Writing is different for everyone. When I am rolling, I am disconnected from the world around me. My brain is a white hot fire. My fingers sprint over the keys – the kind of sprint where you are running so fast that you are convinced you are moments from toppling over, yet the fingers land. When I am taken OUT of this reverie I become unreasonably angry. I do not act on the anger. But I seethe. The sharp teeth of retribution whisper in my ears.
Years and years ago, I used to drink (among other bad habits). I did not drink socially. I did not drink anti-socially. I drank all the time. Drink was my medicine. It cleared the cobwebs of leftover sleep. It stilled the shaking of my hands. I bought store brand bourbon and drank half a fifth a night. A whole fifth on a good night. Or was that a bad night?
I rarely wrote while drinking. Or at least while drunk. Writing was one of the things I would not allow myself to do while intoxicated. The brain fire dimmed. The fingers truly did stumble. Writing was the only thing I cared about, and I wrote sober, even with sweat pouring from me…even with fingers shaking so badly I could barely type.
I mention this because it is interesting to me. I played shows drunk. I went to class drunk. I went on first dates drunk. It made sense at the time. I was in much better shape with a bellyful of bourbon than sober. My movements were more fluid. My mind less scattered.
Several things happened to me when I was young that I have only recently come to grips with. They tore at me when I was sober. I hid from them in the burn of cheap whiskey. But not when I wrote. And people asked me why I wrote such dark things. Because the darkness was reality, unabridged by drink. Edges clear and defined. It was when the edges blurred that I could emerge into the world. It was when I was not conscious of being alive that I did not want to die. And writers drank. Shit. Writers were the best drinkers. Bukowski spurred me forward. Kerouac was my idol, partly for his words, mostly for his self destruction.
I have changed my ways. I have learned different ways to deal with the demons of my past. My writing has improved. I am a “better person”. Yet, I sat down to write this piece today, and I wondered at all the writers waking up with desert-dry mouths. Friends of mine who still live in a bottle or a needle or a bottle of pills…that are OK…because a doctor prescribed them?
I thought particularly of one friend of mine. He was my reflection. For many years we rode the same rails and it was his hand that kept me from falling completely. Competition, jealousy, love, dependence…call it what you want. We needed each other. He is currently lying in a bed somewhere either in withdrawal or in a heroin darkness. I am waiting for the call to his funeral. He has gone too far and cannot be brought back.
Inside his mind there are a million devils. He kills them…rather, he buys time with the shade of bliss that opiates provide. Somewhere in that mind, there is still a great writer. That writer will die with him.
So, I thought of my brothers and sisters today. Because we are you know…brothers and sisters. No one but a writer can ever understand the beautiful misery of our pursuit. The masochistic yearning. And some of you have your curtains drawn. And some of you know people who are hiding from the brightness of their own light. And maybe there is something we can do and maybe there isn’t, but we can by God try.
When I think of the time I stole from myself, I am angry. I wrote. I published. But it could have been more. I could have been more. I thank whoever is responsible that I have any time left at all…so, I guess I thank myself. Sure, my memories are scarred in ways I cannot change. And sure, there were bastards who stole from me, but never as much as I stole from myself.
Writers drink. Some of you wrap yourself in this cliché and find solace. I know you do. Because I did. You are mistaken. Writers write. Drinkers drink. Some do both, but I would rather excel in one and fail at the other. I am a failed alcoholic. I could not seal the deal. And I will be forever grateful.
Writers, there are pitfalls all around us. There is drink and drugs and apathy and depression and stasis. That is the worst of all…and it is what drinking gave me. Stasis. I did not look backward, but I did not move forward. I was in the holding pattern that precedes death.
I would rather live in a sober darkness than in a pitch black bottle. I am a man of absolutes. Granted. And some of you may be able to keep a foot in both worlds. But some of you won’t. Think about this. For yourselves. For your words that ricochet like crazed wind-up toys inside your mind. Think of it for my old friend, who is slowly dying when he should be here, competing, supporting, putting words on the blank page, fearless – with the rest of us.
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JD Mader is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and author of the novels JOE CAFÉ and THE BIKER. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his blog:www.jdmader.com.
43 thoughts on “Shadows”
Great, great post… I've struggled with those demons, and still do. Smoking was my vice… my mind was clear but my lungs were not. It's tough to deal with those moments of thinking – "I'm just writing crap" – the anxiety and the tension while you're still driven to keep writing.
Oh, BTW, gave up smoking over ten years ago… after a lot of years of doing it. One of the hardest things I've ever done. Sometimes when I'm writing I can feel my lungs almost demand that satisfaction…
Thanks Valerie. Yeah, quitting smoking was a bitch for me, too. I'm about ten years free of it, too. Lucky, no way I could afford it now.
Dan, you are good, man. Very touching and truthful. Glad to have you a part of my life now. Thanks for the changes you've made.
Thanks, Jim. I wasn't always a good man. I aspire to be now. And to make up for some of the things I have done. I'm glad to know you as well.
I won't go so far to call it a wonderful post, because it isn't. It is, though, realistic and to the point. You have faced the demons and it would appear you have a handle on it. I hope, for your sake, that is true. You have described so many of us, and it reads quite well. Cheers, and I hope to hear more from you and what you are doing.
