Before and After I Got Sober: Musings on Creativity

By Talia Bronson 04/23/20

Alcohol was actually the builder of confidences – I was on top of the pyramid for about 20 minutes a day when I was drinking. The other 23 and some odd hours, I was on the bottom.

sober woman writer working on her memoir
when I was drunk or high, I started many projects and followed through with very few.  Photo by Susanna Marsiglia on Unsplash

Before I got sober, I feared I would lose my ability to write. If I’m honest, I was afraid I’d lose my ability to create at all, from writing poetry, to writing fiction or memoir, to roasting a pan full of broccoli rabe, to knitting a scarf.

When I think back, I wasn’t much of a writer when intoxicated. Freshman year of college, I’d written a paper when I was drunk for my first year composition class. The paper was on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I was, of course, the central character in what I'd written. I was on the roof of my dorm, holding a draft of the piece, and a helicopter came to pick it up for me and take it to my professor. I essentially wrote about hallucinating at a time when hallucination wasn't far from the forefront of my daily activities. Sophomore year, I’d written a paper on Sartre that self-destructed so that the reader would feel he or she was left with a handful of loose letters.

I had a vintage light blue Smith Corona typewriter I bought because it looked like the one Raymond Carver used. I can’t call to mind if I was drunk the years I typed poetry on that typewriter – that time period all melds into itself – but I do remember that after I’d type a poem, I’d be left with a handful of “O’s,” because the typewriter broke through the paper and carved out the letter “O” each time it printed it. I do remember that I sold the typewriter when I needed money for alcohol, a trade I regret to this day. It was like giving up a pet because you can’t take care of it.

I can’t prove that I was a better writer when I was drunk or high, although I did nearly finish a draft of a memoir when I was high. I can’t remember one word of that draft, nor can I locate it on any of my old computers. I remember it had to do with a mental health diagnosis I had recently received, but beyond that, I draw a blank. When I think back, I can picture my dog lying in my lap or in his bed at my feet while I wrote, hunched over my computer, between periods of suicidality marked by brief periods of elation where I’d buy a coat online or some book I would probably never read.

When I was drunk, I was filled with ideas. The alcohol made me feel like I could invent the next light bulb, or in-ground swimming pool. It made me feel like I could take home the prize on Dancing with the Stars every time I danced in a bar, or on a table, or in my studio apartment in New York City. More to the point, it made me feel like I could write the next great novel, or memoir.

I wrote emails to literary agents nearly every day, even sold a few on my poorly thought-through outlines that would never amount to anything. One particular idea agents seemed keen on was that I would attend all sorts of 12-step meetings, from Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous to Clutterers Anonymous to Alcoholics Anonymous and write about being a fake; some of these meetings I might have qualified for, like AA, others I clearly didn’t. The point was that I would be a fraud, spying on everyone, reporting back to “the publishing world.” 

I had no business even contemplating such a false existence, but I titled my emails to agents “Stories from the Rulebreaker” and planned on writing one short story for each autonomous group. I hadn’t named the stories yet, but I imagined the titles sounding like “How I Messed Up: In the Clutches of a Clutter.” Nothing about this project was good or funny or well-conceived; when I was drunk or high, I started many projects and followed through with very few. 

I passed the name of an agent I was “working” with (she was trying to get me to write something cohesive) along to a writer friend who didn’t have a drinking problem, and the friend signed with the agent while I just got a handful of quippy emails and a passing nod.

Still, in my mind, I was a creative success. I’d knitted an afghan that covered my queen-sized bed, and there were notes for poems and stories littering my room. I’d write on paper napkins and business cards, notes I imagined would be auctioned off on eBay once I became famous. Instead, I’d find them, years later, crumpled at the bottom of my bag.

When I was drunk, I wanted to be famous. I deserved to be famous. My friends always said what a good writer I was, and I believed them. Which is part of the beauty of my disease – it didn’t kill my confidence in myself as a writer. Alcohol was actually the builder of confidences – I was on top of the pyramid for about 20 minutes a day when I was drinking. The other 23 and some odd hours, I was on the bottom. And I didn’t have the confidence to finish anything I managed to start in the first place. I was picturing myself walking into 12-step meetings aimed at treating something I didn’t have. 

I was foolish, a foolish woman who was trying too hard. Rather than accepting that I was a worker among workers, I felt like a failure when I didn’t get a poem into a top literary journal, even when it was published in a decent one.

Today, in sobriety, I still write. I’ve been sober 13 years, and I’ve written much of that time. Not always well, and my work isn’t always accepted into a top journal, but now I work hard at what I set out to do, and I usually finish. Granted, I’ve published a chapbook of poetry, have self-published a novel and have a few more in plastic containers of works I've abandoned under my bed, but I have written them. I’m not proud of everything I write, but I’m always proud that I’ve written.

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