Leslie Jamison Wanted to Write a Book That Felt Like an AA Meeting

‘The Recovering’ explores how creativity is both flattened and animated by addiction

Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering is not an addiction memoir. Nor is it linked essays in the style of her previous bestseller, The Empathy Exams. The Recovering is an earnest and gritty account of alcoholism and substance dependency written in a hybrid style of essayistic memoir, cultural criticism, and historical narrative. The work considers how being an artist, a writer, or a lover sometimes calls upon “addictive” behaviors, and how many of the insecurities that might drive an addiction can fuel creativity. Chronicled are relapses and life threatening realities, but also the success that Jamison achieved even while in the throes of alcoholism.

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The author finds echoes of her life in other artists—legends like John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Denis Johnson, Billie Holliday, Raymond Carver, Amy Winehouse—but she doesn’t examine her past or theirs through a lens of tragedy. Rather, Jamison dives deeper, unearths the complexities of the individuals and their conditions, and in so doing, explores her own multiplicity. Jamison’s narrative of getting better is as compelling as the story of a life in spiral because her life didn’t fall apart; her recovery process is more nuanced because her “problem” was harder to define.

Just as Jamison’s alcoholism didn’t follow the arc of dysfunction to function, The Recovering traces a very different trajectory of healing. I spoke with the author about how she conceived an anti-memoir about addiction, and the kinds of creativity that sobriety flattens and animates.

Yvonne Conza: How important was it for you as a writer to structure the material as a hybrid genre and not as linked essays?

Leslie Jamison: From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to write a book that worked like a meeting — a book that was structured both by otherness (the idea of coming into contact with the lives of strangers) and by narrative (the idea of lives turned into stories). It felt important to me both that the book be composed of many discrete stories and that these stories — woven together — create the fabric of a cohesive larger story: the story of addiction and recovery writ across many stages and many scales; the scales of particular lives and the scale of American culture and public imagination across the course of the twentieth-century. I wanted the book to toggle between the individual and the social in the way that a recovery meeting does; and I wanted it to feel like a gathering of voices, in the way that a recovery meeting does. I also wanted a book that felt propulsive to read, that had real narrative momentum, and for that reason I wanted the book to use my own life as a kind of driving narrative core to which the other stories could be attached.

I wanted the book to toggle between the individual and the social in the way that a recovery meeting does.

YC: What were the challenges you faced as a writer to balance the repetitive elements of “redundancy” and “relapses” within the addiction story?

LJ: We often think of an “easy” or predictable structure for stories of addiction and recovery — things got bad, they bottomed out, then got better — I’m fascinated by the ways in which the story of addiction is often actually a really difficult story to tell. If it’s told honestly, with fidelity to the inglorious truth, it’s a story riddled with repetitions and redundancy, constrained by a certain kind of narrative claustrophobia. The experience is really just: crave, use, repeat. And after a while, that gets pretty boring — to live, or to read. The story of addiction often lacks a satisfying narrative trajectory because it’s defined by the cyclical structure of relapse; and I wanted to honor both of those elements in my book — the tedium of addiction, and its cyclical patterns — while still telling a story, across the course of the book, that had a certain kind of momentum and thrall. How to suggest that even though we might think of sobriety as the “boring” part of the story, there’s a fair amount of pretty deadening boredom baked into addiction itself — but how to evoke that tedium without writing a tedious book? It felt like its own small-scale aesthetic high-wire act.

YC: In telling this story, what made you trust in crafting the first person pluralist voice? And when did the book’s structure become distanced from memoir?

LJ: I love the way that various voices in the book speak across its braided sections, so that Berryman’s words might help illuminate something about Jean Rhys’s life, or my own. I wanted to create that kind of echo chamber, and it was part of my conception of the book from the very start — that it be composed of multiple lives, multiple stories, multiple voices, rather than just my own. It was never going to be a traditional memoir. Part of that had to do with wanting to create a book whose structure enacted the same outward turn that recovery had involved, for me — finding something saving in paying attention to other lives. Part of that had to do with the aesthetic challenge of writing a kind of anti-memoir — bringing together multiple plotlines and multiple voices, splicing them in a way that created resonance without forcing false conflation or losing momentum entirely. And part of it had to do with wanting to resist the idea of a single formula for the addiction or recovery story; I wanted to complicate that by offering a bunch of different stories that followed a bunch of different trajectories.

I want this person to love me, but what if he doesn’t? I want this editor to love me, but what if she doesn’t? I want this reader to love me, but what if she doesn’t?

YC: Is there a link between “rejection” and the “desire to blunt the edges of it with alcohol” built into writing programs?

LJ: So much of the book is about rejection — and the fear of rejection — and about the ways that consciousness seeks to avoid or console the prospect of rejection that comes attached to all forms of desire: I want this person to love me, but what if he doesn’t? I want this editor to love me, but what if she doesn’t? I want this reader to love me, but what if she doesn’t? Rejection was very much in the soil and the water at my MFA program in Iowa — its prospect lurked over everything we did, every manuscript we submitted, every agent meeting, every late-night talk in every bar — and I can’t speak for anyone else, but part of what fueled my drinking was the sense that I could inoculate myself against the impact of that rejection if I could find my own solace in the booze itself.