I won't go so far as to say thank you…just kidding. I do thank you, for stopping by and for your thoughts. Stick around and you'll hear plenty from me. And there's enough to kill a horse at http://www.jdmader.com.
The only person that can help you move on upward is you, yourself. It takes strength and determination and a great deal of willpower. I admire anyone who kicks a bad habit or gets themselves out of quagmire of despair because THEY know they had to. You rock, Mader – you rock.
Thanks Cathy. I will be happy when we're all rocking together (granted it may be in rocking chairs). 😉
I usually write sober, but I've been known to drink and write. It's interesting the difference. Too much alcohol and it's utter drivel, the equivalent of that rambling drunk stereotype at the bar. But I also believe there's a sweet spot, a point where the disinhibition effect (maybe) releases the dogs of writing from their leash. Akin, in fact, to your description of running so fast you think you are going to topple at any minute, yet exhilarating. Rare as it is, it's such an incredible feeling that I'm willing to risk it all to feel that again. But we're all different. Some can maintain on certain drugs while others will, frankly, end up killing us. I can't go near tobacco or I'm sunk. Never ever let me get my hands on opiates. I don't think it's either romantic or glamourous and I've seen the damage done by addiction first hand, but I don't want to ever say to anyone: don't drink. Don't drug. Because our roads have all led from somewhere different, been filled with different demons, and are likely leading someplace equally different: possibly redemption, possibly something a lot darker.
Dan, you just made me think again, which is, what, twice now in the last few months? Please stop, or I release the gerbils, bro!
LOL. I agree, some people can regulate. And I also agree about the sweetspot. The problem, when I was writing and drinking, was it usually lasted about 2 mins before I beat it flat with a bourbon bat.
Yeah, riding the wild lightning!
Actually "stop thinking" can also work.
Yeah, David… I struggle with demon alcohol now and then, too….
Yeah, it's such a love/hate thing for me. I blame my Irish heritage (he says, settling for lazy stereotypes).
I wish it hadn't got hold of me, but it did. And I didn't write anything useful the entire time. Can't believe the yik I turned out, and over to editors, in that time and am surprised they had me back. Truth to tell? I got a prescription for antabuse – willpower just wasn't my thing – and it turned it around for me, and saved my marriage and home. Wish I could say I had more spine, but I didn't. Bravo Dan, for a great read.
Thanks brother. And cut yourself some slack. I don't think it has as much to do with spine as we're told it does.
You've reminded me of that quote by Rudyard Kipling: "Words are the most powerful drug used by Man."
There's that romantic notion of the smoking and booze/drug fuelled writers, wrestling with the demons/opening the doors to perception.
I wonder how many writers fall for that idea to the destruction of themselves and their writing?
Never done drugs. Okay, I've experimented with them but I found them boring and detrimental to the words (as for the 'mellow' druggie crowd at uni, they were some of the most boring and uptight people I've ever met, but that's another story).
Booze is okay, do plenty of that on nights out with mates, but it dilutes the mental focus and the words.
Smoking. Okay, that's my vice. And I got to kill the habit before it kils me (and I ain't being metaphorical — I'm not dancing on the edge of the statistical cliff any more, the fags have got my number now) but that's easier said than done. There was a time it aided the writing, now it does quite the opposite.
Words, they really are the only worthwhle drug.
Or maybe as Williams S Burroughs had it, it's best to be infected with this virus from outer space.
Great comment, Mark. And good luck with the smoking. It's tough. If you would like to know how I broke the habit (or if anyone else would for that matter), email me at unemployedimagination.com. It is not for the masses. 😉
"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
Good stuff, Dan. Have a glass of milk on me. 😉
That is precisely the way I describe the way I used to drink. That quote. Thanks McNally!!!!!!!
Still laboring under the yoke of my slavish addiction to literary quotes. 😉
None of that kind of vice for me. My issue was the inertia from being convinced I did not have a voice – at least not one anyone would want to hear. That trap had me hogtied for 55 years. Even now, whenever something goes wrong I feel myself slinking back there with my tail between my legs. Lots of therapy and self-talk is my way out. You've almost given me the belief that I could write about that journey and people might actually want to know. Thanks Dan. Raw, dark, but honest – and honest is the ONLY way out in the long run.
True, Yvonne, and self-doubt is one of the most dangerous addictions of all. One we may never escape completely.
"There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge."
Hunter S. Thompson
Ether. One of the few things I've never tried. 😉
Dan, you described my son (although his was pot and not alcohol) and it made me cry. It's hard to be a mum and watch your child go through something like that. I think he's coming through it now.
My parents were spared a lot (I was pretty sly), but they definitely knew there was a problem. Now that I am a dad, I understand more how it must have been for them. Thank you for your comment.
