Bill Clegg: Surviving Addiction
Author: Nels P. Highberg
May 12, 2012
“For years, I tried to control my drinking and my drug use, and I nearly lost my life because of it. I hurt many people in that deluded thrashing. In the writing of these two books, which has taken up all of my free time for the last six years, I think–coming to the end–I felt a real sense of closure…”
In 2010, Bill Clegg published Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, a memoir chronicling a life of addiction that culminated in a two-month binge where he spent $70,000 on crack, vodka, male escorts, and high-end hotel rooms.
Obviously, he survived, but it wasn’t easy for him or anyone else in his life. Ninety Days, his new memoir, begins as he leaves rehab and returns to New York City, focusing on the challenge of attaining ninety continuous days of sobriety. Attaining that sobriety demands constant, conscious vigilance, and Clegg makes it clear he could never have done it alone.
Ninety Days and Addict are definitely connected. Thinking about them together, Addict ends with a brief description of your life after rehab. There are a couple of mentions of your new apartment and its views of the Empire State Building. But Ninety Days starts after your return to the city. You don’t describe the rehab process too much. Why that choice?
I didn’t go into detail about rehab because my experience of rehab was that it was a lucky kind of purgatory between my using life and my sober life, and I think rehab can be incredibly helpful for some people. But my real, active recovery didn’t begin until I was back in New York and learning to become involved with the sober community that would be ongoing.
Bringing up New York, you’re very specific about the places you mention: the street corners, the buildings. Why get so specific?
I think because my experience of coming back to New York and my experience of surviving was very location specific. My feelings were so affected and dictated often times by the streets I was walking on. Manhattan has such a narrow footprint, and people who live here often exist in a pretty well-worn perimeter.
As it happens, my friend David had offered me his writing studio, which was only just a few blocks from One Fifth where I had been living and only a few blocks from the apartment that I had been living in before that.
My early sobriety took place in the same streets or near the same streets where I had lived as an active alcoholic and addict. The places like the Knickerbocker, One Fifth, and Fifth Avenue itself—and various corners in the West Village—all had emotional and historical associations for me. You can live here for thirty years and cross the street, look at the corner of a building and remember a party that you went to years before or a time when someone you dated lived in that building and have some sort of emotional response to it.
My experience of the city is still that way. I’ll go someplace in Central Park that I visited in high school and have these sort of heavy memories. So much of the city doesn’t really change; the actual bones of the city stay very much the same, particularly this neighborhood in the West Village. Most of these buildings are as they were twenty years ago. The only thing that might have changed is the size of the trees growing on the sidewalk outside.
You mention in Ninety Days that the New York you knew as an addict is a very different New York than you knew as someone in recovery.
Exactly. There were sort of these two cities bumping into each other. There was this old city that I carried in a heavy bag on my back of all the memories of before. Then there was this whole new city where I was in these neighborhoods of the West Village and Chelsea, and I was there during the day with very little to do. I wasn’t rushing to appointments, and I was really paying attention to the streets, seeing them for the first time. I would get lost in the West Village. I lived nearby there for so many years, but navigating these streets suddenly became so difficult.
I do a lot of work at NYU, and I visit a lot. I get lost there, too, all the time.
Except I had lived there for so long, but I was always racing, always late to things, always doing some damage control, and cabs would rush me from this place to that. Often times, I wasn’t paying attention to how I got from Point A to Point B. It embarrasses me now to recognize how blind I was to what was around me during that period before I got sober.
It makes perfect sense. But does it seem odd to have somebody like me to say as a tourist that your books become some kind of strange Fodor’s guide where it’s like, “Hey, that’s where he lived with his partner when he was at the height of his addiction.” Or, “Mark’s apartment [where Clegg spent many hours scoring and smoking crack] must be around here somewhere.”
[He laughs.] Stay away from Mark’s apartment. I don’t recommend it. But, yeah, it’s a little strange. It’s always strange when someone I meet now has read both books and kind of lived through it a bit. I’m grateful that they have. I’m grateful that anyone would spend enough time with both books to have a relationship with the city because of it.
That gets me back to the books and their style. Both books have a distinct style of blocked paragraphs with space between them. It reminded me a bit of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and I read that you two talked about the writing process. Why did you make that larger stylistic choice as a writer?
It wasn’t intentional, but it sort of naturally happened. I wrote them as Microsoft Word documents, and I wrote in Courier. It somewhat mimics what appears in the book, and in some ways it’s different. I think because in some of the paragraphs there is a kind of heaviness to those relived experiences that it might have felt claustrophobic to have it all continuing in one seamless block of text or narration. Some of the space between that would give a little breathing room, particularly with Portrait. It was already claustrophobic because of the mindset it was transcribing, which was a paranoid, drug-addled, fearful life.
