open letters to the indifferent universe

2021 in Books

Read 100+ books this year. Turns out getting dumped and then not interacting with anyone gives you a lot of time to read. Here’s some of the best shit I read this year:

  • True North by Jim Harrison – About the son of a timber scion who turns into an academic to study the evils his father enacted upon the land. Found myself highlighting so many good sentences and passages as I read. The writing crackles. Dying to re-read this.
  • Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman – NYRB Classic. War and Peace for WWII. Led me into a deep winter of Russian authors, including lots of Tolstoy. Will be returning to this (and the follow-up Life and Fate) again. Will also be reading War and Peace again. I had expected brilliance but not in such an accessible fashion.
  • Warlock by Oakley Hall – This novel led me on my other excursion this year: classic westerns. This, Lonesome Dove, and True Grit were the highlights of my cowboy soujourns. Also worth checking out McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives if you like Lonesome Dove.
  • Running the Light by Sam Tallent – The narrative covers a wild week spent with a road comic. An unblinking look at depression and addiction. Even better than the story is the writing, which is constantly cutting without being overwrought. Interested to read more from this author, as this was his debut. An impressive one, to say the least.

And now I’ll talk some shit on books I didn’t like:

  • Tao Lin’s new one. Forget what it’s called. Rich hearing about the pitfalls of “dominator” society from this dude after he was accused of all sorts of nefarious stuff dating a teenager while in his 20s. Pseudoscience sprinkled on almost every page. His writing isn’t as lifeless as it was in Shoplifting and Richard Yates, but it’s still bland.
  • Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler – An exhausting read. The characters can’t say anything anything without couching what they’re about to say in their acknowledged privilege, as if their waffling insecurity excuses them to act annoying as shit. Was so beaten down by the end that the terrible twist barely enraged me.
  • Bewilderment by Richard Powers – I really liked the first half of The Overstory, when it starts with like seven or so unconnected stories, each one centered around an individual tree. The second half, where it brings everything together, seemed contrived and didactic. The whole of Bewilderment was like the 2nd half of The Overstory. Trite and obvious.
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont – The put-on snark is just brutal. I don’t know what sort of writing advice people get from this book, but my snarky advice is to not write like Lamont.

Punk is Dead: On Jeffrey Lewis’s 12 Crass Songs

The punk kids are angry. The metal kids. They always were. Or at least seemed angry enough to intimidate me. Maybe I was afraid it was me they were angry with. I had things good: three squares, two parents, one cozy suburban life. In true dweeb fashion, I held a deep, unironic love of classic rock and jam bands. When I was fifteen I paired this with a newfound love of pot, an impotent rebellion borne from self-medication. (When we medicate the self, it gets better by retreating? As in, I need less self to survive?) I went away to college and realized the punks were right—I was angry, too. Dubya and his blundering tongue had been turned into a late-night joke during his second term but the aftershocks of patriotism reverberated both at home and half a globe away. America mired in xenophobia to justify its wars while projecting materialism in blinding neon. Greenspan’s vision had not yet blown up in our faces and the free market ruled. Dollars were the last and best democratic hope.

America’s materialism immediately undercut itself by simultaneously celebrating its largeness or extremity alongside its very worthlessness, worthlessness because of how large and extreme everything had gotten and for no other reason than to be large and extreme, and to buy anything was to give the companies more money to make larger and louder and more extreme and expensive versions of the same product you’d just bought but would find lacking after the latest release. There was no reason everything continued to get bigger and louder and more expensive, things were big enough and loud enough and expensive enough already, but it was as though by building things so big and loud and expensive suggested that they, too, were in on the joke and recognizing the vapidity and temporality of it all absolved their actions. People bought things simply because they were ostentatious. Humvees, superhero movies, arena rock. To both mock yet indulge was the most typical course of action for consumers and producers.

