for a few hours before teaching a craft class, or hosting a Q and A, or meeting students for lunch, or whatever else I’d been flown out to do. These expansive, exhausting hours buzzed with the darkened predawn cities coming to life beyond the heavy hotel drapery. They tasted like watery Keurig coffee on an empty stomach. These hours felt precious because so many others felt compromised and curtailed, cut short by conferences with my students, after-school pickup deadlines, weekend sleepovers full of feral-eyed six-year-olds rummaging through the cupboards at four a.m., looking for cookies. I kept fantasizing about the version of the book that might have gotten written in another life, one less cluttered with banality and daily obligation. But of course this was the only life I had.
A friend of mine—in his early thirties, like I was, a writer of literary short stories, with no kids and a partner in the art world—told me one afternoon over coffee that he was headed up to his family’s house in Maine for six weeks to spend some “uninterrupted time with his novel.” In the corner of my mind’s eye that might have pictured Maine—porch wood weathered by salt wind, surge of the Atlantic breaking against craggy rocks—I saw instead only a magnified shopping list: sliced turkey (oven-roasted!), Eggo waffles, four-pack of yogurt.
Maine was a delusion, of course. Or what it represented was a delusion: the possibility of art made in an uncluttered world, when all art comes from our cluttered one. Sometimes I would catch myself imagining a cave full of Platonic ideals: the pristine, untouchable version of every book that might’ve been written without any competing obligations. Another part of me knew that these were the inevitable conditions of making. They weren’t compromising the art. They were part of what created it.
Eventually, I had to stop making the book bigger and start making it better. In creating my massive draft, I’d been committed to the idea of a massive edifice—piling large blocks of narrative on top of one another, like testimonies in a meeting, not just risking boredom or excess but actually courting these experiences. In a meeting, it was an ethical commitment—to sit still when you were bored and listen anyway—and it was as if I were asking my readers to do just that for hundreds of pages: to sit still and listen anyway.
But the news from early readers was not good. Periodically, I would check my husband’s copy of my manuscript when he left it around our apartment to see how many pages he’d read since the day before: five, sometimes ten. He was making slow progress. Taking a lot of notes. When my best friend described the second half of the book, she said, “Sometimes it got a bit”—here she paused for a long time—“turgid.” I actually had to look it up in the dictionary (“swollen, distended, congested”), but even before I did, I knew—from her pause, that strained search for the right word—that it wasn’t good.
It took me a while to admit it to myself, but eventually I did: the structure wasn’t working. It made you feel like you were climbing a huge hill. I’d insisted on these huge narrative chunks, imagining that there was something virtuous in asking a reader to trudge through each one, the same way it felt virtuous to sit through every contribution in a meeting. But this wasn’t a meeting. This was a book. It needed momentum. It needed to create some feeling of urgency that might move readers through its pages, rather than simply asking them to wander through its massive gallery of stories.
If this book was refusing to satisfy certain narrative hungers—for resolution, for originality, for a single uninterrupted narrative of personal disclosure, for the compelling train wrecks of dysfunction and disorder—then it needed to do something more than simply leave these hungers unsatisfied. It had to satisfy other hungers that readers didn’t even know they’d had—for choral resonance, for slippage between private and social scales, for ragged arcs of recovery, for stories about getting better that were just as dynamic as stories of falling apart. This narrative logic wasn’t unlike the logic of recovery itself, which had replaced my first understanding of what it would mean to stop drinking—that it would be straight deprivation—and replaced it with another understanding of sobriety, as a kind of unexpected plenitude. Recovery didn’t satisfy the same hungers as drinking, it satisfied deeper ones I hadn’t even known I had: the desire to live inside my own skin without wanting to flee it at every moment, the possibility of finding solace in the voices of strangers.
It became clear I couldn’t just “trim” the draft I had. That verb was just a euphemism my editor was using. I had to rebuild the whole thing—had to take the large stone blocks of its narrative sections and carve them into something shaped by questions; had to burrow into its massive chunks of story and find dark rooms of experience, then illuminate them with inquiry.
I spent an eight-hour train ride to Vermont making an outline of the entire draft and asking myself what questions were at its core. This list of questions became a conceptual manifesto for my gut renovation. They were various: What was I trying to escape when I drank? Why did intimacy always make me feel insecure? What if telling the story of your pain doesn’t offer any relief from it? When and how does self-awareness fail us? Writing out these questions helped me see a way forward. It helped me understand not just that my long sections needed sculpting, but what particular shapes I wanted my sculpting to expose.
