Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story”

In her penetrating memoir Drinking: A Love StoryCaroline Knapp compares her romance with alcohol to a doomed, dysfunctional relationship.  In the same way that an infatuated lover overlooks the flaws of their beloved, Knapp ignores the many problems caused by her drinking.  “When you love somebody, or something,” she writes, “it’s amazing how willing you are to overlook the flaws.”

Like many alcoholics, she rationalizes her destructive behavior: yes, she sometimes drank too much and yes, she rarely went a night without booze but she never drank on the job or got in her car blacked out and killed someone.  She was what we call a “functioning” alcoholic: despite her excessive drinking, she (mostly) managed to keep up appearances.  Knapp had a car, a house, a job.  In fact, she had a prestigious job at the Boston Phoenix and even wrote her own column.  Yet despite having achieved impressive heights of success, for many years, she secretly struggled with alcoholism.

As an Ivy League-educated young professional, Knapp found it difficult to see herself as an “alcoholic,” a word associated with cheap malt liquor in paper bags and dirt-smeared homeless men.  She didn’t fit the prevailing conception of a drunk: she had never been homeless or incarcerated.  Most of her drinking was social: a few innocent glasses of Chardonny with dinner, a cocktail or two with friends.  “I’m not that bad” is the logic of the functioning alcoholic.  “I might drive my car while slightly intoxicated/instigate arguments with my husband/occasionally do things I regret, but at least I have a job and a roof over my head!”

What causes someone to descend into the hellscape of addiction?  What makes someone an alcoholic?  Is alcoholism a disease encoded in our DNA or the result of a dysfunctional environment?

Knapp certainly didn’t have the tragic upbringing of many alcoholics.  She was born in Cambridge into a well-to-do East Coast family: her mother was an artist, her father was a psychoanalyst.  Her privileged youth consisted of formal family dinners and summers at Martha’s Vineyard.  She excelled academically and graduated from Brown with honors.

This is why her alcoholism is all the more mystifying.  Alcohol didn’t travel through her family like “water over a landscape” or wash across whole generations in a “liquid plague.”  There was nothing particularly traumatic she could point to in her childhood— a bitter divorce, a history of neglect or abuse— that could explain her tendencies toward self-destruction.  Had her upbringing been defined by disorder and dysfunction, her addiction might make more sense.  But I suppose that’s one lesson of Drinking: anyone— rich or poor, a Brown graduate from an affluent suburb or a tough-talking construction worker from South Boston— can be an alcoholic.  No one is safe from the tentacles of addiction.

Knapp evocatively describes the sensations of drinking (“I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler.  I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me”) and its torturous cycles of shame and self-loathing.  

But what I loved most about Drinking was her ability to express the agony and insanity of being addicted to something.  As someone who has struggled with several dependences (alcohol, cigarettes, stimulants, shopping), I could see myself in her story with excruciating clarity.  If you’ve ever been possessed by an irrational longing for merlot or martinis, you’ll recognize the countless rules Knapp imposes on herself to “manage” her drinking: “I never drank in the morning and I never drank at work…except for an occasional mimosa or Bloody Mary at a weekend brunch, except for a glass of white wine (maybe two) with lunch on days when I didn’t have to do too much.”

When I tried to manage my smoking, I made similar rules: at first, I said I’d only smoke in the morning with my ceremonial cup of coffee or on the rare occasion I went out to the bars.  But eventually, I made an exception to every rule.  I’d only smoke in the morning with my coffee except if I had a stressful day at work: then I could smoke as much as I want.  I’d only smoke when I was drunk except if my mom pissed me off.  The addict’s rules are violable.  No matter how much Knapp tried to “control” her drinking, she couldn’t stop.

Miss Knapp incisively captures addiction’s obsessive quality.  Throughout the book, she preoccupies herself with the whos, whats, whens and wheres of drinking.  Who should she invite for a casual cocktail after work?  What should she drink: a cucumber-infused gin and tonic or an ice cold glass of Budweiser?  When could she finally pop the cork on the celebratory champagne?  Where could she get a bottle of scotch if she was at her family’s summer home and the nearest liquor store was 45 minutes away?  

If she was at a social eventa dinner with her boyfriend’s parents, a family gathering— she rigorously monitored herself.  How much cabernet should I pour into my glass?  How much time should I allow to elapse before pouring a second?  Can Aunt Lucy tell I’m completely smashed?  Knapp, like all alcoholics and addicts, spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to keep her drinking to socially acceptable levels.