*          *          *

I met a friend in a mosh pit. It was 2008, when the economy turned sideways, and I was at an Andrew W.K. show. Andrew W.K. mocked and indulged. He remained entirely sincere yet his persona was so ridiculous it could be taken sincerely if you understood that everything was ridiculous. Only in such a situation as that would I have had the courage to wade into a mosh pit, sweaty and nervous for I’d never pushed into the mass of bodies before. I was surprised to find it fun; I was bouncing around, not getting punched, only pushed. W.K. fans mocked and indulged as well, it was a simulation of a mosh pit, not a real mosh pit at all. After a few songs, I pushed into a tall man who knew my name. I heard Sam! even over the impossibly loud music. It was odd, hearing my name, as the friends I’d come with had stayed by the back rail to tap their feet and nod along. I looked up at the person who knew my name and saw it was another friend, Tom, who I learned from a thumb-pointing gesture had come with his group of friends who were standing by the back rail, tapping their feet and nodding. Here Tom and I were, pushing into each other, two friends who hadn’t seen each other for a year or more in any situation, let alone a mosh pit. After the set ended, we went outside to smoke, both of our groups of friends in tow, all talking in the alley of how Tom and I had actually ran into each other in the mosh pit, the one neither Tom or I referred to as a simulation of a mosh pit at all, though we knew, of course we did: we’d experienced that it was nothing more than jostling and fist pumping. Leaving this hint of danger made the coincidence of finding friendship within it that much sweeter.

*          *          *

I never listened to Crass before I heard Jeffrey Lewis’s cover album 12 Crass Songs. They were around in the 70s or 80s or something, when punk was maybe real. Before it had crossed over entirely into image management for upscale white kids, though of course this is what Crass was commenting on already, back in the 70s or 80s. By the time my own image needing managing, punk had become blatantly passé—people at my expensive-ass liberal arts college loved wearing Misfits t-shirts on laundry night, when their Polos were atumble.

Antifolk, my sword of choice against the calamity of the mainstream, had its own moments of crossing into rubes’ icons. The Moldy Peaches were on the soundtrack of Juno, Devendra Banhart had to put a song about loving little boys on a record to keep it from the Starbucks checkout line, The Mountain Goats got a thousand crowds across the country hailing Satan as loud as they could. Jeffrey Lewis has always been one of its stalwarts, this antifolk, this un-genre. For “folk” is a collective noun and folk music is something that’s popular with a group, then antifolk, by definition, is unpopular, music not for the people. But in the 2000s that’s what we wanted—to be different when everything was the same only in different sizes (big, bigger, biggest). There wasn’t much difference, if you looked long enough, between Arcade Fire and U2. So music made for nobody or a select few, that was made for me. This was before selling out was a good thing, with the rise of Spotify and the gig economy, where a musician needed their song to sell a new GMC truck or else they’d only make .0000009 cents a stream forever. I mean, we were still making our finest artists travel around the world and make a living selling t-shirts, but it was better than it is now.

Here I am, judging success by finances, like all those other chumps I decried earlier. Maybe success is being able to continue making art that expresses a true—at least temporarily—self, removed (as much as anything can ever be) from the churnings of capitalism. Jeffrey Lewis handles that, swinging on two polarities. He’s either talking broadly about politics, often communism, or narrating his (singer’s) personal life. It’s like War and Peace. Sometimes you are focusing on a man and his relations and emotions and other times, it steps back and history is considered, which makes us consider the character’s parts in it. Alone, we change nothing. Together, we are so much fodder—yet it’s our powerlessness that gives us power, knowing that we have to give ourselves over to community to change anything.

*          *          *

What is music but connection? And not only to other people but to yourself, a specific part of your life, three or four weeks where you listened to nothing but a certain album and now playing that album takes you back to that very moment in time. Yet, the music doesn’t allow a linear entryway into the past: The events are long over, the friends and lovers long gone. Our memories are incomplete, incoherent. But because emotions are always incomplete and incoherent, we can access, with strange accuracy, the feelings that accompanied these events and individuals through the music. Old emotions rise up from the depths in elaborate ways, as powerful as they were when they were felt the first time, all because of a track or an album that’s been dusted off to find the words and melodies remain in your heart, the muscle that will kill most of us and almost everyone we know.

