Giving up alcohol doesn’t mean sacrificing creativity

A Filipino entrepreneur makes an origami flower to be sold ahead of Valentines Day, in Quezon City, Philippines, February 13, 2019.
A Filipino entrepreneur makes an origami flower to be sold ahead of Valentines Day, in Quezon City, Philippines, February 13, 2019.
Image: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez
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For years, David Sedaris drank while he wrote. “I never had to force myself to sit down at a typewriter because I had a drink right there, and that was my reward for sitting down,” the best-selling author of books like Me Talk Pretty One Day and Calypso said in a Fresh Air interview in 2013. The two activities were so intertwined that he became convinced that he needed alcohol in order to get words on the page. “I kind of got it in my head that I needed to be drinking while I wrote,” he said in a later NPR interview. “I don’t know why I was so convinced of it, it’s like saying ‘I can’t sing unless I have a blue shirt on.'”

In 1999, Sedaris quit drinking—and his prolific body of work in the ensuing years is a testament to the fact that drinking was never the key to his wry, witty genius. But the false link between alcohol and creativity is one that remains embedded in the cultural consciousness.

“One of the struggles with sobriety is this feeling of having to give up creativity,” says Mei McIntosh, who goes by her DJ name, Missing Mei. As the founder of the Creative Sober, an Instagram-based community and podcast, she tries to combat this idea by sharing the stories of musicians, painters, and authors in recovery. “It’s extreme vulnerability to be able to be in this place and share it together and know that there’s someone else out there going through a similar situation,” she says. “There’s something healing about that—it’s about being seen.”

Not only is sobriety far from an obstacle to creativity, sobriety itself can inspire art that deeply affects others and fosters community—perhaps helping people to make changes in their own lives.

When I was first reassessing my drinking habits, I sought out works that discussed giving up alcohol. One early thing that struck a chord was a comic by Edith Zimmerman called “My First Year Sober.”

I’d loved Zimmerman’s work since her days as the founder and editor of the legendarily hilarious and weird women’s blog The Hairpin, and I’d missed her voice deeply after she left the site. Reading the comic felt like reconnecting with a long-lost friend, all the more so because I saw myself in some of her descriptions of her relationship with wine. “The definition I came up with for myself was: Would you feel ashamed/uncomfortable/embarrassed if other people knew how much you drink?” she writes. It occurred to me that, yeah, I probably would.

In the years since, Zimmerman has continued to write beautifully about sobriety (along with plenty of other subjects) as part of her personal newsletter, Drawing Links, and in articles for New York Magazine, while also contributing to and illustrating the sobriety newsletter The Small Bow. “Drinking doesn’t define me even in its absence anymore,” Zimmerman says. And yet “it does, because it feels important for me to share some of this stuff in case it’s useful to other people.”

Speaking over Zoom in February, Zimmerman recalls that at some point in her mid-to-late 20s, she realized she had to drink every day. “I would quit jobs and I would have all this extra time and I didn’t have creative ways to fill it,” she says. “So I would be drinking.” Drinking wasn’t fun for her anymore, and it was making her life boring. But it took a long time to admit.

She was able to stop thanks to a combination of factors: She read the right book, Allen Carr’s Stop Drinking Now, at a moment when she was receptive to its message. Zimmerman notes that writing can’t change people’s minds if they’re not ready for it. “It’s just very tricky to connect with people who are actually having doubt,” she says. “The individual needs to step forward.”

One of the most common misconceptions about getting sober is that it makes people’s lives boring and grim. Zimmerman says she worried about that, too—but that the opposite has been true. Sobriety may not be something she thinks about every day, but it’s “the place that my life is now is built on,” she says. “Like a whole stack of doors and ladders and things unfurling that I would never have access to if I was drinking, I don’t think.”

One of those opportunities is her work for The Small Bow, the sobriety newsletter founded by writer and former Gawker editor AJ Daulerio. The Small Bow’s subscriber base is comparatively small—about 3,100, Daulerio says—but highly dedicated. Most issues include a personal essay by Daulerio, not always necessarily about recovery, but also covering topics ranging from running to his complex relationship with his parents.

Daulerio started The Small Bow, he says, to fill a gap in the kind of writing about sobriety he wanted to see. “After I got out of rehab, I just figured I was so immersed in the internet that everything I wanted to read would be there,” he says. “And it wasn’t.” He found a handful of things that spoke to him—an essay by Clancy Martin in Harper’s Magazine, Zimmerman’s comic. So he built the Small Bow with those voices as his anchors, bringing along Zimmerman as well as Joe Schrank, the newsletter’s executive editor and what Daulerio describes as a “celebrity interventionist and sober companion.”

“I wanted to talk about recovery from a very rich, boring day-to-day basis,” Daulerio says. “It’s just, I’m trying so hard to be a better person. And that’s the most difficult transition for me is trying to undo all these bad behaviors that followed me into sobriety.” Part of the problem with the internet writing he found, he said, is that much of it was underwritten by the rehab industry—”I was just like, God, I just got out of rehab. Why are these people trying to make me go back?”

But there’s also a certain level of earnest blandness in a lot of articles about sobriety—partly because they’re being written to serve people who are struggling, but without the complexity of what it means to be a person who’s struggling in mind. The Small Bow is distinguished by both the sensitivity of its writing and Daulerio’s bracing directness as much as its subject matter, which addresses topics that intersect with substance abuse like mental health, family, and Internet addictions.

“Probably half the Small Bow audience is not in recovery,” Daulerio says. They’re people who are reading for other reasons—whether because they have a friend or relative dealing with addiction, or because they simply want to read about people who are trying to take unsparing inventories of their inner lives and actions.

It’s important for me to just be as honest as possible because I was a dishonest guy,” Daulerio says. “And I think my vulnerability comes from me trying to be as honest as possible, because I realized that if I don’t do that, I start to get in trouble.” He continues to process his time as the editor of Gawker, which culminated in a lawsuit brought against the publication by wrestler Hulk Hogan that ultimately shuttered the site.

Really my goal in life is really to kind of just, like, help other people along the way in whatever way possible,” he says. “And, you know, to not have my obituary dominated by Hulk Hogan.”

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A sober literary reading list

A selection of books and essays about sobriety that are also just plain old great reads.

Nothing Good Can Come of This, by Kristi Coulter

One great line: “We can’t afford to live lives we have to fool our own central nervous systems into tolerating.”

Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?” (from The Recovering) by Leslie Jamison

One great line: “It was liberating to start imagining that there could be meaningful stories told about wreckage, sure, but also meaningful stories told about what it might mean to pull yourself out from under it.”

Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp

One great line: “I’d never really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and maintain.”

The drunk’s club,” by Clancy Martin

One great line: “Stories break through loneliness. And perhaps the worst thing about alcoholism—and the reason I tried to kill myself that night—is the conviction that you deserve your loneliness, that no one deserves to be cast out more than you do.”

The Fart Party’s Over,” by Julia Wertz

One great line: “While my career was expanding, despite my best efforts to sabotage it, my private life became so small, it almost solely took place in my 300sf Brooklyn studio, plus the block I walked to the liquor store.”

My First Year Sober,” by Edith Zimmerman

One great line: “The difference between knowing I had a problem and actually wanting to stop was liking the sober version of myself I imagined.”