“A Love Story” is the perfect subtitle to Knapp’s cleverly-crafted memoir.  At the height of her addiction, alcohol is her lover, her best friend, her closest confidant.  Alcohol is her all-consuming passion, an intense infatuation that constantly intrudes on her thoughts.  She savors the smoky quality of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, the refreshing crispness of a glass of Sauvignon blanc.  Knapp obsesses over alcohol like a childhood crush.  But after 20 years of tormented love, she decides it’s time to file for divorce.

However, Knapp’s neurotic love for alcohol doesn’t just dissipate when she decides to quit drinking.  In a hilarious moment after she gets sober, she wonders if she’s really an alcoholicthen she realizes only an alcoholic would wonder if they were an alcoholic at 2:30 in the morning.

A reporter and daughter of a psychologist, Knapp often approaches her subject analytically.  Because of her journalistic background, she connects her experience to larger issues; at different times, she examines the ways we glamorize alcohol in our culture and includes statistics and facts about alcoholism.  As a fanatic for non-fiction, I appreciated how Knapp masterfully balanced confessional memoir and fact-driven journalism.

Intelligently written and unfalteringly honest, Drinking: A Love Story is a vitally important addition to the addiction memoir genre.  


Ursula K. Le Guin on Why We Should Pay Attention to the Music of our Sentences

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,” Strunk and White wrote in their seminal writing guide The Elements of Style in 1959.  For the last half century, their philosophy on writing has reigned in newsrooms and classrooms nationwide.  Modern sensibilities prefer minimalism to ornamentation: critics praise the muscular prose of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver; high school teachers plead for their students to strip their sentences of superfluous words and fancy flourishes.

However, in her warm, witty Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin revolts against the Strunk and White idea that good sentences are always short sentences.  A clean, concise sentence, Guin concedes, can be impactful, especially after a string of elaborate prose.  But too many short, Hemingway-esque sentences can start to sound as tiresome as the not-yet-developed thoughts of a five year old.  As Guin writes,

“…very short sentences, isolated or in a series, are highly effective in the right place.  Prose consisting entirely of short, syntactically simple sentences is monotonous, choppy, irritating.  If short-sentence prose goes on very long, whatever its content, the thump-thump beat gives it a false simplicity that soon just sounds stupid.  See Spot.  See Jane.  See Spot bite Jane.”

If we are to seduce our readers, Guin suggests, we must become attuned to the music of language.  At the word level, we must choose our words carefully and pay attention to the symphonies they create: the rhythm and cadence of single syllables, the romance of vowels, the flowy, melodious “r,” the harsh, percussive sounds of consonants like “p” and “t.”  At the sentence level, we must remember one word: variety.  Too many succinct sentences and our writing sounds like it belongs in a newsroom or child’s story; too many fussy, flowery sentences and our readers inevitably get lost in a maze of syntax and have trouble deciphering our meaning.  Balance is key.  

In his indispensable Murder Your Darlings, Roy Peter Clark complies the collected wisdom of fifty of the best writing books ranging from titans of the genre like William Zinsser and William Strunk to gentle, encouraging voices like Brenda Ueland and Anne Lamott.  Murder Your Darlings is like speed dating literature’s most iconic figures: the profile of each book is brief, but immensely instructive.  If you’re a professional writer, a diligent wordsmith or just a lover of language, you’ll delight in your dates with these literary legends. 

In his chapter on Ursula K. Le Guin, Clark distills Steering the Craft into 4 practical writing tips:

1. Read your drafts…out loud.  Pay attention to the sound of your sentences and watch out for passages that have a “monotonous rhythm.”

2.  Vary your sentence length.  Too many terse sentences one after another?  Add a longer sentence to give your writing a more pleasing melody.  Too many lengthy, meandering 20 word sentences?  Introduce a brief 2 or 4 word sentence for variety.  As Janet Fitch once said in “10 Rules for Writers,” switching up your sentence structure will keep your reader from going crosseyed.

3. Be purposeful in your repetition.  The rules of the English classroom often take the inviolability of edicts.  Avoid the passive voice.  Never use “I.”  Never end a sentence with a preposition.  Despite what stuffy English teachers may have told you, you shouldn’t always avoid repetition.  Often times, the most talented literary stylists use repetition to underscore a theme or reveal a message.  Take Sylvia Plath’s genius first line from The Bell Jar, her harrowing classic:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

After this first image of a pair of Jewish spies being executed in the summer of 1953, the motif of electrocution is repeated throughout the story.  Why?  Because Ms. Plath was an incompetent hack who was too lazy to vary her word choice?  No, Plath intentionally repeats the image of electrocution to foreshadow the novel’s disturbing climax, the protagonist Esther’s botched electro-shock treatment.  Bad repetition is a result of oversight or sloppiness.  Good repetition serves a purpose.