Derek Chauvin Trial, Day 1

A post-January 6th period of calm in this country may come to an end in a few weeks. With the Derek Chauvin trial underway, I can’t help but project forward, which leads me to the past: People so angry at injustice they fill the streets. Police tanks and SWAT teams in the foreground as they are haloed with the hazy light of bombed-out cities behind them. Chopper feeds zooming in on citizens scattering from smoke bombs, sprinting past storefronts boarded, smashed, vacant. Suburban house prices skyrocketing even more than they already have.

First we heard the opening statements. The prosecution let the video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd do most of the talking. It’s still unbelievable hearing the bystanders plead and watching Chauvin do nothing but keep applying that deadly pressure, his crony cop puffing out his chest now and again as the witnesses become more and more vocal as they realize they are watching police abuse transform into a murder. A murder of a citizen right there on the street, in full view of everyone, where the police claim they protect them.

The defense’s opening statement centered on the fact that George Floyd was found with drugs. Specifically, pills that were a mix of meth and fentanyl. Speedballs, they called them. Their strategy is plain to see. Had Floyd been sober, well, he wouldn’t have freaked out when he was put in the police car so they would not have had to restrain him on the ground, nor would he have stopped breathing after being kneeled on for over nine minutes. They want the jury to believe it was Floyd’s weakness that caused the death, not Chauvin’s pressure.

The jury sat off-camera, taking it all in. Black jurors are struck from serving on a jury far more than white jurors during our American selection process. Why? Because they don’t trust police? I can’t imagine why. For Chauvin’s trial the jury has five white women over 40 (four who are over 50). That’s more than all the black jurors combined, of which there are four, though there are also two multi-racial jurors. So now consider again the defense’s opening, how it paints a stereotypical picture: Black, inner-city men who use drugs are the villians, while the cops who come into contact with them need to protect themselves from erratic and violent behavior. The white women in their 50s have been hearing these stories for decades, through the crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s, into the opioid era of today. Of course they might see through this stories. Hopefully they do. But all the defense needs to do is place the tiniest doubt.

The prosecution called the witness who did most of the talking on the video they showed in their opening. A young man named Donald Williams. He is an MMA fighter who launched into terms a lot of jurors probably were unfamiliar with, unless they watch UFC fights. Rear naked chokes, kimuras, stuff you hear Joe Rogan say on Saturday night PPVs. But, beyond some of the too-involved terminology, he brought the audience into the moment with him. He spoke about how he had gone fishing with his son earlier that day. They caught three bass. To kill them, they suffocated the fish in a bag. Then they took them home and gutted them. To clear his head after butchering the fish, Williams went for a ride to grab a drink at the corner store. Before he made it to the entrance, he saw Floyd being abused by the police and, seeing this injustice, he begged the police to let off Floyd, over and over and over. In the video, Williams becomes the chorus. He says what most people watching are probably thinking to themselves. Pleading on Floyd’s behalf after he has grown too weak to plead for himself.

Williams said that Chauvin kept applying more and more pressure with his knee — as Williams might during jiu-jitsu practice, except Chauvin disregarded Floyd’s many verbal attempts at tapping out — and as Chauvin applied all that pressure, Williams said, “the more you see Floyd fade away, slowly fade away, like a fish in a bag.”

And, as if the technology knew the audience all needed to go for a ride or a walk to clear our heads after contemplating that — how Williams somehow felt more for a fish than Chauvin did for a fellow human — the feed dropped shortly after, and the trial suspended for the day.


Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is a truly epic novel about the ordinary Russian lives changed by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during WWII. In places the dialogue and interiority may seem overdone with regard to the pro-state rhetoric, as normal individuals often take heroic turns after contemplating their place within the larger communistic system, but I hope this doesn’t turn anyone off the book, as the characters are rich and complex otherwise. These fanatical moments also made me wonder about what the Soviet people were aware of in 1941 and 42, specifically if the state-led purges were widespread knowledge, what the propaganda on the collective farms indoctrinated citizens to, and what animosities citizens held toward one another due to prejudices born out of faith or other basic tenets. In other words: What of this collective pride was added by Grossman to get the book past Soviet censors, and what would have naturally arose? I haven’t read the second novel in this series yet, but it sounds like Grossman turns a more critical eye toward Stalin and the rest of those in power in Life and Fate, which I look forward to reading.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time is an oral history told by those who lived through the fall of the Soviet Union a half-century after WWII. These narrators watched the state dissolve and, though by then they knew about the horrors and tragedies enacted upon the people by the state, they still often felt a great sense of loss. The predatory capitalism and oligarchic system that replaced communism certainly did not dissuade individuals from feeling adrift, as it left millions starving and impoverished, but their identities had been long tied up in being a part of something larger than themselves. Without that collectivism, many fell into despair. They were the ancestors, after all, of those brave men and women that stopped fascism dead in its tracks while incurring incalculable losses doing so.

Both of these books are incredible and certainly worth reading — especially in America, where individualism and consumerism have smothered any competing ideology. Perhaps if there was more unity or even the slightest feeling that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, we would have gotten through this pandemic in a smoother fashion. A tiny personal sacrifice could have done a lot of good had the government also thought to support its people so they could stay home to squash the early spread. Instead we have further separated into factions — divided by our support of two different blocs of a broken government that did almost nothing to support us — and spend our time congratulating our own group for doing the minimum while shit-talking the other for doing the same. With each step we take — both in our technology and the discourse that arises on it — it seems less likely that there will be any cooperation in the near future. We will ride this split further and further until even our in-groups become outlandish to us, thus reaching the natural end of individualism, which will be written in blood by greed and will leave anyone lucky enough to survive the uprising stuck in their probably nefariously-acquired lifeboat alone, feeling lost yet unable to row in anything but circles.

Nickel and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1999 essay “Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” is depressingly not dated at all. Ehrenreich goes “undercover” to discover how hard it is to get by on minimum wage jobs (she lands jobs waitressing and housekeeping) and finds herself worked ragged, only to barely keep her head above water. If she’d stuck with her experiment more than a month, she certainly would have found herself in debt, racking up credit card bills for basic expenses, and falling far behind on any preventative medicinal care. She concludes that there wasn’t enough time in her days to hold two jobs, yet she “couldn’t make enough money to live on with one. And I had advantages unthinkable to many of the long-term poor–health, stamina, a working car, and no children to care for or support.”

Since Ehrenreich wrote this, wage stagnation has effected all levels of society except for the highest earners and costs, such as housing and benefit costs, have risen dramatically.

If you can find this essay somewhere (it was originally in Harper’s but was also turned into a book), I suggest reading through it. Our lawmakers should as well, since it provides a very compelling argument to raise the minimum wage.

Politicians Electing their Voters

Republicans enacting voter suppression tactics such as removing over 1,000 polling sites largely in African-American communities in the past 5 years, stricter voter ID laws, and drawing gerrymandered districts to dispel the power of the minority votes that happen to sneak through these draconian practices has allowed for more Republicans to take office, thus wielding their expanded power by further compounding voter suppression. This dark cycle has gotten a new boost after Trump spent his lame duck period moaning about fabricated election fraud, legitimizing voter suppression in half the electorate.

One of the ways this is going to play out is highlighted in the Times:

Bills in Arizona, Mississippi and Wisconsin would end the practice of awarding all electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the statewide vote. Instead, they would be allotted according to votes in congressional districts — which in Republican states are generally gerrymandered to favor Republicans. In Arizona, the Legislature also would choose two electors.

