Depictions of writers, be it on cable television or in movies, are often split between one of two representations: the intelligent, pompous, successful novelist or the broken, struggling writer who turns to alcoholism to sait their loneliness.
Perhaps more troubling are the stories of those canonized writers, individuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver, who made a name for themselves by their writing some of the most celebrated work in the English language while simultaneously drinking themselves either to death or to the brink.
For myself, the introduction to these writers and their success served as a false roadmap to how a writer should act or be: the more I drink, the more I smoke, the more rebellious I am, the more successful I’m sure to become. The writers who had accomplished something grand or unique used alcohol to amplify their work. But as Lewis Hyde notes in his essay on alcohol and poetry, “Four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves.”
In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing interrogates the lives of six male writers (the four writers above, John Berryman and Tennessee Williams) to better understand the mythologies built around their personas and consumption. The deeper Laing looked, the more patterns that emerged connecting these six writers. Laing said most of them had “that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father.” She explains that all were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy.
I first read Laing’s book when I was twenty-three—maybe twenty-four. At that time, I was drinking on a regular basis. I remember pouring myself a glass of Jim Beam, neat, reclining in the leather chair I had taken from my childhood home before my father was forced to sell. There are scribbles throughout the margins, thoughts I’d put on the pulp in reaction to the histories or epiphanies. The irony of my younger self, with a family history of alcoholism and addiction, reading about those who suffered, and in most cases died, due to alcoholism and addiction was lost on me then.
In hindsight, I see some parallels I shared with those “Freudian pairings.” My mother wasn’t overbearing. She was strong-willed with a big personality. She would move between lecturing me about the importance of education only to mistake Chicken of the Sea for actual chicken, using it in her buffalo dip. Even after we argued during my turbulent teenage years, in the evenings she’d lean in close, whiskey heavy on her breath, and tell me that she was in charge, it was her rules under her roof, we’d say our sorries the next day and move on. Yet, she allowed me the space to explore life in my youth, reeling me back in when the line stretched too far.
As for my father, it’s hard to label absence as weak. A lie I often tell myself is that he never came back from the trip to Florida he took when I was ten years old, one that required him to fly to Miami and pilot a forty-foot Trojan with a flybridge—at a steal of a price if you asked him—up the east coast, merrily drinking all the way home, his life becoming nothing but a dream, shattered at the sight of his son standing at the edge of the dock, awaiting his return. Of course, the truth is that my father was absent well before that trip to Florida, only it wasn’t so physical. As the years went on, he grew more absent from my life.
When I was sober, I hated myself despite my best efforts; when I was inebriated, I hated myself slightly less, and that lessening was enough to drive my hand back to the bottle. The inadequacy, nearly perpetual.
While I’ve grown since that initial reading, reconciling with my self-hatred and sense of inadequacy, and have found myself in a loving, supportive marriage—something my younger self could never have dreamed of—I still, at times, struggle with my sense of self, as the writers of Laing’s book struggled, albeit in varying ways.
The self is nothing more than a collage of different sums of a former whole, remnants of the past that adhere to our psyche, for better or worse. This, in many ways, means that the self is unstable, fluid, and always changing. There was a time when I believed people couldn’t change, that they were who they were—nothing more, always less. Now, I know the faulty logic in that belief and that people are much more than their past. The trouble is, perhaps, that certain factors, such as individuation, attachment, and assimilation, influence the sense of self.
: the process by which individuals in society become differentiated from one another
My earliest memories of want are from my youth: I wanted to be an artist—a writer. When I was eight, I’d awake and scribble my dreams into the black and white marbled composition book I hid in my closet, long since lost to time. I read Jack London’s White Fang and felt a deep pull toward the natural world despite growing up in the suburbs of Baltimore. The desire to create was already rooted deep. If individuation is the process of becoming, then those early years of my life were edging toward the life I’d later try to inhabit through alcohol.