When a reporter asked the late great Joan Didion why she repeats certain words and phrases, she replied, “I do it to remind the reader to make certain connections.  Technically it’s almost a chant.  You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell.”

So be a sorcerer of sentences.  Feel free to repeat…so long as you’re harnessing the incantatory power of language.

4. This last tip is my favorite.  Clark recommends close reading one of your own passages that you think works well.  Like Joan Didion who counted the words in Hemingway’s famous opening to Farewell to Arms, you should take a mathematical approach to your analysis: count, literally count, the words in each of your sentences.  What do you notice?  Most likely, you’ll see that you use a variety of sentences: simple, compound, complex.  Some of your sentences will be as condensed as a hurried p.s. at the end of a note; others will seem as epically enormous as a Donna Tartt novel.  Next time you go to write, use your passage as a model. 

Arnold Bennett on Why We Should “Use” Our Free Time

“Life feels so mundane,” my college friend confessed the other day, “I just go to work and pay bills.”  Sadly, as we get older, every day comes to seem the same: wake up, have your morning coffee, wait for the (yet again) late 8:30 train, do monotonous, meaningless work under the harsh fluorescent lights of a grim office that is relentlessly gray, come home, repeat.  Littleif anything— breaks up the tedium of our days.  “Adulting” is living in an eternal Groundhog Day. 

In his 1908 masterpiece of self-help How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett prescribes a potent medicine for the mundanity of modern living.  According to Bennett, the greatest tragedy of our times is that we regard 8 hours— a whole third of our existence as simply something to “get over with.”  Though a great fraction of our time is spent working, few approach their jobs with a sense of fervor or eagerness.  As Bennett writes, “In the majority of instances he does not precisely feel a passion for his business; at best he does not dislike it.”

Worse still is the fact that we treat the other 16 hours of our day as “free time” to waste.  Of course, 8 of those 16 hours are spent sleeping but what about the other 8?  After work, we fritter away these precious moments in some trivial activity: relaxing but ultimately random reading, zombified scrolling, superficial conversation, T.V.  And so runs the unfortunate course of our finite lives: 1/3 spent sleeping, 1/3 spent working at a profession we find divorced from a transcendent cause or greater meaning, and 1/3 spent in trifling activity.  

Bennett believed our gravest mistake was making our jobs the focus of our day.  Though many of us dislike if not outright despise our jobs, we organize our lives around what we do for a living.  For most— Bennett claims the hours from 9 to 5 constitute the day: “the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.”  We use the hours before and after work like money in a foreign country: we insist this time doesn’t “count,” so we spend it frivolously.  After all, it’s easy to spend extravagantly in Greece if the concept of a euro means nothing.

Rather than squander our finite time on Earth, Bennet argues we should use time wisely.  The forefather of self-help recommends we devote an hour and a half every other evening to some “important and consecutive cultivation of the mind.”  

But why only an hour and a half every other night?  Certainly we have more free time.

If we work a traditional 9-5, we probably have around 5-6 hours every day of “free time.”  However, we must account for our other obligations.  After commuting and grabbing our morning coffee, grocery shopping and going to the post office, making cereal for our kids and reading them bedtime stories, we probably have less than 3 hours of free time. 

So why still only commit an hour and a half every other night?

As with any worthwhile endeavor, we must start small.  An hour and a half every other night is a manageable amount.  After a few weeks of dedicated practice to our “cultivation of mind,” most of us will spend several evenings a week engaged in our activity and prefer it to the hollow pleasures of social media and T.V. watching.

But what, exactly, constitutes a “cultivation of mind”?  What should we use our hour and a half every other night for?  

Watch AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.  Read all of Leo Tolstoy’s works.  Train for a half marathon. 

Our goals may be physical or intellectual, spiritual or emotional, the only important thing is we have a goal and that goal personally resonates with us.  We can work to realize a lifelong ambition (write a novel) or revive a long neglected hobby (collect midcentury furniture).  We can learn to speak Italian or play the piano or master the art of Szechuan cooking or aim to expand our knowledge of 18th century literature.  The only requirement is we choose something meaningful.           

Why is learning a skill or cultivating a passion or taking up a hobby so crucial?  As Bennet so eloquently explains, if you learn, say, how a symphony operates, the next time you go to a concert, you’ll have an “astonishing intensification of interest in it.”  That is the beauty of hobbies: they renew our fascination and rekindle our zest for existence.