Leslie Jamison: Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?

In this excerpt from her book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison recalls how in the early days of recovery, she examined the work of newly-sober writers like John Berryman and Charles Jackson for clues about how sobriety would affect her as a writer. It wasn’t until she read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that she found “proof that sober creativity was possible.”

But the truer story of my drinking is really a story about tedium, about claustrophobia and repetition. At a certain point, it started to expose itself as something that wasn’t revelry, that wasn’t about connection but isolation, that wasn’t about dark wisdom or metaphysical angst — that wasn’t about anything, really, besides the urge to get drunk, by myself, with no one watching.

The night of my first meeting, when I was 26 and desperate, I drove across the river to an address near the hospital, crying all the way across the Burlington Street Bridge, my tears streaking the streetlamps into bright white rain. It was almost Halloween: cobwebs on porches, hanging ghosts made from stuffed sheets, jack-o’-lanterns with their crooked grins. Being drunk was like having a candle lit inside you. I already missed it.

Once I got sober, I became more interested in the question of what little, as Berryman put it, could be said for sobriety. If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness — the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis — then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But when I got sober, I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.

Over the years, I’d come to realize that many of my drunk icons had actually gotten sober eventually, or tried to, and I went looking for proof that recovery had not blunted or destroyed their creativity. It was like the desire the poet Eavan Boland confessed when she asked for poems with women who weren’t beautiful or young: “I want a poem/I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.” I wanted a story I could get sober in.

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