To individuate, one needs the space in their youth to explore, learn, and pursue desires. The older one is, the more necessary it is to strip away the social mask and false identity the ego created for itself during early development and the unconscious influences of the archetypes, such as those imposed by media depictions of artists and writers. Social masks and false identities are shields to the world, protecting the actual self by means of the ought self (or how one believes others think they should be), which often coincides with archetypes and stereotypes. This often pushes the self to be more of a personal brand than a genuine expression of who one is. As Elisa Gabbert satirically wrote in The Self Unstable, “Don’t just be yourself—build your personal brand. The self is unstable. It might not be found by the search engines. It might be rejected. The self regenerates every five or six days. A consistent brand, a coherent self.” And the goal of resetting the ego, so to speak, is increasing the consciousness of the individual, which allows a person to heal and move toward wholeness.
Carl Jung explains individuation in Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, “The aim of individuation is nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand and the suggestive power of the primordial images on the other.”
However, the process of individuation can be a fragile one.
At dinner one evening with my family, we dined at a waterfront seafood restaurant, Hemingway’s, well before I knew who he was. I drew sea creature after sea creature on the backside of the paper menu while my father drank beer after beer, keeping pace with my grandfather as my mother and grandmother preciously sipped red wine. When I showed my father the efforts of my drawing—whales and sharks swimming in white space with each other—he laughed. He laughed and told me not to quit my day job. While this may seem slight for a child not often supported in the ways I perhaps should’ve been, it cut deep, altered my worldview, and caused me to give up on my dream of becoming an artist.
Alex Klein from Healthline writes, “If your attempt at self-expression earns only criticism or punishment from parents, friends, or anyone else, you might respond by ignoring your internal sense of self. It may seem safer and more beneficial to reshape yourself into someone more easily accepted.”
Over the years, I unconsciously separated into public and private selves; turned to an ought self to shield my actual self while my ideal self suffered.
The way we are perceived—the self known to society—is where meaning and value are assigned rather than the “I” we privately maintain within ourselves. The private self yearns for one thing while the public self acts by the discord around us, adhering to the norms of society, sometimes in the form of peacocking, to garner the most positive attention, regardless of the atrophy the private self may suffer.
: a strong emotional bond that an infant forms with a caregiver (such as a mother), especially when viewed as a basis for normal emotional and social development
Perhaps the most complicated of the three factors, attachment can repeatedly shape and reshape a person’s sense of self. According to Klein, “Attachment, or your relationship with your parents or primary caregivers, plays a significant role in your understanding of other relationships later in life. An insecure attachment can affect not only the development of your identity but your behavior in adult romantic relationships.”
Following the divorce of my parents, my already absent father became more so while my mother, who was always there, started to drift away out of necessity—she worked two jobs to pay for our home and was starting to date again. Aside from my long-time friends, who were a chosen family, there was little familial framework or structure throughout my teenage years and well into my twenties.
Often, I dreaded attending family events because I was the lone waiter, struggling with severe anxiety and depression, perhaps the early stages of alcoholism, trying to make my way through college, surrounded by a family of doctors. I felt distant from everyone, without connection: a man, alone, on a boat adrift in the ocean, led by the faulty map of stereotypes upheld by those writers before me, the holes my behavior bore slowly sinking it.
The lack of connection exacerbated the drinking. Eventually, I succumbed to a severe depressive episode, one that robbed me of sleep. I wrote in an old notebook from those days that I felt as if it had “scooped out the innards of my mind, leaving the body to make its way on instinct, alone.”
I self-medicated with cheap red wine and kept two bottles beside my bed—a lifeline I feared would run out immediately. In a small town like Dundalk, no one questioned why a twenty-three-year-old man bought two bottles of cheap Spanish red wine every other day, along with the occasional bottle of Evan Williams.