YC: When you were writing The Gin Closet, published in 2010, did the tension of sobriety and relapse inform your writing? Or, challenge it?

LJ: Oh, absolutely. That tension is like an invisible architecture structuring the novel, whose two central characters both have troubled relationships to booze. One of them is an older woman drinking herself to death in a trailer in the Nevada desert; and I think I created her as an exaggerated version of the way I sometimes imagined drinking: toward complete destruction, without any limits. A friend of mine (who also happens to be an author who has been sober for many years) said that she always thought that novel had a profoundly ambivalent relationship to alcohol, and she’s absolutely right. During the years I spent writing it, I was mainly drinking — but I was starting to think about quitting, and wondering what that would be like. So some of the writing about sobriety and recovery in that book rings a bit hollow, and a bit grim — it’s hollow and tentative, a fearful imagining of what it would be like to give up this thing I couldn’t imagine living without. But the writing about booze is very visceral and committed — written from deep inside that state of thrall, just starting to become aware of itself.

YC: Has sobriety altered your writing and creative impulses?

LJ: One of the driving questions of The Recovering is about the relationship between creativity and sobriety, and — specifically — what kinds of creativity might be spurred by sobriety, rather than flattened by it. Which was one of my fears about getting sober — that I’d lose a certain volatility that was animating the work — and a fear I found almost all the writers I researched also shared, in some form. Part of what animated this project was the desire to find models for what sober creativity might look like. For me, creativity didn’t come immediately in sobriety — there was a lot of internal baggage and bullshit I needed to sort out first, and there were many months spent throwing myself against those sober nights, trying to make them creatively productive. If I wasn’t drinking, I should be getting something done, right? But eventually, sobriety did open up tremendously exciting new veins in my work — especially, a turn toward the lives of others (in archives, through reporting) and toward a mode of hybrid nonfiction that brings my own life into conversation with these lives. Among other things, I’ve found sobriety to be a call to pay attention to the world beyond my own mind — and I’d like to think my writing is a testament to that attention. Things like interviewing and reporting that would have been nearly impossible for me to do before I got sober — because constitutional shyness, aversion to strangers — have become important strands in my work. I also think recovery meetings — and the way they honor the interchangeable story, rather than expecting (or even wanting) everyone’s story to be “unique,” has changed the way I think about personal narrative: someone’s experiences don’t have to be exceptional to be worth narrating, they only have to be observed with acuity and rigor.

YC: How did you organize the various narrative and thematic lanes of personal, cultural history, research, and reportage within your material? Were they developed as separate ideas prior to working in concert with one another?

LJ: First of all, I love that phrase: “thematic lanes.” It speaks perfectly to the sensation of putting this book together — feeling that there were all these various streams or threads, each one with its own velocity, and I was somehow trying to navigate between them. At first, I had no clear plan. I had fragments of personal writing about my own experience, and I had tremendous amounts of archival research and literary criticism from my doctoral dissertation at Yale (about writers who got sober, the institutions that tried to get them sober, and the work that emerged from their sobriety), and I had vague visions of a book that would put my story alongside the stories of others — but I had no clear sense of how I’d put it all together. I was lucky enough to have a one-month Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, Texas during a particularly crazy period in my life — when I’d been able to do very little writing at all — and at the beginning of that month, I took of stack of blank white paper and wrote out all the pieces of all the stories I wanted to tell, including my own. Then I spread those pieces of paper across the floor of my office (An actual office! An actual desk! Actual floor space! Back home in New York, I lived in a rent-controlled one-bedroom with two other people and had none of these things…). I arranged the pieces of paper across the floor — I think there were fifty or sixty of them, at that point — crafting a possible vision of what the book might look like, and that allowed me to start writing it, following the spread of pages as a kind of map, writing one page at a time. It gave me a way to begin.

‘The Recovering’ is about the relationship between creativity and sobriety, and — specifically — what kinds of creativity might be spurred by sobriety, rather than flattened by it.

YC: How do you define sobriety? Does the meaning of sobriety change over the course of a life?

LJ: That’s a more complicated question than it might seem to be at first glance. Roughly put, I’d define sobriety as liberation from the state of toxic dependence — in this context, dependence on a substance. That’s not necessarily the same thing as abstinence, though they often converge. For me personally, sobriety involves abstaining from any substance that substantially alters my state of consciousness — but I’m also wary of the ways in which abstinence can become a kind of tyrannical imperative, or a narrow definition of recovery. For many people who have had problematic relationships to substances, meaningful sobriety might constitute an altered relationship to drinking or recreational drug use that doesn’t feel consuming, destructive, or obsessive. More than anything, I believe that it’s impossible to know what another person needs in order to feel sober, impossible — from the outside — to adjudicate the difference between self-justification and functional moderation. I try to reign in those kinds of presumptive verdicts. And yes, absolutely, sobriety can change over the course of a lifetime. I think it always does. For me, that has involved bringing a kind of sober mentality — trying to own my mistakes, to relinquish control over others, to see beyond the edges of my own life — to the circumstances of my life as they’ve changed over the years: relationships ending and beginning, starting a family, building a life as a teacher. What it feels like to live through these chapters sober keeps evolving; it would be impossible for sobriety to stay the same.

