De-mythologizing the Drunk Genius

Leslie Jamison reflects on the messy realities of addiction and the differences between the narrative demands of a good story and the narrative demands of a good life

The first time Leslie Jamison shared her story of addiction in an AA meeting, spilling her guts to a group of strangers in folding chairs, a man in the back of the school gymnasium started to yell at her. She’d been saying something about learning to pray, struggling to articulate the intermittent relief prayer had offered from the grind of being newly sober, when it happened: “This is boring!” he shouted. As it turned out, the man was suffering from dementia. He was an accepted character who yelled impolite things at everyone. Still, for Jamison, the encounter tapped into a deep anxiety: what if the part of us that seeks health and happiness is never as interesting as the part that courts damage?

The addiction memoir, after all, tends to assume that self-destructive escapades are what we most want to hear about, often sidestepping recovery almost entirely. Caroline Knapp devotes only the last two of sixteen chapters to her tentative sobriety in Drinking: A Love Story. It is only in the final paragraphs of Permanent Midnight—only pages earlier, the author is smoking crack—that we finally sense Jerry Stahl might muster a lasting change. That’s not to detract from the lacerating power of the genre. But Jamison wanted to write a different kind of book.

In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison defies the rules of narrative gravity by giving her recovery equal space, somehow making it as vividly compelling as the bleakest depths of her addiction. In her telling, sobriety comes at the halfway point rather than being tacked on as a denouement. Part of the way Jamison wrings conflict and dramatic stakes from recovery is by foregrounding the doubt and restlessness that comes with deprivation. “I tried to charge sobriety with energy,” she writes, “but all of it felt dull and dry, like getting kissed by a pair of chapped lips.” She also turns for help to other artists who struggled with addiction, looking to see how they navigated the same uneasy territory, stuck between a thirst that never ends and a recuperation that is never quite complete.

Through original archival research, Jamison unearths the private lives of figures like John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, Denis Johnson, and Jean Rhys, poring over the intimate journal entries, letters, and drafts that never quite made the public record. What she uncovers is astonishing. These lives were fuller, more complicated, and often more hopeful than anyone guessed; addiction was not the dark key to their genius, but the devastating scourge of it. As Jamison shifts fluidly between memoir, criticism, and literary biography, telling her own story alongside the secret histories of artists we thought we knew, she finds epic poetry in the faltering, endless path toward life after drinking.

Leslie Jamison is the author of two other books: The Gin Closet, a novel, and The Empathy Exams, an essay collection. Her work has been a finalist for The National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and her essays have appeared in venues like Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, and the Atlantic. We talked about the way myths of addiction and recovery shape our choices, the process of committing one’s own most personal experiences to the page, and the difficulty of writing about health and healing rather than brokenness.

—Joe Fassler

CNF: The Recovering is a book about addiction and what comes after it. But it’s also a book about storytelling, and how the stories we tell about substance abuse and recovery shape our choices. Let’s start with one of those myths: drugs and alcohol not only make the world more interesting; they make you as an individual more interesting, too.

We all want to be worthy of interest. There’s a moment in the book when, wryly describing your younger self, you write, “I frantically tried to be really fucking interesting.” It strikes me that one of the shortcuts to being interesting is through drugs and alcohol, especially if you’re an artist. Maybe you could talk a bit about that pervasive idea—that intoxication is the key to a kind of coveted specialness.

JAMISON: For me, the connection between interestingness and drinking had to do with surprise, the idea that you would never quite know what might happen when you drank. You couldn’t write the script for the whole night—even if, as I describe in the book, what actually did happen became extremely predictable and claustrophobic. The fantasy was always that the night could take you somewhere you could never have imagined, or make you a person you could never have quite imagined. The sense of being able to surprise yourself and surprise other people seemed like part of what it was about, in addition to loosening the self and shutting down that internal, self-critical monologue.

I think one of the things I still miss about drinking is the way that it’s such a universal signifier of switching codes, especially in business or work situations. Those boozy moments where it’s like: OK, now I’m going to show another side of myself. The rules change. You enter this space that’s no longer just about norms and restrictions. But if you’re just getting a seltzer water, you’re pretty much resisting that. The message is: we’re not going to go to that strange, exciting, unexpected place. One challenge of sobriety for me has been finding other ways to say, “Let’s go to that more unexpected place.”