I can remember reading some of those sections the first time, reading some of those paragraphs, and taking little breaks and just processing it. It did make it easy to jump in and out of the story. I know you work as a literary agent. To what extent did your work as a literary agent enhance or hinder your work as a writer?
I think access to writers and talking with them about the process of writing could only have been a help to me. I started to learn to practice what I preach a little bit. Sometimes, when people get overwhelmed, they can’t see their way forward. I actually always used to tell them to keep writing, and the solutions will surface in the writing. There were times when I had to give myself that St. Crispin’s Day speech when I was up at the house where I would do most of the writing upstate. I would go for a walk and talk to myself out loud sometimes.
I think Nick Flynn gave me very good advice at the beginning of this, which I may be wrong about, but I think Mary Karr gave to him. But when you find yourself resisting describing some of the more uncomfortable or unpleasant or perhaps embarrassing memories, really lean into those. Don’t shy away but write toward them, really open them up, and be as brave as you can because those are the passages and episodes that readers will possibly be helped the most by.
Also, in terms of establishing the trust of a reader, you can kind of tell while you’re reading a book when people are putting a shine on things. There’s no value in a book when readers don’t trust the writer. There were many times where I would bump into episodes and events I was transcribing in both books where it was terribly upsetting, embarrassing, or difficult to remember things. If I found myself leaning away, I would remember that talk with Nick and just really lean toward it and try not to fret.
The tone at the end of Ninety Days shifts a bit. The story ends, and you become quite direct and adamant about the importance of meetings and people in your recovery. That must have been a conscious choice of yours to get so pragmatic at the end.
Again, it was something that surfaced. As I was finishing the writing of that last section, I found myself addressing the reader and overwhelmed with this sense of urgency and really trying to reach through the page and transmit something I know to be important, which is that we can’t get sober alone. For so long, I deluded myself into thinking I could draw a line in the sand and say “no new damage to myself and to other people.” Every time I would draw that line and try to stay on the good side of it on my own, I would stumble across it, and there’d be an avalanche of new damage. That was because I didn’t want to be connected to other people. I didn’t want to be involved in a community of alcoholics and addicts because I didn’t want to identify with them. I didn’t want to be part of them.
For years, I tried to control my drinking and my drug use, and I nearly lost my life because of it. I hurt many people in that deluded thrashing. In the writing of these two books, which has taken up all of my free time for the last six years, I think–coming to the end– I felt a real sense of closure, a real sense of “this is what I have to say about these things.” I couldn’t help myself. I wrote it because I was moved to and looked at it and decided that if I was so moved to write in that direct way, then there was some reason for it, so I left it.
Both books fit well together, like a part one and part two. Is there another book in you? Or are you just glad this is done and out?
There’s certainly no book about addiction or recovery, and there’s certainly no memoir and probably no book at all. If I ever felt as compelled to write something as I felt about these two books, if anything felt as urgent as these books felt and as necessary, then I would absolutely rise to it and write it. But I don’t feel that.
At the end of Portrait, I still kept writing. Now it really feels finished. At least the transcribing of those two periods of time feels resolved to me. But I will say the experience of writing is one of the great experiences. There are certain times when you feel connected to a finer version of yourself and where it’s all instinct and very little thought. That’s not all of the experience; writing comes in streaks for me. But I’m an addict. I like those good feelings. Of course, I hope someday to return to that feeling, whether it’s writing or some sort of artistic expression. But that impulse to write feels very far away, and it’s hard to imagine having the same sense of urgency about anything I did with these two books.
As a reader, after Portrait, I wanted to know more. But after Ninety Days, as a reader, I know this is a person who is going on and living a life, but it feels like an ending. Not the end but an end.
My last question is how Benny [Clegg’s cat who appears in both books] is doing?
Benny burned her tail on the stovetop this morning!
She’s eighteen years old. She looks beautiful. She’s having a few senior moments. She didn’t realize her tail was on fire. I was making tea for my boyfriend as I do every morning while my coffee is brewing, and she was sitting on the counter. She was nuzzling me, and then I smelled something terrible. I rushed her off the counter immediately, but there’s a big singe mark on the back of her tail.
Benny sounds like a survivor, just like you are.
Benny may even be more of a survivor. She’s had to survive a lot of neglect over the years. I spend every hour of every day trying to make up for those years of neglect.
I’m sure she makes sure you do that, too.
[We both laugh.]