Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Finding inspiration in the afterlife of old habits

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Since early 2010, I’ve held a much more tenuous, uncertain relationship with alcohol than I ever have since I first started drinking.

Not long into January, 2010, I decided to do something I’d thought about frequently for years before, but was always too scared to do: I stopped drinking.

Before this, the longest I’d ever quit drinking was in the winter of 2005. Again, it was something I’d thought about before. I hated how nights spent drinking sabotaged perfect plans the next day. I hated how a Friday night could start out with pure happiness, only to fade into regret or embarrassment or a fuzzy, sad head the following morning.

It wasn’t all alcohol’s fault, though. I had a tendency to bring a good buzz down – not in a way that other people would see (well, not often anyway, as far as I know), but in a private way, usually as the night was winding down, with last call well behind us and my buzz was already wearing off, or when I would finally be getting home. Under the covers, I would think about things, think about everything: every disappointment, every argument, everything I thought had gone wrong, everything I thought I would never be able to have. These things might not surface for days otherwise, if I was sober.

The problem here was I didn’t know how to keep a good buzz from going into a dark place.

I also didn’t know how to just not drink. There were so many times when I didn’t really feel like having that last drink, but I would anyway. There were so many times I didn’t even feel like going out in the first place, but I would. Not that it was all bad, because it wasn’t. There were a lot of good times – a lot. But there were also times that felt unnecessary, out of control, and exhausting.

And by early 2010, I was exhausted. I’d been sick from November through to December with something I couldn’t shake. My throat hurt and I felt feverish. My glands were swollen and I had a cough. I’d even lost my voice for several days.

But mostly, I was tired. I was so tired that a doctor even tested me for mono. (I tested negative.)

I bailed on plans throughout that time, but on days when I thought I was finally starting to kick whatever it was I had, I went out. Just for a couple hours, to see a friend or to feel like I had some semblance of a life. When I went home for Christmas, I said yes whenever I was offered a drink.

The whole time, I knew that whatever drinks I had weren’t going to help, that they were probably just going to weaken my immune system further, but still, I wouldn’t let go. Did I want to? Yes.

Anyone who’s ever quit something before, like smoking, will know that it takes a long time of wanting to before you actually do. You think it’s tied to your identity. You think people will see you differently, and that you will see the world differently. You think you will miss out on things, or that you’ll change in a way you don’t want to.

I didn’t want to quit drinking forever, and I haven’t, but I needed to know that I could stop, and I needed to get to a point where I’d never really been before, which was to be able to have one or two drinks instead of ten in one sitting.

After finally starting to feel better, finally starting to feel less tired, I thought that maybe it was time I really give this alcohol-free thing a try. I’d realized that I’d let myself become way too rundown, and for what? You can drink any night, any weekend. Why do it when you’re not feeling well, either physically or emotionally?

In Julia Cameron’s seminal creative guide The Artist’s Way, she prefaces the book by talking about how she reached a turning point when she realized she had to quit drinking. But of course, she wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do: would her creativity evaporate? Was it the source of her best writing and her finest ideas?

I, too, wondered about this when I stopped drinking. Lately, as I’ve been planning the launch of new book, I’ve had to talk about it a lot more than usual. And when I’ve talked about how a lot of the poems started, or what I was trying to capture in them, I’ve often quietly wondered whether Amphetamine Heart would have come together as it did if I’d quit drinking before it had ever gotten started.(

Often, after I’d started a poem, I would use it to try to capture that dark, greasy discomfort that comes with being on too-little sleep after a late night of partying. A lot of the pieces in Amphetamine Heart refer to alcohol – there is “swamp rot” in a “gin and tonic mouth,” there is beer on a floor, there is wine and ash that nourishes and depletes, simultaneously.

Even the book’s title refers to how fast my heart would beat sometimes in the early, early morning after a night of drinking. I’d lay there, trying to get back to sleep, with my chest vibrating with every beat.

These are all things that I felt, and I don’t know that I would have written about them – or written about them in this way – if I hadn’t felt them so strongly and, in some ways, hated them so much.

Honestly, I don’t think it would have gone in this direction if I’d spent my time differently. I’ve never been able to write while wasted, but the mornings or afternoons after a big night out have typically been productive.

When I quit drinking, I wondered if I would be able to tap into anything else that provided so much to create from. Like Julia Cameron and so many other people who’ve quit something, I wondered if I would be changed.

And I was, in many ways. I felt shy and awkward a lot of the time. I questioned whether I had anything interesting to say anymore. When I went out with friends and stayed sober all night, I didn’t have the same rush of excitement the next day in replaying the night’s conversations and incidents. What used to be really fun, and funny, was still fun, but in a different way, something more muted.

Did it change my process, or my creativity? In a way, yes. When I was spending weekend to weekend to weekend completely sober, I had a clearer head and a more predictable schedule and energy level because of it.

I ended up writing a lot in 2010. I still wrote poetry, and I also started a blog and a new book. While I found it hard to find a new happiness and comfort level in my rediscovered shyness, I found I had less fear in making a mistake or in being too outside of the right headspace to get anything good on the page.

But the ideas came from different sources, and those sources brought me to focus on different things. Where before I focused a lot on physical discomfort, disgust with bodily functions, paranoia, contamination, and abuse, I’ve been able to broaden my focus. Even if I don’t put some new sources of ideas to use, the point is that I know they are there, that I have a way to access them if I ever want to.

I find more and more than ideas come from renewed interests or from things outside of myself rather than from my physical awareness. As I continue to work on my novel, the characters’ experiences and reactions and circumstances are drawn less from my personal journals, as past stories were, and more from imaginative territory I’d never bothered to go down before.

Would I be working on Amphetamine Heart all over again if I were just starting out today? Probably not. But it is a slim document to some life lived, which is what makes me appreciate it all – the best nights and the worst.

While now I’m back to more routine social habits, including having a few drinks here and there, I know I’m not the same person walking into a bar as I was two years ago. Not only has my tolerance completely disintegrated and turned me into a cheap date (not that my bank account’s suffering because of it), but I’m still navigating some of the new and old feelings that arose in 2010 when I had nothing to mask them anymore.

But there are positives in the new feelings: a clearer idea of what I’d like to work on in my creative life, and a better honesty and trust with myself.

I feel to some people out there, it’s probably politically incorrect for me to even attribute a portion of my work to alcohol, but those feelings were things I experienced and absorbed enough to turn into something else. This was my life, and it’s not so far from other people’s lives.

Anytime we make a change – whether it’s a new job schedule, a cross-country move, a change within a relationship, or a decision to start a family – it will affect our creative sides. Whatever the change is, there will always be positive and negative sides to it. By changing my drinking habits, I may never be able to go back to writing the types of poems I was before 2010, but I have been able to go in new directions.

Changes in life or changes in inspiration will happen anyway, whether they’re by choice or not. Passion and commitment and style and ability don’t come from external sources – they are already in place, and it takes a lot to shake them from their foundations.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth 2011

Liz Worth is the Toronto-based author of Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions, 2011), Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (Bongo Beat/ECW, 2011) and Eleven: Eleven (Trainwreck Press, 2008), a shot of surreal punk fiction.

Go to Liz Worth 2011’s Author Page