One semester, in my junior year at Towson University, I sat in my car before class. It was the last class before spring break. Parked atop the liberal arts building parking garage, I contemplated the speed necessary to break through the concrete and rebar wall. The more I thought about the matter, the less attached I felt. I’d become untethered from the world, without connection, and felt myself drifting away, which I now know is a form of derealization. I grabbed the pint of Evan Williams I stashed in my glovebox to weigh myself down and keep myself from further spinning out—an ineffective move, at best.
That following week, I called out from work every day and remained in bed, avoiding my sister, whom I lived with. In my fugue state, I truly believed she wouldn’t notice my absence. Near the end of the week, she confronted me as I lay in bed, a few stray beer cans and a bottle of whiskey on the folding dinner table I used as a nightstand. The air sour, she walked over to the window on the far side of the room and opened it. Sunlight poured into the dim room.
“Are you okay? I’m worried about you. You’ve been holed up in your room for the past few days. Is there anything I can get you?” She stood on the threshold and awaited my response, shifting her weight from one hip to another.
“I’m tired,” I told her. “I think I need to rest.”
She wasn’t convinced. “Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
The white door closed softly behind her.
When the storm of my depression passed, I read Stephen King’s On Writing at the suggestion of a previous coworker. At some point in my reading of King’s book, my sense of self shifted toward the opposite end of the spectrum. With Bukowski, I thought alcohol was the key to my creative liberation; with King, I now held persistence as my guiding principle of success.
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to,” King writes. “If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind…I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.” If this is what Stephen King, the writer who published a novel and scored a movie adaptation deal at twenty-six, does, then perhaps I’d obtain similar success by adopting this mindset.
With my meager paychecks, I bought notebooks of all sizes and varieties, opting for pocket-sized Moleskins when possible, and I bought books from writers that I thought I should’ve read by then. William Faulkner. Ernest Hemingway. John Steinbeck. Carson McCullers. Joan Didion. My drinking slowed, but there was no shortage of frustration as each new book struggled to hold my attention—another holdover from my heavy drinking. But rather than arriving at a healthier lifestyle, I’d merely traded one addiction for another.
No matter where I went, I always carried a pen, notebook, and, in many cases, a book. This may sound innocent enough, but here’s the thing: I became a passive participant in every facet of my life. I’d go to bars and read and write, even at the busiest of times, carefully pacing my drinking until I didn’t. I’d jot down dialogue at family events. I’d scratch ideas during conversations with friends. I detached myself from the organic agency of a moment—each interaction had to have, tucked beneath the surface, some deeper meaning.
But sometimes, there is no deeper meaning. Sometimes, there’s much more gained when we’re present in the moment.
I remember with absolute clarity the ways the waves cascaded along the rocky coastline beneath where we dined in Mexico for my twenty-first birthday. How the sun waned over the horizon, the laughter of my family, the warmth and immeasurable joy of being present, and my toast, an homage to Vonnegut, the writer who indeed sent me up the river: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” All because I favored, at that time, living in the moment rather than anticipating the next drink or recording it in painstaking detail.
It’s not only the removal of agency this obsession with documentation imposed on me, it also became a barometer of my success and self-worth. If I wasn’t writing, nothing good was happening to me. And, in tandem, that also meant nothing was being published. If I wasn’t published, what was I even doing?
Publications, while important, aren’t the measure of a writer—nor is it a measure of self-worth. I lost much of myself when I became so consumed by the drive to publish my work. Most days, I was listless. Without the chance for acceptance by unknown readers on the far end of the computer screen, there was no value to the day, and it made me a miserable person to be around.
The shift in focus from writing to publishing happened after my first email from a reader. While the exchange has long since been lost, the reader of that published poem wrote to thank me for my work—it resonated with them and their patient, who I was told wasn’t reacting to psychiatric care. The reader shared that with me and urged me to keep writing.