In the meantime, as my train rolled through the barn-strewn meadows of Vermont, the man sitting beside me got slowly, quietly drunk on little bottles of whiskey he pulled from his backpack. Eventually, he started crying. He was middle-aged, maybe forty-five or fifty. He told me his grandfather was dying. I was surprised his grandfather was still alive! He gave me his yellowed business card. It said, 3D Association of New York. It held the warmth of his hand. I thought: Every pain is valid. Every human life is infinite.
Is it sentimental to say that every drunk stranger reminded me why I was writing my book in the first place? It’s the truth.
Although I ended up paying a fact-checker thousands of dollars to verify the accuracy of every line, the book’s most important fact-checker was Dave. He read the manuscript not once but twice. It had been four years since the end of our relationship, but sending the manuscript to him was still the most frightening part of writing it. I can still remember where I was sitting when I had my finger poised above the trackpad of my laptop, cursor hovering on my Gmail “send” button, and the pit of my anxiety in my stomach at the thought of him reading this four-hundred-page version of our shared life—the embarrassment and vertigo and resentment and endless pull-and-tug of our forking versions of the truth.
Dave was generous. He was also angry, but part of the nature of his generosity was that his anger didn’t turn his attention—or his intelligence—into something crudely self-serving. He was only ever interested in complexity. That was the grace he offered me.
He returned a version of my manuscript with his comments in the margins: how he remembered a certain night differently, or a dynamic between us; where he couldn’t recognize himself in the pages; where I’d taken one part of him and made it—falsely—the whole.
As I read his comments, I kept thinking about Rhoda Jackson’s letters in Charles Jackson’s archives—how I’d read those letters in a chilly archive at Dartmouth, on a trip that Dave and I had taken together, and how Rhoda had narrated her husband’s drinking in a very different way than he’d narrated it himself. Her side of the story held just as much truth as his, perhaps even more of it.
When I edited my manuscript, I allowed Dave’s voice to complicate my story—to undermine the ways it served my reductive understanding of the truth—and I allowed his character to become more robust and contradictory on the page. His perspective added layers of underground soil where before there had only been the shallow dirt of my self-serving account, in which he’d been little more than a foil to the drama of myself. More than once as I edited, I fantasized about publishing his comments in the margins of my text, or publishing a version of the book that included my version as one column, and his as another. This would have been the most honest book of all, a document perpetually hovering between his memory and mine.
Three years and five drafts later, I found myself riding the Q train over the East River on the book’s publication day, reading a scathing review on my cell phone—crying and embarrassed to be crying—with my three-month-old baby napping in a carrier against my chest. Which is all to say: things never turn out quite how we imagine.
It felt thrilling to bring my book into the world, but it also felt a lot of other ways, too. It was exciting and wrenching and often deeply moving to witness what the book became to its readers. But the same things that made it meaningful also made it terrifying. The truth of this book was no longer in my hands. It lived in the particular dynamic between the book and every single person who encountered it, and it was something different each time. The part I could control was over. In recovery, I’d always heard: what other people think about me is none of my business. It drove me fucking insane. That’s why I needed to hear it. But tell this to an author whose book is getting reviewed. What other people thought of my book was definitely my business. It was literally my business!
The cliché—irritatingly—remained true. Sure, it was debilitating or humiliating to see a version of the book reflected back at me by someone who’d hated whatever they heard in its voice or felt in its pulse: the ambition, the self-pity, the solipsism. But this was it. Like it or lump it. This was the wild, ragged process of giving a book to the world and letting it be more than what you could dictate, or even imagine. The surrender was necessary. It was expansive. It was humbling and breathtaking. Readers told me the book helped them understand adult children who’d been relapsing for years, or spouses who’d been hiding bottles—or at least, be incrementally less baffled by them. Other readers told me the book helped them believe that sobriety could be something besides an endless, dreary expanse.
The book felt less like something I’d done than something I’d been given, and now was giving. Or I guess that’s what it felt like on the good days.
