Last month I was the guest author at a writing workshop. I’d been invited to talk about memoir and the complicated and often discouraging journey of getting published. I had just finished reading an excerpt from my book, an addiction memoir about my former life as a junkie bank robber, and I was fielding questions from the audience.
“What’s wrong with you?” said a woman dressed in a yellow Marimekko, an expression of annoyance across her face. “Are you on drugs?”
Her questions took me totally off guard. In fact, I didn’t know how to respond. As I mentioned earlier, my memoir is about when I used to be addicted to heroin, but I’m in recovery and it has been over fifteen years since I have taken any drugs—although to be honest, I probably don’t look like someone that’s on the straight and narrow path of sobriety. I grew up in the ’70s punk era, worked in the music industry, and still dress accordingly—basic all black, spiked blonde hair, leather jacket—and perhaps my appearance still evokes my former desire to overindulge in opiates. Plus, I’m not exactly passive. I’m an animated person. I’m passionate about what I do, and I can get a little excited when I speak, especially about a subject I care about, like writing. When this happens I tend to talk really fast, swear a lot, mumble my words, and slip in a self-deprecating comment or two. So yeah, maybe my appearance and demeanor put this woman off, and she just assumed I’m still that same person as in my book.
This will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today.Unfortunately, regardless of image or attitude, this will always be one of the dilemmas in writing about yourself and a certain period in your life. No matter how long ago that was, or how much you have changed, readers have a difficult time differentiating that that was the past, and are inclined to think that it is still who you are today. The truth is, the “me” I wrote about wasn’t capable of writing a book, nor did “he” even care (if he had he would’ve taken copious notes so that the future me would have had an easier time of it). Strangely, there are people who have actually said they wish they had known me then—which, if you know my story, is a little weird as the “me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.
One can never fully understand just what it is that someone reading your work really gets from it. There are those out there who read books about addiction and take notes for future reference. Why do I know this? Because when I was sixteen, I read Burroughs’ Junky for exactly that reason. There are also the folks who like to feel better about themselves by comparing their fucked up lives to yours, or the ones who are smug in their self-satisfaction that they did more drugs and lived a harder life than you. Then there are those who just like a good story of struggle and redemption.
Yet, no matter the reason behind reading memoir, it still seems that the author is forever critiqued for the life they lived, not for the actual writing or craft and technique of their book. There have been many instances where I have a read a review and it was all about the author, not the actual writing. You would almost never see this with fiction, but then I guess that it is all just part of the deal when exposing your life to the world.
The truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.
I would be lying if I told you that this did not influence the way that I wrote my memoir. While I wanted my language to grab you, I also wanted to tell my story from a totally real perspective, not through the euphoric patina of drug-aided fantasies. Too often, I have read a memoir where the author justifies or even brags about their part in a horrific story, making them one step lower than unlikable, and I decided early on that I was not going to fall into that trap. Yes, I did all this horrendous shit. But that was me then, this is me now, and the “narrative arc” is the internal change that happened as a result.
Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion. In that same vein (forgive the pun), I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale to prevent any future budding drug addicts. Yet, I didn’t write a pro-drug addict book either. If by chance someone is still compelled to follow in my footsteps after reading my memoir, then so be it.
Oftentimes, telling the truth isn’t very pretty. There is no way to make yourself look good when you are describing a scene where you couldn’t possibly look good. Even worse is trying to justify why you did what you did. It is better just to describe what happened and leave the readers to form their opinion.Earlier that day, on the way to the workshop, I’d been feeling really good about myself and confident about my writing, but now, after that woman’s outburst, I felt like I was being judged and under attack. Some days it’s just like that. A person’s comment, a hard look, a misunderstood gesture, and I’m left wondering what the hell I did to deserve such disapproving scrutiny. I know that at times I can be way too sensitive, especially when the subject of my writing is involved. Like most authors, I want to be taken seriously and here this woman had reduced it down to who I was twenty years ago, not the quality of my writing or the person I am today. Sadly, it felt like not only was my credibility being questioned, but I was also somehow not living up to the embodiment of who and what an author should be. I already doubt myself. Not the “staying off drugs” part, but the “I’m a real author” part. I always think that people just view me as an anomaly. Like some dope fiend who must have had a lot of help forming enough sentences to actually make up a book’s worth of words. Obviously my self-esteem can be ridiculously low.
