It has been just over 500 days since I took my last drink. It has also been just over that smidgen of time where I truly became a writer, rather than the mythological poster child of what I believed a writer was.
You’ve seen it. You’ve read the stories and countless obituaries, Wikipedia pages splattered with madness across numerous biographies on the creatives who formed some of the greatest literary, and even cinematic, achievements the world has ever known, so far.
The body count is high, and the stakes, on the surface, seem to be even higher.
When you hear the words "tragic" or "untimely death," or "self-destructive"—hell, even if you hear the words misunderstood genius, I guarantee you can throw a dart at a Wikipedia page and hit more than a dozen names of heroes we’ve mythologized who, though their bodies and minds produced some of the greatest works we’ve seen as a species, so too did they produce a deeply sorrowful and self-immolating existence.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, cultural anthropologist and luminary author, wrote that—
“… the road to creativity so often passes the madhouse and often detours or ends there.”
—and how true that seems to be.
Nine years ago, when I set out to be a writer, I looked to cultural heroes like Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, among many others, and dove into their work like a rabid child feeling the grass for the first time, and though I knew the journey would be rough, I had no real sense of how brutal it would be. But it didn’t have to be this way.
It didn’t have to be as hard as I made it.
Yes, I made it hard on myself, through myself and with myself, because I fell into a deep faux pas that continually rolled out over the past near-decade. I believed in the myth of being a writer, living life as a writer, telling people I am a writer. I became consumed by the idea and spent far too much time living like those tragic heroes and did not focus enough on actually writing. I did write, but I didn’t write, truly, until I ended the cycle of self-abuse, against my own will.
Plundered by years of mental illness, which started way back before I considered entering the literary tradition, I was ripe and prime for this addictive life.
Before the written word, I was bitten by the rockstar mosquito, plagued at a young age, by the allure of being that guy with the guitar who gets all the girls, but it wasn’t the cliché girls I was after. I dove nose-first into the drugs and parties.
That was me. I was a rockstar.
I even gave myself a stage name that, to this day, people still think is my real surname because I inhabited a different personality to become this monster and, although I did put in the time—countless hours, practicing and playing until my fingers bled—it didn’t bear fruit because I was more focused on living as a rockstar.
So, too, it happened when I ventured into the mythological landscape of being a writer.
I kept the escapist pseudonym and fell into the booze trap, quickly, though I was already susceptible to it. It was in this time that I lived life, got my demons out into the world, and became the writer I am today.
They say living is writing, or at least our lived experiences inform our voice and who we become as writers, but you don’t become a writer until you actually begin writing, and that’s what I did when I found myself at the bottom of a long, deep well. A well so deep that the echoes of my screams became indistinguishable from the voice I had to offer.
So, I took a pickaxe to the wall of the well and climbed out, slowly, to find the voice I always had but never listened to.
Although I had been the first in my family to be so gloriously screwed up, fortunately, I had a support system to navigate me through the darker periods and keep me from becoming one of those splattered madhouse obituaries. Though I did come close numerous times.
What’s the classic image of a writer?
A drunk scribbling notes in a busy pub? A recluse writing epics in their cabin deep in formidable woods? How about the timely, hopeless romantic on the verge of suicide because they’ve suffered a deep heartbreak?
For so long, we’ve mythologized the image of the writer as being this otherworldly figure, someone so in tune with the heartbeat of humanity that it’s no wonder they self-destruct, but what if that’s just it—a myth we’ve created and ignored the reality that writers are nothing more than humans, mere mortals facing the reality that one day this will all end, that we only get one shot at this, no matter who we are or where we come from.
Maybe we—and by "we," I am speaking directly to my stubborn side because sometimes I need to punch myself in the face with this—spend too much time analyzing why we are what we are and what it’s supposed to mean to be a writer instead of just writing. Instead of just placing our fingers on the keyboard with the only intention to be human on the page.
Maybe we get too distracted by the entirely natural urge to be understood and seen and gloriously praised, and we forget that, in the end, the only thing that matters is that we identify as human beings first and let the titles be something others can call us.
The titles and myths don’t matter. It’s the people we are when no one is looking. It’s not the façade or the armor we protect ourselves with. It’s the broken bones cracked by years of trying to become something godly. It’s the fear we feel when we put something of our shattered selves out into the world. It’s the vulnerability and humility. It’s the cavernous hole in our being. It’s the mistakes and life-sized typos.
It’s in being a human, rather than a myth, that makes a writer.
*Feature image by Moville (Adobe)