How to survive Chicago’s lit scene as a (recovering) alcoholic

[Image credit: Sam Hood, 1930s]

By Cassie Sheets

I

“Write drunk; edit sober,” is a saying students in undergraduate creative writing departments often and gleefully bandy about before classes, after classes, in bars, and on Facebook.

“Write drunk; edit sober,” can be shorthand for a lot of things.

“Write drunk; edit sober,” can mean you are young, and you are wild, and you are finally out of your strict father’s house, and you read thinly veiled fiction about rebellious men who drink whiskey, and so you drink whiskey too but only on weekends, and when you drink you drink a lot, and you drink it straight, and you show them just how well you can hold your liquor so you can be one of those rebellious boys, because you’ll never be one of those men but you can at least be one of the boys. It can be you, head thrown back and the clouds in the half-dark sky making you feel peaceful and perfect and in exactly the right place, laughing so loud and so hard at a joke you won’t remember the next day.

Have you heard the one about Hemingway? Hemingway was an alcoholic and he shot himself in the head.

II

When I finally decided to quit drinking (not just “for a while,”or “for a few months to get this under control,”or “really this time,” but when it was “really really really this time forever”) I didn’t tell anyone but my partner at first. I didn’t want anyone to know, just in case it didn’t stick. It took me a month of sobriety to admit I was an alcoholic. That word is still tricky.

I can admit I have a problem with alcohol. I don’t do well when I drink. I am not myself when I drink. I say things I wouldn’t say. I am too mean. I am too flirty. I make decisions I wouldn’t make sober. But alcoholic seems so serious. And it can’t be that serious, right? It’s not that serious.

I can’t be an alcoholic because I get straight A’s. I can’t be an alcoholic because I always show up to work and classes on time. I can’t be an alcoholic because it feels like everyone else drinks just as much as I do. I can’t be an alcoholic because I still call my mother once a week. I can’t be an alcoholic because I’ve never driven drunk. I can’t be an alcoholic because I remember to water the plants. I can’t be an alcoholic because I quit liquor and I only drink wine now. I can’t be an alcoholic because I only just turned twenty-one, dammit, can’t I just enjoy this for a little while now that it’s finally so legal, so easy? I can’t be an alcoholic because I’m a writer and writers drink; that’s just what they do.

“Write drunk; edit sober,” can mean sitting in your room with a bottle of wine, computer open to a blank document, anxiety creeping up from that stark, glowing white page, thinking I can’t write. What the hell ever made me think I could write? It can mean that loose feeling, that light brain feeling, that fingers that move like jumping spiders across the keys feeling after three glasses. And that floating feeling, oh god that feeling of being so free, free of that terrible weight, that weight of thinking, thinking, always over-thinking.

III

Before I turned twenty-one, I made a list of things I was going to do when I could legally drink. I was going to find a nice cozy corner of a pub to write in. I was going to finally make all those Julia Child recipes that call for bourbon. I was going to go out on Thursdays after a fiction class and let off steam with my peers. Right at the top of my list was attending Reading Under the Influence (RUI), a widely praised live literature series at Sheffield’s.

There’s a stereotype that writers are drinkers, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it takes more than two hands to count the number of live lit events in Chicago that take place in bars, in pubs, and in apartments with everything from toxic punch concoctions and shots of Malort to twelve dollar six packs of craft beer. It’s not uncommon to win a beer for reading, or to be offered a drink by a generous audience member after the show. If writers are drinkers, they don’t only drink alone like you see in the movies. If writers are drinkers, they’re a community of drinkers.

“Write drunk; edit sober,” can mean that one day every couple of weeks when you don’t have to feel so alone.

I’m nearing twenty-two and I still haven’t made it to RUI. It’s still on my list of things to do. Only now I’d like to go sober, so I’ll remember every careful, thoughtful, brilliant word.

IV

“What do you mean you’re not drinking anymore?” asks a woman I’ve had classes with, who I’ve sat side by side with for four years, who’s heard private things, things my partner, my sister, my closest friends don’t know.

“It means I’m not drinking anymore,” I say. And I laugh because it sounds so serious, and it’s just not that serious, right? “I’m a monster when I drink.”

“I’d like to see that,” she says.

“No, you really really wouldn’t.”

“We need to go out sometime. We’ve never really gone out. We should skip class and get drunk.”

“I can hang out, but I can’t get drunk,” I say.

“You can just have one then.”

“No, I really can’t just have one.”

“Well, whatever, five then,” she says, and now she is laughing and I’m not.

I’m nearing two months when she says this, and all I can think about is how I would’ve responded a few weeks ago. All I can think about is how hard it was to leave the house. How before the depression got better it got worse and I sat propped up by pillows in bed and thought just lift one hand first, then your arm, then your leg to the floor, then you can get up and I didn’t have the energy to lift my hand. How I would’ve said, “Okay, I’ll have one,” and it would’ve been five.

“Write drunk; edit sober,” can mean you don’t have the energy to get out of bed, to lift your head from the toilet, to drain the cold bathwater, let alone write or edit.

V

As I’m writing this, I’m about to hit one hundred days. A few more writers have approached me and asked me to come out drinking with them, but I haven’t. I have stayed home more often. I’ve made deadlines. I’ve started a new story. I’ve read a few books. When I go out to readings, I remember who read, what their stories were about. I don’t stagger home and throw up the next morning.

But I have felt lonelier. Bars definitely seem to be a more popular congregation spot for writers than coffee shops. Is that true of poets? Maybe I should (god forbid) make some more poet friends. But I’m getting used to it. The loneliness. It doesn’t scare me anymore. My writer friends and acquaintances still respond to me saying I don’t drink by saying, “But you still drink beer right?” or “For a bet?” or “Oh, for how long? Forever? That’s no fun.” And no, it’s no fun, but neither is the alternative.

I probably (hopefully) won’t ever write drunk again. Maybe that will make the editing part a little easier. Maybe it will make everything a little easier.