In the last election, the moves would have reduced Mr. Biden’s electoral vote total by 11 votes.

2020 Census results will land and take effect prior to our 2022 elections. While states’ overall numbers of electoral votes will shift, what is more interesting is how particular states will end up drawing their districts. Some states have non-partisan redistricting committees, but more redistrict based upon whoever controls the state legislature, like Mississippi and Wisconsin. So the bills mentioned above that split electoral votes could be enacted after the states are redistricted in a gerrymandered way, further suppressing the people’s voice in not only their local elections but in national elections as well.

After 2010, tons of gerrymandering went down in redistricting. Some cases made it to the Supreme Court — such as PA and NC — and ended up being overturned, but that didn’t matter until 2018 and 2019, respectively. So the Republicans in those states got 4 good elections out of their faulty maps. Why wouldn’t they try it again?


There’s a nature documentary I’ve been looking for. An Attenborough BBC one about eagles I watched years ago. Eagles as in the birds, not the band, though that’s a good doc, too — especially the part about Joe Walsh’s shit-filled waders. In the Attenborough doc there’s a fact I want to double-check against my memory. I’m pretty sure it cites the hunting regimen of one type of fish-eating eagle (perhaps a type of sea eagle?) at, on average, eight minutes a day. That’s all they need to get their fill. At least one creature seemed to have the perfect work-life balance.

Of course, if I’m even remembering it right, there’s more to their days than just eight minutes of hunting. They have to maintain their territory, find a mate, raise and protect offspring, build roosts. Not only that, their habitats and numbers are probably dwindling due to humans overfishing and destroying the planet in plenty of other ways.

Beyond that, in their own territory, they are probably almost entirely isolated.

This is when I shift it to humans, right? Here we are, almost a year into being down to essential activities, which means, for most of us, that all we can do is work. Our other activities have been erased; our version of those endless eight minutes are all we get. Downtime yawns at us as we try to fill it with whatever entertainment we can muster at home or in our small bubbles. Blank reflections in our screens as another episode — but not the one I want to see — loads.

Joe Walsh, the other kind of Eagle, said the best part about being rich was that he didn’t have to worry about “stuff pertaining to survival.” That’s all we worry about these days. Work boundaries have been erased. Some of us — like me, thank God — are lucky enough to work from home while others have to go out in the world, where they are threatened by both the pandemic and people who don’t take it seriously. Then they retreat into safety, or what they hope is safety, where they worry about if they brought work home with them.

The Plan All Along

Errol Morris’s film about Steve Bannon, American Dharma, holds this telling exchange:

Errol Morris: I can’t tell you how annoyed my son is with me for voting for Hillary in the primary.

Steve Bannon: Oh my God, you just crushed me. How did you do that? . . . How could you possibly make Fog of War . . . and Known Unknowns and then vote for Hillary Clinton?

Morris: Because I was afraid of you guys . . . I thought that she was the best hope of defeating Trump and Bannon. I did it out of fear.

Morris was right to be afraid. Four years of hatred and bigotry spewing from the White House culminated in a violent uprising in the Capitol.

Four years ago, when Trump gave an out-of-character election night speech focused on bringing the American people together, Bannon balked at the course correction. “Now we’re going to march on the Capitol,” Bannon told Trump. That’s their strategy after their election win.

But where to find the people to march? Bannon had a plan for that, too: digital communities. “The key to these sites was the comment section,” he says. “The angry voices, properly directed, have latent political power.”

The Ridiculous Trade for Orin Incandenza, Fictitious NFL Punter

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Orin Incandenza — womanizer, total loony toon, and older brother to pothead prodigy Hal — is a punter for the Arizona Cardinals. Before he became a Cardinal, Orin played for the New Orleans Saints, but when tragedy strikes in New Orleans (during a rainstorm, a graveyard is washed down a hill, scattering corpses on the his property, rightfully freaking Orin the fuck out), Orin has “his agent put out trade feelers.” He is then traded for a free safety, two backup guards, and cash.