CNF: We met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the drunken ghosts of great writers haunted the local bars. Reading your book, I was struck remembering how present those stories were to us—Cheever drinking himself to death at the Iowa House Hotel, the blood-red EMERGENCY sign at Mercy Hospital that inspired Denis Johnson’s famously opiate-addled short story “Emergency.” What was your experience of those legends as a young writer studying in a place where performative drunkenness was not just an expectation but intertwined completely with notions of artistic greatness?

JAMISON: Yeah—the connection between drinking and creativity felt so baked into the culture—just through the simple brute fact of people going out drinking every night, and there being such a ritual around famous writers coming to town to read, always followed by an after-party at someone’s house, where everyone got drunk. I think we all wanted to traffic in good drunken anecdotes about how so-and-so got when they were drunk. It felt like a way to get close to luminaries, closer to their glow. The drinking itself—always in the same places where those famous writers had themselves gotten drunk—felt like this tunnel connecting you back to the voices who had come before, like becoming part of some kind of lineage.

I had always been a very Type-A good girl, so for me, there was something very appealing about becoming an inkling of some reckless, out-of-control person I knew I would never really be. I was never really going to be like Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, and I think I knew that. My version of it was blasting “November Rain” while I was so drunk someone else had to drive my car. But though it was a very degraded version of this story, it still had this charge to it.

Later, I became more aware that those narratives were experienced by everyone differently. Talking to a friend—a biracial female poet—about Iowa made me realize how much her experience was affected by being an African American woman. She just didn’t want to fuck anything up the whole time. Whereas I felt like this person who could fuck things up a little bit—and fucking up would actually be a way of acing the program, rather than failing it.

CNF: The Recovering includes your personal history alongside the stories of artistic geniuses who struggled with addiction. We look upon these figures—John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, and others—with reverence, and certainly, in each case, the addiction is part of the myth. But the book drove home for me that the real stories of these lives were always strikingly different from the CliffsNotes versions. As you sought to reclaim each person’s story from the cultural shorthand—looking through each person’s archives, reading the most intimate material they left behind—what did you learn about the toll addiction privately takes on artists?

JAMISON: De-mythologizing and de-romanticizing that image of the drunk genius was certainly one of the great desires embedded in the book. I wanted to interrogate it from a couple of different angles at once, and one was to say: dysfunctionality doesn’t have a monopoly on creative genius or creative inspiration. The other way was to show that, when you looked more closely, there was very little that was romantic about it. It was not romantic to know you could sometimes feel John Berryman’s liver through his skin or to read about the way he’d shit his bed. More than anything, the archives of these authors gave me a sense of the harrowing banality of addiction, how ugly and mundane it looked up close.

I also wanted to interrogate the romantic myth of what William Burroughs called “the unredeemed junkie”: the drunk or addict who had no desire to stop.

CNF: Like Amy Winehouse’s song “Rehab,” which you point out helped to define her public image: “They tried to make me to go to rehab / But I said, ‘No, no, no.’”

JAMISON: Yeah, exactly. So often, when you really look at people—including Winehouse herself, who went to rehab four times—that commitment to destruction is just a story we project onto people. “Rehab” is a great example of it being a mythos that artists sometimes project about themselves, either consciously or unwittingly. But that attitude doesn’t reveal the whole truth.

The commonly shared stories in this vein—like the one Elizabeth Hardwick was interested in telling about Billie Holiday, that she was unrepentant and had this grand luminosity that issued from a dark, destructive core—turned out not to hold up under scrutiny. That’s not how Billie Holiday narrated her life or her heroin addiction. She really wanted to stop. She didn’t like being a drunk and drinking gin for breakfast. Instead, I found the experience of addiction was both messier and more of a grind than we might have imagined. Its relationship to creativity was complicated, because creativity can come from pain, but it can be obstructed by pain, too. Often, I found there was a much more urgent attempt to get better than anyone had known—that was true of Berryman, certainly. Amy Winehouse’s hit song may have been about not wanting to go to rehab, but she did go to rehab, and often willingly.

