This writing life
Stories saved my life. They go on saving my life. As a gay teenager obsessed with suicide, the stories in books saved me, though only just. Booze saved me too, though later it would start to kill me. Then the stories told by other addicts saved me. Terrible, tragic, funny stories, stories that make you laugh inordinately at inappropriate moments. The sort of laughter that makes people think you’re crazy or drunk. The sort of stories where you find yourself even though you have nothing at all in common with the teller except your souls.
I grew up telling lies. It was a family tradition. It got harder and harder to keep track of what was true and what wasn’t. After a while I couldn’t tell. That’s a lie. I wanted not to be able to tell. But my body knew. So I lived in my head. My head was good at writing papers and taking tests. The rest of me was good at getting drunk.
One day, in a moment of unaccountable clarity, I knew that what I wanted most in all the world was to write stories. I couldn’t write those stories with my head. I tore up my PhD applications and became a carpenter. In New York City. I took a writing class with Gloria Anzaldúa. We meditated and then we wrote. Stories came out whole. As if they’d been waiting in some other part of the house for me to open the door. I understood there was a life inside me I knew nothing about. I understood that nothing mattered to me as much as writing those stories. Except, possibly, getting drunk.
One day I wrote a story about rational me heading down a street in Little Italy. All I wanted was to get to the bar at the end of the street but a mad, poet, child voice in a doorway intercepted me. I had to make sense of the fragments she chanted. Slowly the story came together. We came together. I read the story, very drunk, at the W.O.W. café in the East Village. Afterwards we went back to a friend’s apartment and somehow my friend’s lover and I got to talking about sexual abuse. How you could never tell if it had happened to you because people forget. As far as I knew, nothing like that had ever happened to me. The friend’s lover told a story about a woman who had never come to terms with the incest she experienced when she was six or seven. Until one day she walked past a churchyard full of children that same age and she stopped and she looked at them and she said, ‘Oh my God, it wasn’t my fault.’ When I heard those words, it was as if I had been electrocuted. All the hairs on my body stood up. I opened my mouth and I said, “I’m an alcoholic and I can’t stop drinking.” I listened to those words. It wasn’t anything I’d intended to say. After another moment I said. “Perhaps I’m just being dramatic.”
“Do you say that kind of thing often?”
“No.” I didn’t want to seem like some drama queen lush.
I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that day and I’ve gone on writing. The first book I wrote came to me when I had the chance to write every day for two months. I was at an artist’s colony in Cummington, Massachusetts. I thought I would write all day every day but I found out I write best in the mornings and I need a couple of days off a week. Then the colony hired me to manage the buildings and grounds. They could only afford to pay me for two days a week in the winter so that began a pattern I follow to this day: I write five mornings a week from the end of November till the middle of April. Being self-employed, first as a carpenter then designing and planting gardens for people, made this possible.
I’ve had two books published, Where Bones Dance, a novel set in Nigeria, and a memoir published under a pseudonym for legal reasons. I spent years on a novel I finally abandoned. Recently I finished two books I’m happy with. One is a novel, Nunatak, set in Alberta, the other a memoir, Undocumented:A Different Story, about the twenty-two years I lived illegally in the US and the decision my wife and I made to move to Canada. Now to find a publisher…