Reading the outrageous haul the fictitious New Orleans Saints received for a punter — putting aside a punter forcing his own trade — made me wonder how realistic this trade package was. Here are the punter-involved trades over the recent past:

2018: Riley Dixon (P) traded to the Giants for a 7th round pick (pick #220).
2016: Carolina and Cleveland swap punters and 4th and 7th round draft picks (Cleveland climbs from pick #233 to #123).
2015: Brad Wing (P) traded to the Giants for a 7th round draft pick (pick #229) — the Giants love trading 7th rounders for punters, apparently.
2015: Andy Lee (P, a much better punter than Brad Wing) is traded to the Browns for a 7th round draft pick (pick #219).

Prior to 2015, I can’t find any punter-involved trades, which makes Wallace’s fictional trade even less likely considering Infinite Jest came out in 1996. In the trades I did find, moving up around 110 spots in into the 4th round was the biggest haul, which is far less than getting a starting free safety, two backup guards, and cash.

Other potentially-relevant transactions involving punters:
2020: 2 punters drafted. One in the 6th round and one in the 7th.
2019: 2 punters drafted. One in the 4th round and one in the 5th. Both teams who took punters, oddly, traded up to get them.
2018: 3 punters taken in the 5th round and one in the 7th. Notably, Seattle trades up in the draft to take Michael Dickson with the 149th pick (they gave up pick 157 and 226 to the Broncos to move up to 149). Dickson, out of college, is maybe the closest to Orin’s skill level, as he led the nation in net punting yards, punting average, and punts inside the 20. (He also was MVP of the Texas Bowl.)
2017: No punters drafted
2016: 1 punter drafted in the 6th round and 2 in the 7th.
2015: 1 punter drafted in the 5th round.

Examining past drafts and trades, we can see that the punter is mostly valued by teams as a commodity they can get expending no capital at all. If a team needs a punter, they usually pick up one or two as undrafted free agents and let them battle it out in training camp and through the preseason. A minority of teams occasionally, as seen above, will reach into the middle to back-half of the draft for a punter.

Orin, though, is an outlier. He has the tools to go down as the GOAT, punter-wise. In one game in college, he averaged 69-yards a punts (though, it must be noted, Wallace doesn’t say whether it is gross or net average) and a hangtime of 8.3 seconds, about 4 seconds longer than the average NFL punt). He also “regularly plac[es] the ball inside the opponents’ 20,” with a natural gift for coffin-corner punts.

The hangtime itself, almost doubling a normal NFL punter’s hangtime, would no doubt be intriguing to some NFL general managers, but for them to give up a free safety, two backup guards, and cash still seems like quite the haul for a special teamer.

Yet, even considering the cost, it might be worth it for a forward-thinking front office to do. The league-average punter, punting from their team’s own thirty-yard-line, would generally give the other team the ball 40-45 yards away, considering the average net punt. This would have the opposing team start between their own 25- and 30-yard line. Orin, on the other hand, with his big leg and ridiculous hangtime could probably pin them back near their own 10 or 15 if his coffin-corner skills are as advertised. However, a team without a good free safety might be lacking on defense, and unable to stop a good passing offense regardless of their opponents’ starting field position.