What should’ve been an inspiring call to stay the course I’d been on ignited the want for more recognition. At the time, it unknowingly shifted my desires from writing to better understand the inner workings of my selfhood to writing to be seen, veiled as a call to help others. This coincided with the rise of so-called “Instapoets,” a period of my life encapsulated by shame that stemmed from the underlying sense that I, in a way, sold out by writing without depth. If a poem reached 50 likes, I felt it was good; if it reached over 100 likes, it was a personal hit. The trouble is that this was no way to measure the quality of my work. Reducing creative work to numbers only serves to harm, further distorting the artistic truth behind the work’s intent.
In time, my sense of self further fragmented my public and private self, obscuring the purpose behind writing— I became someone I didn’t want to be but felt I had to for the sake of fame, reinforced by those damaging artistic stereotypes. It was rare that any of my poems after that point felt impactful or substantive. If I revisit those poems, there is shame in knowing that I folded toward popularity, producing work that I thought others would resonate with rather than what I actually resonated with, losing what little attachment I had left to who I was.
My wife helped reveal to me the seemingly innocuous connection between my self-worth and writing while visiting my family in Delaware. This after a string of rejections regarding short stories that I had been working on for months. Before heading to the beach one morning, we went for a walk around the neighborhood where my mother and her long-time partner lived. During the stroll, she asked what was bothering me. I was reluctant to answer. Eventually, after our third loop, I confessed that I didn’t feel I had a purpose in this life, partly because all I had written recently was rejected.
“I feel lost about who I am,” I might’ve said. Without hesitation, as if she’d been waiting for this moment, she told me that writing isn’t everything.
“You cannot measure yourself based on what is and isn’t published—that’s no way to live. Productivity doesn’t equate to self-worth. It would be best if you got that sorted out,” she said. And she was right. If I wanted to be happy, I had to make changes in my life, like separating my personal value from my writing.
: to absorb into the cultural tradition of a population or group
The factor we face daily is assimilation. There will always arise the want to fit in, to feel akin to others in a communal sense. Often, the result is altering our pre-existing ideas and interests to better fit into the world. Klein breaks down what I call assimilation as “A desire to fit in stems from the struggle to find common ground with your peers, pushing you to become a social chameleon. Instead of holding on to your sense of self, you begin shifting your identity to better fit in with multiple groups.”
Born and raised in Baltimore for twenty-one years of my life, I was embarrassed to have not known that Edgar Allen Poe, arguably the prototype for the suffering alcoholic writer stereotype, took his last drink at The Horse You Came In On. At the bar in Fells Point, Baltimore’s historic waterfront neighborhood, he succumbed to his years of heavy drinking, though none of his medical records or his death certificate survived, either.
“He stepped out the doors and fell face-first to the ground,” the bartender told me and passed me my tab. I signed and left her a meager tip, stretching my already thin bank account ever-thinner, and stepped out the doors.
Blinded by the noon sun, I stumbled to catch my balance. It was a Monday, or maybe it was a Tuesday, and I was drunk after reading at the bar and jotting down my thoughts, mapping out yet another novel that wouldn’t come to fruition, the way writers of the past have done—those figures that were larger than life and always drunk. Through their works, I became the writer I thought I ought to be if I wanted to succeed: a drunk. For the likes of Charles Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and even Stephen King, alcohol was a core part of their identity as writers for a time. In some cases, it drove them to suicide. In others, they found their way out of the trenches of addiction.
Of course, many know the fate of some of those aforementioned writers. Though he never stopped drinking, Bukowski didn’t face serious health issues from his addiction (however, his relationships suffered a great deal) and died of unrelated Leukemia. Hemingway also continued drinking until the end, which contributed to his depression and other mental health issues, leading him to death by suicide. Carver, and even John Cheever, stand apart from those writers in the sense that later in their lives, both men became sober. In the case of Carver, after three hospitalizations within a little more than a year, he became sober and started his “second life” with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. As Tess Gallagher, poet and widow of Carver, wrote in 2006, “Instead of dying from alcohol, Raymond Carver chose to live.”
