I was young, had just gone through a breakup, moved back to Calgary, and was now working at a liquor store there. I hadn’t written anything in months. I bought a small notebook to try and kick the tires a little bit, but it sat untouched on a bedside table in my tiny room for a month while I used it for nothing more than a place to lay my pack of cigarettes.
Working at a liquor store seemed like a better career choice than being a writer anyway, as at the time, I cared more about drinking than about writing. Drinking was easier, more rewarding, and kept me from thinking about how shit it was to be back in Calgary working at a liquor store. The discount they gave to employees didn’t hurt my feelings none either. Cheap vodka became cheaper vodka, good scotch you’d buy for a special occasion became the scotch you’d buy to drink in Denny’s parking lot, and then there was always some special on beer that allowed you to chuck a six pack in with every bottle purchase; because drinking without having a few beer wasn’t really a drinking experience.
Another highlight of the job was watching the waitresses who worked at the restaurant beside the liquor store go outside to smoke cigarettes. I’d be behind the counter, bored, resting my head on my palms, and watching the clock tick slowly towards the end of my shift, when I’d look outside and see some stunning blonde (they were always blonde, all waitresses in Calgary were blonde) slowly walk into the view of the store windows and light a menthol. A picturesque view, a vision into the life you weren’t having, because you were working at a liquor store and not writing. They seemed to exist on a different plane of existence, one that was unreachable, even if it was just outside those liquor store doors.
Not like going outside to talk to them was an option. The few times I was outside smoking when one of them strolled outside, we didn’t speak to each other. I don’t know if I was too nervous, if I didn’t want to bother them, or if it just wasn’t meant to be for us to talk to each other, but it always ended up just being easier to just keep my mouth shut and stare at my shoes. They remained untouchable goddesses, and I like to still think of them that way.
I’d get off work at 2 am, walk the few blocks to back to my tiny room located in the basement of my best friends house, open and drink whatever I had brought home from work, and then spend the evening getting drunk and staring at the notebook I bought to get myself writing, and knowing, as I drank my third whiskey of the evening, that tonight wasn’t going to be the night that I wrote anything in it.
I would have called it writer’s block, but I didn’t believe in writers block. It had always seemed like something invented by bad university students who didn’t really want to be writers anyway, and who would probably end up self publishing some bullshit fantasy novel that sold 9 copies on some website. I, a real writer, could never suffer from something like that.
I would tell myself anything to believe that my stagnation wasn’t writers block: That I needed to live a little more and accrue experiences to write about, that I was in the research phase for my next work, that I was making notes and those counted, that I was on hiatus, that I was burned out from five years of writing for a newspaper back in Nanaimo, that writing was an industry in flux, and I was waiting to see the new direction it took before I jumped into any new projects…
Dumb shit like that. Bullshit writer’s excuses for a bullshit writer. The block was a problem that could not be worked through because I wasn’t good enough, or sober enough, to work through it.
So I drank more and did nothing. Because that’s what you do when you’re a drinker.
A Short Letter to Myself in Those Days:
Write something, just write something, put some fucking words on the page, do it, you know you can do it you can fucking do anything, well you can’t stop drinking, but that’s a bigger fucking issue right now, the issue is that you can’t write and you used to be able to do, you used to be able to write reams upon reams of the shit and even if it was all shit it was still something and now you write nothing and now you contribute nothing and all you do is fuel your alcoholism and now when you’re trying to write you find it all comes out as this profane stream of conscious bullshit. This is a writing technique that never worked for you, so why are you trying it? Why are you doing the things that they told you would help, if nothing they ever told you helped before? This is playing their game, and when you were writing, the last thing that you wanted to do was that. You wanted to be different, you wanted to be better than them and you wanted all of them to see that you were right and they were wrong, and that they would all eventually follow what you were doing and realize that dropping out of school, fucking up all your relationships, and moving back to Calgary to become a drunk was the way to become a good writer, you just fucked up on the whole actually writing something part. Don’t worry about it though; I don’t think that’s that big of a part of becoming a novelist. Drink another beer! That’ll help! Have another hangover, that’ll help! Fuck somebody and never talk to them again, that’ll help! And if you keep doing all of this in some kind of cyclic nightmare, then eventually you should be able to write something, even if the only thing you write down is, “I’m fucked.”
I quit drinking on a random Thursday night after my shift wrapped up. I wasn’t trying to stop; I was just too tired that night to drink anything. So I went to bed, and awoke the next afternoon with the realization that I wasn’t hungover. I still felt groggy, but it felt more like how one feels of falling asleep in the sun, and there was no pounding headache. I sat up in bed, reached for my smokes on the small bedside stand, and at the same time, without thinking about it, without making a conscious act of it, grabbed the notebook I had bought weeks earlier.