In general, I believe in trying to peel away the simpler, broad-brushstrokes dramatic version of the story and looking at the mess underneath. That complicated truth is the more human story—and often the more interesting story, too.

CNF: But we have so few examples of those more complicated stories—addiction stories that look at recovery, even failed attempts at recovery, in a sustained way. It seems one challenge of the book was finding new ways to make narratives about health and healing as compelling as those that hinge on self-destruction. Because we’re all drawn to stories about damage. At Iowa, our teacher Ethan Canin even prescribed us a cardinal rule for fiction: when you’re not sure what to do, make characters misbehave. Given that, how does one make stories about redemption compelling?

JAMISON: I love that you’ve brought up Ethan Canin’s rule to have characters behave badly. It connects to something Charlie D’Ambrosio used to say in workshop, which I was drawn to as a piece of wisdom even though I didn’t quite know what it meant. He’d always tell us: “Abandon your citizen self.”

As I’ve held on to this bit of advice over the years, it’s meant different things to me. I think it’s about pushing characters beyond where they’re comfortable or trying to suppress the part of yourself in writing that wants to be seen as noble. In a way, it’s a version of Canin’s advice: you don’t want to read a story about somebody who just does everything they’re supposed to. Still, in a sense, part of the project of this book was to write a story about somebody trying to become a citizen self, showing up to meetings to participate in the process of getting better. In recovery, they say, “Do the next right thing”—advice that’s pretty much the opposite of making characters behave badly.

All this is to say that there’s real conflict between the imperatives of great literature and the imperatives of getting better. Conflict is essential to narrative, and damage and dysfunction are reliable ways to get to conflict. But there are other ways to access conflict, too. Recovery itself includes conflict.

Alcohol is an anesthetic. It numbs. So when you peel that away, all the sharp edges that remain are the material of narrative. Sobriety can catalyze a kind of reckoning close to the heart of what makes narrative good: you feel everything more deeply, positive feelings and negative feelings and everything in between. At the core of it, then, I think recovery includes this process of becoming more emotionally aware, of being more present in your own life. And as it turns out, that heightened presence isn’t the enemy of narrative. It’s very difficult work, and it can be deeply generative.

For me, a guiding aesthetic challenge of the book was to write a story where recovery started halfway through—rather than being an afterthought or a final, tacked-on chapter. I knew that recovery has been figured as narrative kryptonite, but I ended up feeling something close to the opposite.

CNF: In the book you talk about the usefulness of clichés, especially how AA members tend to traffic in these wonderful, pithy bits of advice and wisdom. Phrases like Take it one day at a time are shopworn in AA circles and may not be exciting on a language level—and yet, you write, they can have demonstrable, immediate value for a person struggling with addiction. This is so antithetical to the way we’re taught to think as writers: we’re trained to reach for the original detail, the thing no one’s said before. I’m curious if your experience of going through AA—and seeing the value in truisms—changed your relationship to writing.

JAMISON: As I was writing the book, and as I was considering the emotional dynamics of my own life in recovery, I found that clichés had these very specific uses. They help provide a bridge between people when their external circumstances are really different. Even when a cliché resonates for people in totally different ways, it’s still this point of connection—a kind of touchstone that both people can grasp onto from very separate life situations. I came to appreciate that, even if it didn’t change the way I approach my work.

It’s funny—when I was working on this book, my editor felt the need to offer a disclaimer every time he called me out on a cliché in the manuscript. He’d always hedge a little, wondering if I was intentionally using familiar language to make a point. But though clichés are a subject of the book, I still wanted to avoid them in my own writing. This comes back to thinking about the difference between what stories are asked to do in recovery and what stories are asked to do in literature.

Everything I love about how clichés operate as conversational currency between people in recovery, or just between people in general in the world, didn’t radically alter my ideas about what literary writing should be. I didn’t suddenly believe in writing that had tons of clichés. In a way, I wanted to write a book that had not a single cliché in it—except for the ones I was quoting, which were part of the story. But I didn’t want them to be part of my own telling. I still very much love and believe in and want to participate in the quest for a richer language.

CNF: One thing you seem to acknowledge is that, even if we strive for a new vocabulary as writers, our feelings themselves—the emotional reality we inhabit—is often not that original. Our feelings and experiences are often not unique, even when the language that we use to express them is.