I don’t know when I became this overly sensitive. I certainly wasn’t at all worried about what anyone thought of me when I was on the yard at San Quentin kicking it with the homeboys, or going toe-to-toe with the skinheads, or getting stabbed in county jail. Thankfully, back then I had the correct mindset for incarceration. Straight from the streets and a few decades of running with thugs and thieves, my outlook was just as damaged as theirs. If I had to do it now, I think I’d be in trouble. But the truth is you never know what you’re capable of until you have to deal with adversity.
Yet it all changed for me on my forty-first birthday. I was in prison and contemplating my life, and realized that if they were to let me out right then and there, I had nothing waiting for me and nowhere to go. Essentially I had destroyed everything. My very existence was meaningless, and I vowed that I was never going to be back in this same place faced with this same dilemma again. There was too much that I wanted to accomplish, and time was running out. When I was finally released on parole, I sought out the help I needed to get my life back on track. I went into rehab, I got involved with a support group of like-minded recovering drug addicts, and I worked in my community giving back to a society that I had only taken from before. On a more personal note, I made amends and financial restitution to the family and friends whom I had harmed, and made a commitment to be a better son, brother, uncle, friend, and boyfriend. Over the years since then, I have striven to continue to improve myself. I completed grad school and obtained my MFA, gained employment teaching at the college level, and recently have been granted the restoration of all my rights, through a certificate of rehabilitation from the State of California, with a possible governor’s pardon in the works.
The “ me” then would have invited himself into your life, drank all your alcohol, used all your drugs, borrowed money, had sex with your best friend, and then stolen your car.
I know this sounds like a cliché or a cop-out, but these days I don’t even recognize the person I was then. I can’t imagine pulling an armed robbery or jabbing a needle in my arm. Although I did have to relive all of that when I wrote my book, in doing so I was able to put it to rest, and the results were cathartic. But, of course, my readers don’t really know any of that, and to some of them I’m still just that junkie bank robber, forever frozen in time. Even though the dates in my book indicate it was a long time ago, I will forever be known as such. But then again, I can tell myself it doesn’t matter what other people think of me: I’m who I am and I should be proud of it. Yet there I am giving a talk about memoir, and some budding writer says one negative thing and I’m off to the depression mills grinding my soul to shreds.
In all actuality, that woman’s words were not that offensive. Yet in my mind, what I heard her say was, “I read your book. You suck as a person,” which is seriously lame and, really, why should I let one person’s judgment bother me? There are always going to be people who do not like me, no matter what I do, especially seeing as I have written a memoir telling everyone about how fucked up a person I was. I realize that I shouldn’t have been behaving so badly in the first place; at the same time, I could use just a smidgen of validation to confirm that I have accomplished something good. I don’t want to continually be judged for who I used to be.
I glanced over at the instructor who was facilitating the event. She was the one who had invited me to present my work and talk to her students. Now I wondered if she, too, thought I was an abnormality of sorts: a carnival sideshow character who’d stopped being a freak and gone straight. But she just looked at me and smiled without missing a beat and yelled, “He’s clean and sober. Get over it.”
That should have been my cue to let it go. But that woman’s words had fucked me up. For the rest of the afternoon, I felt like all the internal work I’d put in was meaningless and nothing had changed. I was still that same criminal junkie, even though I hadn’t committed a crime or used heroin for over a decade and a half. Never mind that the other students hadn’t questioned my legitimacy. Actually, their responses had all been positive. More than a few came up afterwards and thanked me. But I held onto that one woman’s opinion because deep inside I, too, view myself as being a horrible person. And here, finally, when she said it out loud, was the proof that I always knew everyone else saw. Am I forever to be doubted and labeled a drug addict? Probably yes. But maybe when I stop beating myself up about it, I can move forward and forgive myself enough to let it all go.