YC: I read that you cut 100,000 words from the manuscript. As is, it’s a large, encompassing book. What are two things that you struggled with taking out?

LJ: Ha! It’s true. I cut a huge book out of this huge book and it’s still a huge book. At one point, my aunt — who’s also a writer — told me: “Maybe you just need to accept that you’re writing a big book.” I had to give up on the fantasy of the slim volume. Most of the work that gets called “hybrid nonfiction” is slim in that way. This is something else.

Two things I struggled with taking out? I’d say I struggled most with cutting lots of close readings of literary texts — the kind of analysis that constituted the bulk of my dissertation, but often felt unwieldy or repetitive here — and with taking out details from my personal story that felt emotionally significant but weren’t necessarily serving the narrative. I hated cutting out pieces of the major love story in the book — road trips we took, love letters we exchanged, the private languages we invented, the ways I found myself in his poems — because I didn’t want to narrate our relationship exclusively in terms of difficulty; I wanted to honor what had been beautiful and blissful about it, too. And to some extent that impulse was right: there’s a sophisticated art to representing happiness in compelling and surprising ways. But I also had to recognize that there was a difference between what I wanted to honor and what a reader needed to know.

Because my writing lives and dies by its details, I find it excruciating to cut things that other people might dispatch with more readily: the syrup and waffles a woman vomited all over her college girlfriends after a drunken binge, or the time — years later — she accidentally ate an ice cream sundae covered with crème de menthe while she was taking Antabuse; feeling betrayed that even this small pleasure had betrayed her. These are the gleaming particulars that help me immerse more fully in the lives of others, and I hate to see any of them go.

YC: The line: “I’d always suspected love came as a reward for saying the right things.” While the sentence is linked to a specific relationship, did the tension of “saying the right thing” impact your approach to your earlier writing at Yale and Iowa?

LJ: I think the imperative to “say the right thing” is a thread linking together many situations and compulsions in this book: the desire to win institutional approval, the desire to win and maintain the desire of others, the desire to win over the room at a twelve-step recovery meeting. I dramatize two very different Iowa scenes as bookends or foils for each other: a group of aspiring writers sitting in a basement party, competing to tell the “best story,” and a group of people sitting in a church basement, years later, telling the stories of their desperation in order to help one another survive — those are two very different visions of what the “right thing” to say might be.

Wreckage and crisis are urgent narrative situations that are inherently unresolved — something is broken, which is usually more compelling than something being un-broken.

YC: Do stories of wreckage receive more attention than those of recovery? Is wreckage inescapable, or just overly enticing to readers?

LJ: Well, I think it’s only natural that tales of wreckage compel us — and it’s not just a sinister case of rubbernecking to get a better glimpse of the car crash at the side of the highway. Wreckage and crisis are urgent narrative situations that are inherently unresolved — something is broken, which is usually more compelling than something being un-broken. Problem is the engine of narrative. But with this book, I was interested in making the argument that repair and recuperation can also be compelling narrative situations; in refuting that wreckage has a monopoly on our compulsive attention. I’ve always agreed with Tolstoy that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but reacted against the notion that happy families are all happy in the same way — positive states like happiness and recovery can be as multiple, as subtle, as dimension and striated as their darker cousins.

YC: Your ex-boyfriend Dave is mentioned several times in the book. Did he, or anyone else mentioned in the book, read your manuscript prior to it being published? Who is your first reader? And, what are you looking for from a first reader?

LJ: When I’m writing nonfiction about my life, I try to give everyone I write about the opportunity to read the material so we can discuss it. So I invited almost everyone I mention in the book to read this manuscript — or at least the pages in which they appear — as I was working on it, including Dave, who actually read two different drafts, and whose feedback was deeply insightful and helped make the book stronger and more faithful to the complexity of the truth.

My first reader is almost always my husband, Charles Bock, who is a beautiful novelist and essayist and who manages to tell me — honestly and supportively — what I most need to hear. His intelligence and humanity and wisdom were my companions as I worked on this book. What do I look for from a first reader? A strong sense of excitement at my project — that I’m doing something fundamentally worthwhile — and brutal honesty about everything I need to do to make it better.

YC: Is there a new project you’re working on?

LJ: Yes! Well, in the immediate moment I am deeply tucked away in the baby cave with my newborn daughter, who is seven weeks old. But soon I’ll be doing a round of revisions on my next book. It’s a collection of essays about haunting and obsession, including pieces about kids with past life memories, the residue of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a group of folks obsessed with a mysterious blue whale known as “the loneliest whale in the world,” the immersive online platform Second Life, my own vexed history with Las Vegas…it’s stuff I’ve been working on for the past six years, but I’m excited to bring it together. I’m also secretly working on another novel, and daydreaming an essay about C-sections.

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