JAMISON: Definitely. I think that’s part of what people resist in clichés—if one feels useful to you, there’s the implication that your life is somehow not original or your problems are somehow common. I wanted very much to come to an understanding of literary storytelling that could somehow embrace unoriginality—though that itself is not an original stance. There’s a famous James Baldwin quote to that effect, for instance: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” And you see others have felt the same way, too.

It’s paradoxical, but I think I believe that when experiences are common—universal, even—you can still find language for them that illuminates them in a new way.

CNF: The Recovering seems to embrace messiness in stories—making room for narratives that aren’t necessarily satisfying in conventional ways. One of my favorite examples comes toward the end of the book, when you go to visit Raymond Carver’s grave. You mention that Carver’s wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, maintains a notebook on his grave, a place for fans and readers to leave messages—a destination that’s something of a mecca for people in recovery. As you tell it, you expected your own visit to be a huge moment. You’re gearing up for an encounter that will change your life somehow and make the challenges of sobriety feel luminous and endurable.

In the movie version of this book, maybe, that’s what would happen. But instead, when you arrive, the notebook is mostly blank—Gallagher had just replaced it with a fresh one. It’s a powerful reminder that, in real life, moments don’t actually crystallize the way we want them to. Why is it important to include those kinds of experiences in memoir, rather than just the moments with more obvious dramatic significance?

JAMISON: It’s funny—I sent the final portion of the book to Tess Gallagher before it was published, because I’d quoted this very personal message she wrote to her dead husband and felt I needed her permission to do that. She was so gracious, and I remember her saying, “I wish you could have seen the book when it was full.” There was a part of me that felt that way, too.

But I also felt that the point of that scene, as it was written, was to examine a moment of anticlimax or disappointment. What do you do when your own story doesn’t give you what you hoped for, when your experience falls short of what you wanted? That exploration goes by many names in the book, but certainly one of them is this idea of contract logic: if I do X, I will get Y in return. If I’m a good enough sober person, I will be rewarded by a message on Raymond Carver’s grave that helps my struggle make sense.

Of course, the world doesn’t work like that. And so, as a writer, you have to find other ways to satisfy the hunger a reader expects to have satisfied—even if it’s a hunger she maybe didn’t know she had. My friend Harriet was one of the readers of this book, and she articulated that very eloquently: “Since this book is not satisfying typical narrative hungers, you need to ask yourself: what other hungers will this book satisfy instead?”

That seemed to me not only a very perceptive point about how writing works but actually a beautiful articulation of how recovery works. Which is to say, I was miserable when I just tried to stop drinking without replacing it with anything. That approach just felt like deprivation. What recovery gives me, other than the sense of no longer satisfying an old hunger in that way, is the sense of satisfying other hungers that I hadn’t completely understood before. I’m giving myself something else, something new: what happens in AA meetings, for example, the particular kind of intimacy between strangers.

CNF: I find your title, The Recovering, to be so moving. There’s something in it that implies a lack of resolution—that recovering itself is an ongoing state of affairs and probably always will be. It’s not Recovery or The Recovered. It’s still happening now, this unfolding thing with no clear beginning and no end.

For me, that calls to mind the challenges of sobriety, the enormous discipline required. But it suggests something larger, too: the idea that, no matter what your relationship to addiction might be, our stories tend to lack clear resolution. For me, it’s a reminder that part of the human project is learning to inhabit uncertainty.

JAMISON: Thank you. I like the title, and I fought really hard for it. My publisher didn’t like it at first. And sometimes, people get the title wrong and call it Recovery. Maybe that’s part of that hunger for neatness, too—the desire to shave the ambiguous edge off it.

I definitely wanted the title to suggest ongoingness, and the idea of recovering as both transitive and intransitive—not only a process one might go through, but a recovering of the more gritty, granular, difficult stories lurking underneath our well-varnished mythologies of drinking and addiction. I understood recovering as an excavation of these messier truths.

CNF: What about the excavation of your own experiences, buried deep in the distant past? As I read, I found myself amazed by your recall ability—the way you’re able to include these highly specific details, even mentioning the weather on a particular day. Memory itself can be so fuzzy and imperfect, so I’m wondering how you achieve this striking concreteness in your writing and if there are any practices in particular that have helped.