In those days, I wasn’t sleeping much. I was nursing all the time. Life was a thin stream of milk connecting my body to the body of my daughter, occasionally interrupted by a peanut butter sandwich. Life was watching reality television about aspiring Australian models while my daughter slept against my chest, as we whittled away the darkest hours between midnight and five. Life was ritual: nursing, napping, changing, pumping. In between these rituals I would do bizarre things like pose for photo shoots in a transformed version of my own living room cluttered with multiple bottles of identical green juice. I leaked breast milk onto an expensive silk blouse a stylist had brought in a huge rolling suitcase full of clothes worth more than the contents of my entire apartment. The process of publicizing the book simultaneously made me feel gratitude—of course I wanted people to read it—and shame. If part of the book was about the dissolving of ego, what was this circus of interviews but its bolstering and buffering, its forced swagger? Every pleasure I took in the book’s success also started to feel like an indictment. Had I written it to serve my own ambition? To gather as much affirmation from the world as possible—yet another iteration of the ceaseless hunger the book was ostensibly interrogating and ultimately trying to transcend?
I heard myself say that the book had been “written to work like a recovery meeting” so frequently that I began to wonder if it could possibly be true. It started to sound like a cheap line. But it was true. Or at least, it was the truth of my desire. Was it also an expression of ambition? An attempt to prove myself? To protect myself against the charge of self-absorption? Perhaps it was those things as well.
It’s been a long time since I have believed in the fantasy of the unpolluted impulse, the possibility of doing something—anything—for just one reason. So much of the book, in fact, was about my evolving, stumbling, stubborn faith in the idea that doing things for the wrong reasons didn’t necessarily rob them of grace.
My mother came with me and my baby on book tour: four weeks, nineteen cities. We stood at curbside baggage stands—in Boston, Las Vegas, Cedar Rapids, San Francisco, Albuquerque—with our ridiculous caravan: suitcases, car seat, travel stroller, pack-and-play. The unbuckled baby carrier hung loose from my waist like a second skin. We ticked away the flights in little silent rosaries: Praying she’d nap on the plane. Praying the flight attendant would let me keep her in the carrier. Praying she’d nurse on the final descent. Praying we’d remembered the white noise machine. Praying we could find a hardware store with the screwdriver we needed to replace the dead batteries in the white noise machine. When I heard my baby cry beside me in a Detroit hotel room at four a.m., the fourth time she’d woken up that night, I knew the four-month sleep regression had finally arrived. It didn’t care how many state lines we’d crossed. It found us anyway.
The dilemma we call “work-life balance” found me in bookstore signing lines while my breasts ached and wept, reminding me there was a baby across the city who was ready to nurse. Her tiny face hovered in my mind’s eye while people shared their impossibly difficult stories about desperation and relapse. They wanted something from me—compassion, or kinship, or solutions, or else they simply wanted me as witness—and I wanted to give it to them, always, but I also wanted to nurse my baby.
In these lines, strangers got under my skin like splinters. In a voice so soft it was nearly a whisper, a woman asked whether I thought moderation ever worked. Another woman told me she’d been in the hospital when I read in San Francisco, so she’d driven all the way down Interstate 5 to hear me in Los Angeles. She wanted to know how I came to believe sobriety could stick. A woman just out of rehab asked if it ever got easier. A man nine months sober asked if he would ever stop dreaming about booze. As if I could possibly answer these questions. We all knew my book couldn’t answer anything. But it could tell them someone else had wondered. I told the man who dreamed of whiskey that I didn’t know if he would ever stop of dreaming of booze. I still dreamed of booze. But I dreamed of other things, too.
In Minneapolis, a woman told me that my book had helped her feel a little bit closer to her son, who was still shooting heroin but wanted to stop, had tried to stop, and what could she do? What should she do? My gut tightened with that panic when I realized it wasn’t a rhetorical question. And honestly in that moment I was still—always, inevitably—thinking of my baby girl back in our hotel room with my mother, waiting to nurse before I swaddled her and put her down. Was she crying? Was my mother walking her around the block in the Ergo, checking her watch, wondering when I’d be back to feed her?
When I looked at the woman standing in front of me, I knew her son had been a baby once too: nursing, or refusing to; sleeping, or refusing to. No matter what I said to her, it would never be enough. No matter what I said to her, my baby would still be hungry. This mother would walk into the night, and I would walk into the night. She would keep loving her child, and I would keep loving mine. Our love couldn’t promise us anything. But we both knew we would never see the end of it.