Stephen King, who has been sober since the late 1980s, came to it by way of intervention that his family planned. When asked about his previous addiction and sobriety in an interview with The Guardian, King said that one of his defining moments of his addiction was drinking a beer in a paper bag at his son’s Little League game. “That’s something I’ll never be able to tell anybody else,” he notes. “I’ll keep that one to myself.” And this moment was, in part, the inspiration behind the character of Danny in Doctor Sleep, a book that is considered a study in self-haunting. Or, as King writes in the novel, “You take yourself with you, wherever you go.” This idea that you take yourself with you wherever you go is intensified by social media, which not only is a carrying of the self but also an embalming of the self. No matter how we try to delete the past self, it remains elsewhere, beyond the veil, preserved as a complex series of data. And social media served to worsen my bad habits.
The aforementioned rise of Instapoets on Instagram had many vying for the spotlight through overindulgence. While some found success in their own right—Lang Leav, Nikita Gil, and Rupi Kaur, to name a few—others turned to what often read like thinly veiled trauma dumping as poetry, each trying to outdo the next for another follower, another like. The creative, inventive tack some poets take, be it through form, structure, language, or a blend of all three, which tends to provide readers (and writers) of traumatic poetry with breathing room, was mostly absent.
In many cases, the poems are often read as memoir poetry, placing the worst of the individual front and center without grappling more deeply with what might be the cause of such distress in the first place—be it alcohol or otherwise. The self, in this case, becomes both ideal and ought, causing a discrepancy with the actual.
With each new poem shared on social media, some Instapoets, including myself, desperately tried to fit into the crowd. We all wanted to find a place to cultivate the sense of belonging—a facet of my life that I sorely lacked up to that point. In my brief conversations with other Instapoets during that time, there were similar aspirations to overcome the loneliness they felt in their daily life. It was through this expression of trauma, distilled into a caption, half-heartedly captured in a poem, that I believed built the bridge to overcome the loneliness experienced while pursuing this false writerly archetype of the drunken genius. The more I posted, the more I drank—but the less alone I told myself I felt. With each Instagram post of a poem, another caption embodied my trauma, another bottle of alcohol opened and raised for all to see. Indulgence and the mental spirals that often come with heavy drinking and substance abuse became a public sport for all to watch.
Luckily, identity is ever-changing.
Change is sometimes a signal of growth toward becoming the ideal self, although it can take a darker turn in some cases. The self is an accumulation of the past. I live, learn, and cobble together a more precise understanding of who I am. But there are certain factors that, time and again, can influence the sense of self: individuation, attachment, and assimilation. After all, “the self,” as Elisa Gabbert writes in The Self Unstable, “is a play that you watch from the audience—you affect it, but you can’t control it.”
For over ten years, I’ve been trying to chase down who I am as a person and writer. I’ve walked down the dark path. I’ve relied on beer, that constant lover, as Bukowski referred to it. And I’ve detached from reality in the name of writing. I’ve moved from one end of the spectrum to the other and back in the hopes of capturing that one true sentence, cultivating a life informed by the lives of those who have come before me, for better or worse.
Bukowski was known as a drunk and a misogynist, perhaps for good reason, but beneath that crudeness, a sincerity perpetuated throughout his writing. “Writing isn’t work at all,” he once wrote, “and when people tell me how painful it is to write, I just don’t understand it because it’s just like rolling down the mountain you know. It’s freeing. It’s enjoyable. It’s a gift, and you get paid for what you want to do.”
Perhaps Bukowski felt this way because of that sincerity. For better or worse, he didn’t try to be anyone other than himself. Unlike myself, who wanted to fit the mold created for and by other writers, I struggled with my sense of self, writing, and alcohol. Too few were the moments during those years when I can remember feeling genuinely proud of what I wrote.
In the age of reconciliation, or what I suppose could also be called my thirties, I’m trying to live more honestly to the man I want to become; I’m trying to be more myself and less of the embodiment of the writer mythos. And, perhaps, if the writing does get easier, if it does feel more freeing, more like rolling down a familiar mountain, more enjoyable, then I’ll be more myself.