In some of your non-fiction, you whine about past struggles with alcohol and sometimes drugs.
How has this impacted your writing, other than providing dramatic fodder?
ANSWER: I wouldn’t say I ‘whined’ about it. I was truly struggling at the time. But all my life experiences have impacted my writing. Including my darkest ones.
Like that of alcohol and stimulant misuse.
The key term here is impacted. I don’t see my past substance use as a boon to my writing.
Quite the opposite. It shaved away at least a handful of productive years and delayed projects that may have begun much earlier in my career.
In some cases, it directly obstructed the work itself.
Some exposition is necessary. After covering war and conflict for nearly half of my career I found it difficult to function in a peacetime environment. I was overstimulated and wracked with guilt and moral injury over bad decisions I had made reporting on the frontlines.
I coped by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. I prided myself on never becoming altered in a war zone. Because I believed if those who lived there had to endure their misery straight, so did I.
But this did not apply when I was back home. Drinking was a daily indulgence. Monthly or weekly for the drugs.
A big challenge to this lifestyle was I still had work to do. While researching my second non-fiction book, The Things They Cannot Say, the dilemma became darkly comic in my efforts to interview a young Marine I was profiling.
When I was sober and ready to talk I would call him only to get his answering machine or find he was too drunk to answer my questions.
Then he would call me back in a day or two, sober and ready to talk, but I would be too drunk to ask them. This went on for months until we both straightened up.
I eventually figured out that both my journalistic and literary aspirations would be permanently derailed If I didn’t find a solution.
Since that time I have used (in-person and online) evidence-based, science-focused programs to achieve intermittent, years-long sobriety.
My work and my mental and physical health have benefited greatly. Yet, while I’m currently Alcohol Free (AF) I still consider myself a nomad between the worlds of the imbibers and the abstinent.
Part of this ambivalence is due to the erroneous and deep-seated hold of the concept that psychoactive substances, especially alcohol, are the writer’s friend. Just look at all the anecdotal evidence.
Many of the greatest writers of the 19th and 20th centuries were either firmly in the grip of alcohol addiction or had a very unhealthy relationship with it: Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Parker, Fitzgerald, Rhys, Cheever, Plath, Capote, McCullers, Williams.
If being addled is such a big deal, how did they pull off such masterpieces in the midst of it?
But, if you follow those personal and career trajectories to their final splashdowns, very few end well.
In fact, most could be considered cautionary tales.
While a little alcohol may reduce inhibitions and even increase creativity for writers, according to some minor scientific studies, even a tiny, bit too much can bring it all crashing down.
Probably why even Papa “Pour Me Another” Hemingway never wrote drunk, even though the apocryphal quote, “Write drunk, edit sober,” is often attributed to him.
Fortunately, our attitudes about the value of drugs and alcohol on writing have evolved to a more sophisticated and nuanced level.
Personally, I don’t want to get in the habit of regretting experiences, even bad ones—as they all add to the sum of my character and hopefully, the authenticity of my work.
And the struggles with anything, whether we overcome them or not, often lead to indisputable benefits for writers, such as enhanced understanding and empathy, if we’re wise enough to let them.
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