How Should a Writer Be?: Burnt Out on the “Fuel of Darkness”

by Nick Rees Gardner

“I had never wanted to be one person, or even believed that I was one, so I had never considered the true singularity of anyone else.”

            – Sheila Heti, How Should a Person be?

In her New York Times article “Does Recovery Kill Great Writing,” Leslie Jamison mentions that she has “always been enthralled by stories of wreckage,” and that “if addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness… then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack.” I have to agree that, when I tried to get clean the first few times, I struggled with what Jamison calls “the dull terrain of wellness,” a certain monotony of self-searching. I knew that I wasn’t an addict, and I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure who I wanted to be. Instead, I kept rehashing my more exciting, dare I say, more narratively fascinating past. I felt bored with normal life, the 9-5, the coffee-pepped morning and tv laze of evening, preferring the rush of seeking out and consuming a drug.

In my younger, drug-fueled years I relished in the rush of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or William S. Burroughs’ Junky. I wanted everything, all at once. I wanted to be a writer and my view of writers was that they lived exciting, complex, and somewhat unhinged lives. I thought I was supposed to “write drunk and edit sober” as the misappropriated Hemingway quote goes, as if a lack of inhibition would get the right story on the page. I was supposed to have brushes with death, the law, high speed, cross-country drives. Even when I calmed down enough to envision grad school, I imagined I’d spend the hours after my MFA workshops gulping a few too many martinis at the dive bar while blabbing about Faulkner, Berryman, and other despairing alcoholic white men. The thing is, that lifestyle was unproductive. It didn’t work.

As I write this, almost 9 years into my recovery from opioids, I realize that I’m now much more boring than I ever imagined I might be. I feel like I’ve found a good balance between my punk rock, last-call-at-the-dive-bar tendencies and a more productive, calmer life. Yes, I still do drink, though with much more control than I used to. I don’t attend AA/NA meetings either. I still read those “stories of wreckage” but I don’t find myself craving the fast-paced lifestyle anymore. I eat vegetarian and love a good cortado with my morning bagel. I have promised myself that I will never forget what and who I was back then, but I am, for the most part, happy with the new life I have found. The only issue is that I still struggle to find stories of a recovery as stable as my own. 

The issue that I find with most books about recovery is that the underlying tension is primarily the ever-impending relapse. Though I enjoyed novels like Jonathan Ames’ Wake Up Sir! and Jerry Stahl’s Painkillers, the story tends to be the same. A person gets fucked up, becomes addicted, tries to get clean, and spends the rest of their days craving a drink or a drug, living at the brink of a downward spiral. The bottom falls out if they ever come into contact with drugs or booze again. These character’s lives are tenuous. They follow a pattern prescribed by the cultural stereotype that addiction is a lifelong disease and also that it will always be one’s most prominent identity. My lived experience over the past few years has not been so fraught. I don’t struggle so much with wanting to shoot up heroin or chug a bottle of Old Grandad, and unless I tell people that I was an addict, they usually don’t know. (I do tell people that I was an addict but only because I want to squash the stereotypes. It’s that bit of shock-factor attitude that still remains.) But what I really want, is to read about characters who share my more mundane anxieties, things like paying off a past credit card debt or figuring out how to explain, in a job interview, the two year gap in my resume where I hustled and was in rehab without on-the-books employment. When I read James Frey’s “memoirs,” I immediately saw through his bullshit because he only focussed on what Jamison called that “fuel of darkness” and seemed to know none of the boring but unique details. The fact is, I have only found a few stories that capture an experience similar to my own.

The best example of recovery in fiction that I have found is Denis Johnson’s “Beverly Home,” a story about loneliness and strange fantasies which has the goose-bump-inducing final line: “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a peeping Tom  like Johnson’s protagonist, I still feel that I am able to identify with him. Reading “Beverly Home” was the first time that I was presented with an (former) addict main character who was as unsensational or insignificant as I often feel. It made me realize how many books about addiction are written for the uninitiated, like field-guides to the dark alleys and trap houses that the reader already expected to be there. However, Denis Johnson broke the mold with Jesus’ Son, crafting a collection in which I, as a former addict, could look at myself in third person, see the character that I once was. These stories may not be as dramatic as Requiem for a Dream. They may not always deal with life-death situations, but real life, even as an addict, is not constant close calls with death and depravity either. Johnson’s stories are real, and more importantly, those small, sometimes embarrassing details allow the character to show their humanity, that they are not some melodramatic stereotype.

Among the many boring things I’ve done in my life, I spent much of a semester studying media portrayals of addiction and recovery. Then I spent another year studying feminist theories of drug use and abstinance from substances of abuse. I don’t bring this up to say that I’m some kind of authority on the matter of addiction and recovery, but because all of that energy that raged within me as an addict has been channeled towards studying and writing. That’s how I spent twelve hour days typing the stories in my thesis. I obsess over things. That is my addict quirk. Though it was a lot of fun to get wasted with my friends or take road trips to pick up pills twelve hours away, and even though my former wildness gave me a lot of material to write on, I’ve come to terms with my quieter life, doing more second-hand research and trying to contain big ideas within an essay or story. I talk to former addict friends as often as possible. I read their memoirs, and I write my stories and poems with them in mind as my readers. It’s a slow life, and also infinitely more meaningful.

As much as I hate giving “rules” for writing, this is one thing that I believe holds true for most great fiction: Your characters must have quirk to be real. They must be more than the stereotype, because, in the grand scheme of things, stereotypes hurt. They alienate those who try to live up to them. They give us false realities and forge limiting expectations. The easiest way to avoid the stereotype is to know who you are writing about and know them deeply, multifaceted. Then, maybe more importantly, write with those characters in mind as your audience. What would they think of the way you portrayed their lives? You don’t need to live their life, and more importantly, as a writer, you don’t have to be interesting at all. As a writer, you can be however boring you want to be. Honestly, it may even be best to not risk life and limb at all, but instead to study and create. Most importantly, though, you must write something caring, a story both inimitable and great.

Read more of Nick’s work here at Reckon:

Fiction – Deer

Nick Rees Gardner
Nick Rees Gardner

Nick Rees Gardner is a writer from Ohio currently living in Washington, D.C. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University and is currently employed as a wine and beer salesman in Maryland. His novella, Hurricane Trinity is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press (Dec, 2023), and his book of sonnets about addiction and recovery, So Marvelously Far, (2019) is available through Crisis Chronicles Press. His short fiction, criticism, and poetry has been published by Cleveland Review of Books, Mid-American Review, Epiphany, Ocean State Review, Atticus Review, Reckon Review, and other journals. In his 8th year of recovery from opioids, Nick has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor, a college writing teacher, and in various manual labor and sales jobs. Since getting clean, he spends his free time researching the history and theories behind drug and alcohol treatment especially through the lenses of critical theory and intersectionality. Having spent six years employed in the wine and beer industry, Nick has a passion for the history and production of alcoholic beverages, and though this passion may seem at odds with the concept of recovery, he hopes to promote the balance he has found between respect of the process and indulgence. 

One response to “How Should a Writer Be?: Burnt Out on the “Fuel of Darkness””