JD – I will go as far as to say that you wrote a great piece, in content as well as in execution. Three young writers I have known didn't fare as well as you: WWII had ended an they were barely out of their teens in Belgrade still smoldering of bombs and hatreds. One on Antabus (at the time a great hope for the cure) couildn't get over the execution of his father as the enmy of the people, drank himself to death. Another, aspiring poet, lost two wives who sought to help him by joining him in drink, and then lost himself in it. The third one, suddenly tranformded by a love/muse stopped showing up at my doorstep at 5 in the morning, shaking in need of a drink. It was sheer willpower, cold turkey, the way I many years later stopped smoking. Of all our addictions, writing has always been the best one.
Your last sentence speaks volumes, Jasha. Well put and well reasoned. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.
Thank you for posting this, JD. I have enough little demons to deal with, but fortunately drugs and alcohol have never been among them. However, I've watched those I love, including family members, struggle. Some have lost the fight. This post reminds me of a musician friend, stupidly brilliant, who blunted himself with coke and booze, the ordinary world too much to bear.
It is a shame. The sharpest sometimes feel the need to dull themselves.
Well JD, I think I've slowed the reeling enough to leave a comment. It is incredible to me that you are able to so honestly, beautifully, articulate the difficult path you've taken to now. I appreciate you sharing it because your insights of course challenge all of us to look at our own paths.
Alcohol didn't get me but by God it grabbed ahold of those around me and pulled them out of the game. Perhaps it was because their jagged journeys ended up cutting me, I didn't start with it myself. Drugs didn't get me though I gave them several opportunities. Smoking (anything) didn't get me because my lungs were scarred early on from the unfiltered 3 pack a day habit of my parent – breathing just seemed too important to mar it myself. Yet I do have a vice and it has caused 'scars' that are, at once, both visible and invisible. I could say that I would never write about it, name it, put it in front of others to comment on as you have here…but I guess in some way, well in most ways, our wounds do bleed out into our writing.
I was moved by your description of the aching connection between you and your friend, and how you are feeling his loss as he dies rather than after. It is a cruelty of life to see someone going too early and painfully, particularly when it is someone who "kept me from falling completely. Competition, jealousy, love, dependence…call it what you want. We needed each other." Unfortunately, love cannot always sustain, can't always put the pieces together one last time, can't always pull someone's hand off that trigger. I know JD, I've tried. Been there, done that, got the bloodied t-shirt.
I guess ultimately what I'm trying to say, JD, is I'm damn glad you made it through. And thanks my friend for writing this.
I'm glad, too. But mostly, I'm glad that there are people like you, Jo. People who are willing to invest their time and mental energy to actually cut beneath the surface that most people skate on. Thank you.
You have heart Dan. The honesty in your writing is always there.
"When I think of the time I stole from myself, I am angry. I wrote. I published. But it could have been more. I could have been more."
You shouldn't beat yourself up over that. I have a strong feeling, having lived through a few realms of hell myself, that your early experiences with addiction have made you a better writer. You've been to places that many in this world can only experience through nightmares; or your writing.
Redemption is a gift that you give yourself. Others might forgive us of our faults, but until we forgive ourselves we are never truly free.
You've traveled down some dark paths, lost on the road of addiction, but found your way home. I've been there too brother. Thankfully, someone left the light on to guide me out of the shadows. And while I do have many regrets, there's no doubt that I'm a stronger person having lived through those experiences. You are too.
Thanks Rush. You're right brother. Why is forgiving yourself so hard? It doesn't make sense. Maybe it isn't that way for everyone. I'm glad we're both on the right path now.
Its not a great post. It's honest and heartbreaking. I am sorry for you and glad that you overcame your struggle.
I can't drink, vertigo prevents it, but I've known (and worked) with people who live their lives in the bottle. It's a sad reality and, it makes me wonder; whether we admit to it or not, every writer has something they're addicted too, something they feel they need to keep going. If we didn't have demons, we wouldn't write. I have my demons from the Navy and various other parts of my life I'm not too proud of. PTSD is a bitch. It's a struggle to forget and to move on. Forgiveness is awful, it's one of those things that people can spout off like so many cheap words can be, but when you seek it from within, to allow yourself to let go, it's hard. Harder than it should be.
I hope you find it, JD. I hope you can let go, and I know you don't know me, but I'm proud that you can stand on your own feet.
Thanks, I agree…although I don't think it's just writers…I think we are all addicts.
Having lost a stepson at age 42 to drugs, leaving 3 sons, 2 left wondering why and one too young to understand. It's definitely a demon, one that can be hard to comprehend by those not haunted that way.
Childhood demons are fought in many ways, some productive, some not. We can only hope to struggle through and come out better for it all at the end.
Thanks for an inside view, I hope we get to meet one day!
Thanks Donna, I'm sorry for your loss.
I saved this post to read when I had time and I'm glad I did.
Forgive yourself. You are a wonderful husband and father, and a very talented guy. I'm glad I know you.
I am little so I can't drink a lot. When I do, I order things on the internet I don't need, or insult some guy on Anthony Bourdain's show who eats squirrel. Or, I frolic about the house, dancing happily.
Thanks Lois. I'm glad I know you, too. I'm big though, and when I drank, I just drank more.
A few beers are fine…it was liquor that did me in. Not patient enough to drink liquor. 🙂
Someday I'm gonna drink one of your fancy cocktails though.
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