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Mary Karr Names Names

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Mary Karr takes few prisoners. Photo via

By Nina Puro

05/22/13

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There’s this idea of the tortured artist, or of a link between depression and creativity—is that true and necessary? If so, how do you make meaningful art after recovery, if you’re no longer tortured?

Well, I don’t know, maybe you don’t. I’ve been sober almost 25 years and anything anyone’s ever bought from me has been written when I was sober. If I hadn’t been, I would’ve been like David, swinging from a fucking noose. That really cuts down on your creativity. [Laughs]

When I was super depressed, I wasn’t working—I was always too depressed. Hemingway did his best work when he didn’t drink, then he drank himself to death and blew his head off with a shotgun. Someone asked John Cheever, “What’d you learn from Hemingway?” and he said “I learned not to blow my head off with a shotgun.” I remember going to the Michigan poetry festival, meeting Etheridge Knight there and Robert Creeley. Creeley was so drunk—he was reading and he only had one eye, of course, and had to hold his book like two inches from his face using his one good eye. But you look at somebody like George Saunders—I think he’s the best short story writer in English alive—that’s somebody who tries very hard to live a sane, alert life.

You’re present when you’re not drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day. It’s probably better for your writing career, you know? I think being tortured as a virtue is a kind of antiquated sense of what it is to be an artist. It comes out of that Symbolist idea, back to Rimbaud and all that disordering of the senses and all of that being some exalted state. When I’ve been that way, I’ve always been less exalted than I would have liked.

So in the beginning you said you weren’t going to talk about AA. I was planning to ask whether you still go to meetings or have a sponsor. Should I nix that?

Well, I guess what I would say is, I always talk to people who are trying to stay sober and trying to have some kind of connection or community. And I spend a lot of time talking to young women with little kids who were trying to quit drinking, because when I was a young woman with a little kid and I was trying to quit drinking and a single mom, it was so hard; I was so deranged. So I feel an obligation to be of service. And there were people who helped me and talked to me and talked to my kid, who made places in their lives when I was so isolated—I want to be available to them— to any woman I have time for who is raising a kid and trying to quit drinking, I want to be available to them. So I guess I’d talk to that with that amount of a fig leaf.

"You assume that when you quit drinking, you’re surrendering to that kind of nasty schoolmarm rule-maker. But for me getting sober has been freedom."

I’m going to Michigan this week to talk to women at an organization that runs domestic violence shelters for women who are in violent relationships and struggling with addiction, or their partners are.

Do you think some people have addictive tendencies that both precede and outlast active use: the “addictive personality”? I’m thinking, now, about your habit of coming into class with two giant Wegmans green teas, and the gregarious ferocity with which you approach your students, and any conversation, which kinda scares people sometimes...

Oh, yeah! I would snort all the coke and kiss all the boys—if I could live on Ho-Hos, Jack Daniel’s and pharmaceutical cocaine, I would (and not blow my brains out, ‘cause that’s exactly what I’d do). I have a completely addictive personality. Diet Coke is my last—God, I know people counting days off Diet Coke; I’m such a Diet Cokehead. Now I won’t let myself buy it. I’m sorta like the girl who only gets coke from boys—at parties I let myself have a Diet Coke with lime and it’s exactly like snorting a line. If a bomb goes off, I’m getting a carton of Marlboros.

There’s a notion of your being and celebrating the pistol-packing outlaw—a very Texan lack of adherence to convention—which addicts often resemble. But in recovery, the idea of surrender, of adherence to rules, is something people have to learn. How have you managed?

I used to think of it as an adherence to rules, and the really horrible thing about quitting drinking is, I think, inside my mind I was so divided against myself. Nobody really talks about what happens to you and your level of self-confidence when you tell yourself every fucking day you’re going to drink X, and then you drink 10 times that—or you’re not going to drink at all and you drink anyway. You become very split off against yourself. So there was a part of me that would yell and scream and say, “You stupid bitch, goddamnit, you said you weren’t gonna drink and you drank anyway.” And there was this other part that was like “Fuck those people! Fuck the rules!” you know, blah blah blah…

You assume that when you quit drinking, you’re surrendering to that kind of nasty schoolmarm rule-maker. But for me getting sober has been freedom—freedom from anxiety and freedom from…my head. What has kept me sober is not that strict rule-following schoolmarm. There’s more of a loving presence that you become aware of that is I think everyone’s real, actual self—who we really are.

Blake said, “...we are put on Earth a little space / That we might learn to bear the beams of love.” And I think, quote-unquote, “bearing the beams of love” is where the freedom is, actually. Every drunk is an outlaw, and certainly every artist is. Making amends, to me, is again about freedom. I do that to be free of the past, to not be haunted. That schoolmarm part of me—that hypercritical finger-wagging part of myself that I thought was gonna keep me sober—that was is actually what helped me stay drunk. What keeps you sober is love and connection to something bigger than yourself.

When I got sober, I thought giving up was saying goodbye to all the fun and all the sparkle, and it turned out to be just the opposite. That’s when the sparkle started for me.

Nina Puro is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her poetry and essays have appeared in publications such as Third Coast, Pleiades and Harper Palate.

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