Let’s Get Personal: Why Do I Write?
I’ve been on a marketing campaign for the past couple of weeks, and missed my deadline for this blog last Monday…so I just plain skipped a week. Those of you who know me are probably a bit surprised. I’m pretty particular about getting things done on time. I’ve always been that way, but I haven’t always been able to approach my work from a place of confidence and calm like I can today. Fact is, like a lot of writers, I was a bit of an emotional wreck when I was young.
One of the things that interests readers most is why an author writes. What place does it come from? What’s the inspiration? Is it autobiographical? I don’t think too many authors wonder such things about their own favorite writers, but who knows. I might be wrong.
A few people have asked me some personal questions relating to my own work, and I’m afraid the answers I have given have often been elliptical at best. “There are autobiographical elements to certain characters here and there, but it’s really fiction.” That kind of thing.
So today I’m using this blog entry to answer that question about my first novel, Brothers’ Hand. In Chapter One, small-town hero Jerome Brothers gets his hand chopped off by a speeding locomotive whilst under the influence of LSD. Not autobiographical, right?
Well…I started writing that story somewhere around 1991, I think. It came organically, the characters fully formed. Jerome’s loss felt personal, but only because I identified with him as my main character. What I didn’t identify until much later was why I wrote the story.
I took my last drink in February of 1989, just two months after getting a Master of Arts in English. I didn’t stop drinking because I was such a religious guy, or because I’d crashed a car, or anything dramatic at all. So my “story” was a pretty boring one, I thought.
If you had asked me the day before I stopped drinking if I had an alcohol problem, I would have said no. I didn’t think I had one. What I had was an alcohol solution. When I took a drink, I was no longer the bespectacled nerdy kid who scored in the 99th percentile on a bunch of national tests. I became the cool guy with the long hair and the rebel attitude.
Alcohol solved so many adolescent problems for me: I could ask girls out, I could dance, I could be funny, and I became known as something of a Casanova. I never, ever saw it as a problem, and almost no one called me out on my drinking habit.
I say almost, because there was one person I vaguely recollect saying something at a party. The conversation was along these lines:
Non-drunk person: Boy, you really like to drink, don’t you?
Me: I’m a writer. [Toasts the non-drunk person.] Writers drink.
And with that, I took another drink.
Of course, I had writer heroes: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. I had musical heroes, too: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. You get the idea.
When I sobered up a few years later, that icy February in 1989, I still had no idea that there was a problem. But as soon as I stopped, I sure found out. Detoxing at home without medication was no fun. And afterwards, I felt like I couldn’t function at all.
I had just gotten a Master’s in English, yet suddenly I couldn’t read a full paragraph without losing my sense of what the words meant.
I felt like someone had stripped off all of my skin, like there was a wind blowing on me everywhere I went.
If a woman so much as touched my arm, I would just about jump to the ceiling.
Learning to live without my “solution” was like learning to live without your dominant hand…just like the character I ultimately created.
Again, I had no intent of creating a metaphor for recovery when I set out on the adventure of writing Brothers’ Hand. In fact, by then, I’d moved into recovering from the codependent relationships I had with a bunch of other alcoholics in my life; if any one of them drank, I’d be devastated. I had no ability to detach myself from their problems. So codependency factors into the Brothers’ Hand narrative…not coincidentally, it’s Maria Santisia, Jerome’s physical therapist, who has the codependency issue.
Maria’s initials are M.S., just like mine. Make of that what you will.
There is a character in Brothers’ Hand with a major substance abuse issue : Johnny Caruso, who careens through people’s lives leaving a wake of destruction that dwarfs the damage I did in my own life. The novel is largely a redemption story, but the question of whether there’s any chance of redemption for Johnny doesn’t come until the end of the book. No spoilers here.
I write all this not because I want to prepare for a memoir, but because I really want to make a connection with all of my readers, and find out more about what you like, what you want to read, what you are reading, and what matters most to you.