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  • Archive Lush
  • Leslie Jamison (bio)

1. Quitting

Early sobriety was ruthless. I transcribed it in order to survive it. Those winter days after I first quit drinking were spent working at a small bakery, rolling out sugar-cookie snowflakes. I took long drives on the highway across the river—this was in Iowa City, in 2010—past dead cornfields and strip malls. Being in motion, any kind of motion, was better than staying in one place. Sobriety had taken away my horizon of relief at the end of each day—the merciful blunting and cloaking and softening of booze, that plush forgiveness. This felt like waking up in the middle of a surgery during which I'd been promised unconsciousness.

In truth, I'd been promised nothing, and it wasn't as dramatic as all that. My life wasn't full of blades or deathbeds. It held more mundane sources of discomfort: a relationship saturated by tension and arguments, and a hopeless fear that perhaps nothing else would ever make me feel as good as booze had once felt. [End Page 792]

I started writing about sobriety not because mine seemed remarkable, but because it didn't. It was full of strip malls and snowdrifts and endless rows of withered cornstalks, raw cookies and burnt cookies and more cookies on the production list. I needed to believe that inside of these ordinary things dwelled some kind of meaning that matched how powerful the experience of sobriety felt. It was a state of ongoing attention. I wanted to turn that attention into something enchanting. At first, it was a species of magical thinking, a spoiled child's bargaining with the world: I wanted sobriety to give me back something beautiful, to compensate for the relief I was learning to live without.

Writing sober didn't come easily at first. I was living in the same place where I'd learned to drink. It was where I'd fallen in love with the mythology of the tortured alcoholic genius, excavating brilliance from his crisis. Now I spent evenings with my laptop in too-bright coffee shops, perched at windows facing the bars where I'd once gotten drunk, and willed the words to come—to prove that sobriety was going to show me a voice, and a way to save my relationship, that I couldn't have otherwise found.

When Dave and I moved back to New Haven, where we were both doctoral students in literature, I understood our move as a new beginning for our relationship and for my writing. Smuggled inside the Trojan horse of my doctoral dissertation, I was going to ask the world a question: What does sober creativity look like? I was going to let the archives answer.

2. Digging

The first archive was a disappointment. Charles Jackson was famous for his novel about alcoholic dysfunction—The Lost Weekend, about [End Page 793] a single extended bender—but I'd grown excited when I learned that he'd been working on a sequel about sobriety during his on-again off-again bouts of recovery. His papers were at Dartmouth, and they had a gloriously disorganized feel—as if I were actually shuffling through old boxes in his attic. His drinking was curiously absent from his letters, but it was everywhere in his wife's. Rhoda wrote about his obsession with success, the tentative camaraderie he found in AA fellowship, and the crippling frustration of his relapses.

I found a letter where he wrote about finding creative inspiration in recovery, describing—in not exactly humble terms—the epic novel he was working on, which he'd hilariously titled, simply, What Happened: "it's far & away the best thing I've done, simpler, more honest, and, for the first time, out of myself—that is, not self-tortured or -absorbed or -eviscerated. No, it's about people—life, if I may say so. … My stopping-drinking and my enormous interest in AA, if you'll pardon the expression, have a lot to do with this new attitude—well, everything to do with it, I think."

But the manuscript itself—just a loose pile of pages in a box—was...


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pp. 792-817
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