I pulled on my housecoat, and walked out into the backyard for my morning cigarette. The morning was one of those calm Calgary ones, where the only sound you hear is the distant mellow hum of the highway far off in the distance occasionally broken up by the whistle of a train or the sound of an airplane flying overhead, (I lived in the flight path.)
It was September 21st, still warm out in Alberta, and I was sober. At least two of things were anomalies. I lit my cigarette and sat cross-legged on a concrete tile in the backyard. I flipped through the blank pages of a notebook; it was a small black moleskin, lined, and I had bought that particular brand because it was what I thought Hemingway had used. Hemingway was a prick, but he was the famous writer, and that’s what I wanted to be.
The blank pages of the notebook stared back at me with accusatory eyes, and told me about all the words that I hadn’t been writing. There were no thoughts on these pages, there were no half complete sketches of works, there were no love poems, there were no grand statements of direction, there were no ideas for stories or articles, there were no drawings, there were no character ideas, there was nothing but blank lines, and blank lines only ever say one thing: “you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who buys notebooks and never uses them.”
I chucked the notebook down onto the ground, finished my cigarette and walked back inside. I didn’t like it’s attitude, and thought it should maybe cheer the fuck up, and stop bumming me out so much in the morning. Didn’t it know that I was sober this morning? And that instead of giving me shit, it should help me celebrate?
I walked upstairs into my friend’s kitchen, and looked through a junk drawer for a ballpoint pen. I found a blue one.
Drinks today: 0
Cigarettes: 1 and counting
I didn’t drink yet today. I don’t think I’m going to drink today. This has been writing. So get off my back.
I had been sober for five days and it sucked. I made up for it with cigarettes, but all that had got me was a persistent cough that no one in their mid-twenties should have. My job didn’t make it easy to stay sober, and every day at work I ran my fingers along the fronts of the bottles, wanting only to crack one open and drink from it. I would explore the curves of a gin bottle while I rang it through for a customer, I would count the mini bottles and roll them between my fingers like coins, thinking about how easy it would be to just drink one.
Booze never tastes better than when you’re not drinking it. I walked down the aisles of the store and talked to the labels like they were old friends, drawing from them memories of vodka mornings, gin nights, and beer hangouts. Every sip of booze I had ever had rushed back to me, and all of it tasted good, and there were no hangovers to be had. No, there was nothing bad to think about liquor, not when you’re sober; when you’re sober the only perfection in you life is the drinks you’re not slamming down.
When my shift finished up, I walked home thinking to myself that the difficulty of this whole sobriety thing was probably a bad sign. I thought that I was too young to be an alcoholic, and that only people, or ancient famous writers were alcoholics. I was just someone who had loved to drink, and now was having a problem altering habit. It would get easier. I would be able to keep this going. I didn’t set a time limit, or a certain amount of sober days, but I figured at least a month. I could do a month.
I sat down in the kitchen, put on a late night pot of coffee and pulled out my notebook. I had been doing a good job of writing something down everyday. I had started to write poetry, and while I thought it was all shit, it was nice to just write something that didn’t read like journal entries. It was nice to write down certain lines I’d have repeated in my head all day, and then give them some company with some other lines and call the whole thing a poem. Even if the other lines lent nothing to the whole thing as a work, it still felt like I was writing something. It still felt like the work.
The coffee finished brewing. I poured a cup.
Then my phone rang. My ex.
Nothing good ever comes from answering late night phone calls from one’s ex. But when you’re sober, you’re a glutton for punishment.
And I’d never been able to say no to her.
A Late Night Phone Call With My Ex
Her: I don’t know why I called.
Me: Me neither.
Her: I think I miss you.
Me: Do you?
Her: Never mind.
I put the phone down beside my notebook and my cup of coffee. Then I got up and walked to the liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. I drank straight from the bottle; guzzled until my lips hurt, my throat burned, and my stomach churned. My head swam like someone had slammed a pool cue into it. I put the bottle down on the counter and dropped to the floor, sobriety kicked dead after five days.
I let the drunk come on, and let it wrap its arm around me like an old friend that whispered in my ear and told me that everything was going to be alright, and that sobriety was a stupid idea anyway.
Then I got up off the ground, walked back to the table, and started another poem. This one was better than all the ones before. It was about her, drinking, and pain. Great subjects.
I didn’t try getting sober again for years. Sometimes a first attempt can ruin something for good, long while.