On average an NFL team punts around 3.5x per game. So though one would expect it these 3-4 plays to have better outcomes, which may also lead to the Cardinals getting better field position in return if they are successful on defense, the most value a team can hope for is about 52.5 yards of negative field position difference of the other team. If you’re playing the 2020 Jets and can consistently make them start deep in their own territory, they might never score, but against a team like the Chiefs, who’ve averaged over 400 yards a game, it would matter less. Plus, if you score, the opposing team will still be getting the ball at the 25 following the kickoffs, as well as at the start of one half. Chances are, even with better field position, Orin’s team isn’t holding Mahomes and company scoreless. And, if the Chiefs employed Orin, he might be wasted entirely standing on the sidelines. Because a good punter is an incremental move, for the most part, since the better your team is, the less it effects the outcome of the game. Maybe Orin would help a really bad team into just being plain old bad, but wouldn’t having a good free safety and developmental linemen accomplish the same thing?

Stephen King’s On Writing (On a Shit-ton of Substances)

Over the years I’ve read, in countless tweets and threads, “Stephen King was so high on coke he doesn’t remember writing Cujo.” It’s a hell of an image — King wandering into a bookstore with a cotton ball jammed up a nostril to staunch the bleeding and seeing a book off in the distance with a growling dog on the cover and thinking “Hey, that looks scary; I should check that out” — and it plays into the mythos of the creative depressive using to survive the overwhelming, disturbing, and disturbingly overwhelming power of their own thoughts, so I understand why it gets thrown around a lot. It’s like that Hunter S. Thompson daily schedule that gets shared every 4-6 months, where he does a line of blow and downs a glass of Chivas every fifteen minutes and then starts writing after ten hours of abusing shit, like the blacked out part of the brain is where all the good ideas are kept. This is obvious nonsense, but to a young writer the writerly lifestyle is often more interesting than the writer (especially when the writer is so deep into their addiction they barely have the mental capacity to think of anything beyond their substance of choice) or the act of writing. However, what’s interesting isn’t always the truth, and it’s certainly not always productive.

King wasn’t just using coke. He was giving himself the ol’ one-two of booze and blow. Booze as mind-eraser and blow to keep him going despite the liquid downer he dumped down his gullet. Here’s the passage from On Writing about Cujo that always gets (mis)quoted:

Not that drinking 3 gallons of beer a night or barely remembering writing a book is better than railing lines until morning and not remembering writing a book at all, but either way it stinks that this skewed factoid is what gets remembered from this part of On Writing because King writes about his life and struggle with sobriety honestly and, I think, quite well. Just look at how that excerpt ends. How does someone escape from their escape?

He also confronts the mythos of the drunk writer to try and dispel it, as seen in the following passage. (Unfortunately, he has also joined their ranks because of this very book. You’ll see a lot of questions like “Do you like King’s writing before or after he got sober” if you spend enough time in the popular literature discussing parts of the internet.):

These myths are alluring. To be a drunk is to be carefree, to be rebellious to the point of being scornful of everyday society. Yet the carefree period is all too short and these myths are easily dispelled. Check out Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking for more realistic narratives on boozy writers.

King is also right that there is nothing special about a substance abuser, regardless of position. It all comes down to a power struggle between the user and what they’re using and how open to help or change they are when they finally come to grips with the damage. As we see in On Writing, after King’s wife intervenes with the sober-up-or-get-out speech, this is what happens:

I left in the dumb joke but the first two lines are the important bits. Addicts are charming, or at least can be, especially to the one sober enough to drive to get more booze or to pick up another bag to get them through one more evening. An evening, mind you, that is not full of amazing creative acts at all, no, though perhaps there are a few pages of mediocre writing are hidden under that mountain of despair King writes about.

The end of the journey isn’t pretty for most of the mythologized, either, though that part of the story is glossed over or left out. King has the longevity he’s had because he sobered up. In a Rolling Stone interview, King says that the years of drug use started to take a toll in his work. The Tommyknockers, which he calls “an awful book,” was the last one he wrote before getting cleaned up. (I thought it was actually pretty good, but mostly for the realistic depiction of Gard’s alcoholism; it’s certainly overly long.)

Now, if only I had read On Writing at sixteen maybe I wouldn’t have mythologized all those John Berryman types. Oh, wait, I did read it at sixteen? I barely even remember…