Not one of us is immune to the allure of mythology. I'm not necessarily talking about the stuff of legend and folktale (although clearly Odysseus and Sisyphus, among others, continue to hold pretty powerful sway over our imaginations) so much as our personal mythologies, the narratives we construct to define ourselves, as artists and as human beings. Sometimes these myths are empowering. Other times, they're dependencies. But over time, all run the risk of becoming dogma. And of all the myths that universally permeate the writing trade, there are three in particular that I've personally found most punishing. The myth that we must constantly, every day, be writing. The myth that depression is a muse. The myth of the alcoholic writer. It's these three myths that I had to acknowledge, challenge, and overcome in order to create Cream River.
This past year, at the urging of my girlfriend and with the assistance of an area free clinic, I began taking a medication typically prescribed for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. By no means was this an easy course of action to arrive upon. But after two decades of actively avoiding pharmaceutics, I was tired of being marooned against the seductive shipwreck of my mounting neuroses. The medication I was prescribed was specifically aimed to treat my acute and worsening anxiety disorder, but all three conditions have been long-standing issues. As a teenager with an immature understanding of Nine Inch Nails and Anne Rice, I romanticized my already-extant dysthymia as the dark seed of my creativity, something precious worth protecting. In my twenties, with Carver, Brautigan, and Townes Van Zandt (or anyway, the legacies surrounding their work) to hold up as examples, I romanticized my boozing as the tried-and-true panacea of the tortured American genius. But with my thirties came massive anxiety—the cocaine flipside to depression's numbing heroin—and the resultant ground molars and sour stomach were much harder to romanticize, even with their own strong and obvious ties to my creative life: the anxiety came in lock-step with my first measurable accomplishments as a writer. With each incremental success I achieved, the higher I set the bar for what I needed to accomplish next, what goals to meet in the following year. Write X-number of pages. Publish Y-number of stories. Earn Z-number of dollars. This had nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with business, but of course one can easily inform the other, and though I was writing more, publishing more, earning more, I never quite met the goals I was striving toward, and so consequently ended each day, each week, each month feeling like a failure. Eventually, this angst-fueled ambition ceased to be a motivator. Instead of spurring me on, it wore me down. The more anxious I became, the less I wrote. The less I wrote, the more I drank. The more I drank, the deeper I sank into my depression and anxiety. And even as apparent as this self-destructive cycle was, justifying my actions came easily because there were the admirable precedents of addicts and suicides abounding on all sides. David Foster Wallace. Jason Molina. Kurt Cobain. I knew that boulder would crush me, and still I willingly pushed on up that impossible hill. I was buying into my mythologies, and getting exactly what I paid for.
So how long do you have to tell yourself the same bogus story before you finally correct the narrative? I was thirty-three when I finally sought treatment for my growing list of self-destructive behaviors. I was eight years old the first time I cut myself on purpose, aware that it was wrong but aware too that the cutting felt better than not cutting. A quarter century of making the same mistake. That first medicated week felt like a vacation on the moon, the whole world fantastically trembling on the edge of the uncanny. The drugs certainly made drinking superfluous. They also made it abundantly clear that no aspect of my prolonged mood disorders was of any benefit to me, and while the medication was doing its job of rebalancing my neurochemistry, it was up to me to change my course and bearing. I needed to reset. I put away my notebooks—at this point nothing more than a diary of aborted, scratched-out sentences—and gave myself permission to not write, to quit torturing myself with this myth of constant production and instead play creatively in other, less-weighted ways. I experimented with video for the first time in years. I recorded some songs (an exercise that eventually resulted in Cream River's musical twin, Whiskey Dick). I also co-curated a walking public art event featuring the work of nearly a dozen regional artists. I was trying out new ideas in composition, not on the atomic level of words and sentences, but on the global level of parts, of sequences, of movements. And it was in the midst of exploring these other media that Cream River was conceived.
Again: conceived, not written. The stories that make up the collection were composed over the course of five (dark, anxious, whiskey-soaked) years. But they were just stories, slim filaments untethered and without a home. It took this act of stepping away from my writing and its mythologies—not to mention allowing my attention to broaden, to explore structure and conflict through very different media—for me to see the connective tissue threading together these eight particular stories about liars and manipulators and the willingly blind, people too convinced of their versions of the world to see any alternatives to the dim paths they'd chosen. By choosing a different lens with which to interpret myself and my world, I was able to recognize the book that was already there, written and waiting to be acknowledged.
Now obviously I am not advocating a particular drug regimen for every writer, struggling or otherwise (what's good for Cain, after all, is not always what's good for Abel). Nor, for that matter, am I claiming to have been converted into a cool and collected, happy-go-lucky teetotaler. I'm drinking a beer right now, and I'm a little bit pissed about it. No, what I am advocating is a conscious breaking from and challenging of our deepest-seated mythologies and routines, as writers and as people. Like the Jesuit priests actively questioning their faith: how do we know our beliefs and practices are founded in bedrock if we don't ever submit them to the test of scrutiny? How else can we discover if our finely honed tools aren't, in fact, the crutches of doctrine, propping us up instead of moving us forward? (I say this, knowing perfectly well that this entire essay is a brand new personal myth, already desperately begging to be challenged.) How else can we possibly know whether or not we're absolutely full of shit?