JAMISON: Framing that question around specificity feels really useful because I’m always operating from an aesthetic commitment to specificity as a narrative practice. I’ve always strived for that, and it’s certainly part of my pedagogy. Anyone who’s ever taken one of my classes will tell you that the one word that comes out of my mouth most frequently is specificity.

I wouldn’t say writing fiction has been easier in my experience, but it was sometimes easier in one way: you can make any detail as specific as you want because you’re inventing it. Once I wanted to translate that investment in specificity to nonfiction, I realized I had to come up with a set of practices that can sustain it. I couldn’t paint unless I had the colors on the palette. That’s difficult, especially because of the tricky nature of memory. Nothing teaches you to be more humble about your own recall than doing interviewing work. Any time I listen to a recorded conversation, I immediately see how much memory distorts. You think someone said one thing, and then literally two hours later, you realize they didn’t say that at all.

That happens when you look back on your own experiences, as well. The second you’re genuinely in conversation with an era of your own life, you start fitting it into a narrative—forgetting some things, inventing some things, distorting some things. So I do what I can to write things down. I had a baby recently, and I have one of those cheesy “One Day at a Time with Mom” books in which you write down one thing from your baby’s life for five years. It’s kind of wild, but I’m committed to writing down one specific thing from each day. And I’ve realized that things that feel boring in the moment will feel charged with meaning, looking back.

I’ve found that to be true in my journal practice, too. My journals used to be totally internal, all about my feelings. But when I read them again years later, I realized that what was most interesting to me was always the specifics. What I had for breakfast. Where we stopped for gas on the road trip. When I interviewed Chris Kraus, she told me how her journaling practice has evolved away from her interior life and toward everyday sights and details: the black van parked across the street from her window. Just writing these seemingly small things down—they often end up holding so much meaning when you glance back at them.

Certain strands of The Recovering are very much rooted in authors’ personal archives, so I started to think about my own personal narrative in terms of my available archives—what indelible bits of experience and memory I had left behind myself. Journals were one of the things I relied on. Emails, too, would often have something interesting in them but were also useful because they could jog other memories—like, oh right, Dave and I did have that ill-fated CSA when we were trying to save our relationship. I hadn’t remembered that CSA, but because I got all those recipes they emailed to us—zucchini bread and squash soup—I was immediately taken back to this very bittersweet place of trying so hard to make that relationship work and hoping that doubling down on a commitment to our domestic life could save it.

CNF: It’s one thing when you’re trying to remember, just for yourself, and write the story the way you need to. But publishing—presenting these deeply personal experiences to the general public—is another experience entirely. You offer up your experience as best you can, and then it becomes other things to other people. And it stops being just your story.

I’m curious how it felt to go on tour with this deeply personal book. Surely you met people in recovery. Surely you met any number of others with a close connection to the material, who saw their lives refracted in yours in any number of ways. How did meeting the audiences who showed up to hear you read—people who are both just like you, and yet completely unlike you—change your relationship toward your own story?

JAMISON: I think you’re right: publication feels like a real surrendering of control. It’s the same way it happens in a meeting. When you tell your story to a room, you don’t get to dictate what it means to people. Whatever morals people extract from it, they are the morals they needed to hear that day, the truths they needed to absorb. I’ve learned to accept that you can’t control the reactions to a story, and that’s OK. It doesn’t always feel OK, but there’s not really anything you can do about it.

With this book, it was often very moving to meet people at events. I met people who were addicts and maybe even more people who love someone who is still addicted and alcoholic. Often, I sensed they came to the signings because they wanted some kind of answer or some kind of help. Of course, I wanted to tell them something they could do for their loved one. To give them some small thing, anything, that could make it better. It’s painful when you sense that longing and yet know there’s nothing you can do.

And yet, sometimes, it happened the other way, too. To meet a stranger and have them tell you, “This book helped me stay sober”—there’s very little that could fire me up more than that statement. I was sustained and buffered by other people’s stories when I was getting sober. Becoming part of that system, in a small way, felt so good.

About the Author

Joe Fassler

Joe Fassler is author of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process and the forthcoming novel The Sky Was Ours (Penguin, 2022). He lives in Denver.

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