What we call a “personality trait” these days the medievalists called a character flaw. Ironically enough, almost every four-point personality test you can take is derived from their four humors: melancholy, sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric. Blood letting as a psychological remedy (we still use leeches for the surgical variety) grew out of the idea that something was off in you. And by twisting vices into “personality traits,” we’ve come to also idolize that off-ness.
I mean not to glorify my own personality or disparage anyone else’s, but simply to say that in college I found it easy to take a personality test and say, “Oh, I’m flighty in relationships because I’m an ENFP” or “I’m a jerk because I’m a RED-YELLOW-WHITE on the color code” or “Well if you understood my Strengths Finder 2.0, you’d realize why I’m so aloof all of the time.” An author I respect recently went on a similar rant about enneagrams. Nevermind that I’m an INTJ now. Nevermind that my Strengths Finder has changed every time I take it. Even if the results of these tests stayed put, the ways we use them in group mind and business relationships amount to little more than an elaborate way to enable personal vices. Used well, they lead to the kind of self-assessment and repentance the medievalists intended with the four humors. You think of yourself with sober judgment, knowing your capacity for great evil, and then this gratitude for the good your life propels you forward towards better and better versions of yourself, selves that create better and better versions of the world — the very self-assessment most every politician and power-hungry person lacks, especially this year. We seldom use tools like this in our “me first” culture. You can’t say, for instance, “me first” and “I’m for social justice” because social justice, by definition, assumes that you’re giving up yourself for the sake of the other. Even Freud, with whom I often disagree, knew the importance of putting ego in its place. For instance, friends of mine recently discussed rescuing girls out of sex trafficking in the same conversation as hosting said event at the Museum of Sex — there’s no connection in their mind between supply and demand, between their infantile cries of “me first” and their alleged advocacy for social justice.
Said in another way, there’s a damn good reason the NUMBER ONE and NUMBER TWO steps in Alcoholics Anonymous are:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
I am not my savior. I need help.
What does this have to do with writing?
As I wrote in my article over at Freewrite, I believe we’ve come to idolize our most common vices and struggles under the term “writer’s block” or “writer quirks” and this includes our addictions. I used to be involved in a group of men who would confess their deepest struggles to one another and work together find solutions. I did this early in life — from age eighteen to twenty-four. Every week, we’d ask one another: What was your rose and what was your thorn? It took a lot of trust to do that, to both say and hear the sorts of things we confessed to one another — hard things, painful things — but those men ended up becoming some of the greatest people I’ve ever known. And they’ve been in my corner ever since and will be forever.
And the first thing I learned in that group was if you want to help people get unstuck from their hangups, you’ve got to go first.
I am powerless to save myself and my life is unmanageable.
At that time I used writing as an excuse to drink heavily. Before that I used it as an excuse to prop up a pornography addiction in highschool. Before that I used it as an excuse to completely ignore my next-door neighbor who was in pain. Before that, I used it as a method of dressing up my slander against community leaders who wronged me. Later on in a different group at around age 26, I confessed that I was using writing to procrastinate basic things like doing the dishes. And we must do the dishes, according to Stephen Pressfield, “so that when the muse enters your workspace she will not soil her gown.”
As Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke once said:
“Arrogance is born of insecurity. Nobility is different. It’s born of dignity, self-worth, and self-respect. We all see the world through the prism of our identity. If our self-worth is low, it affects everything we do. The point of life is to contribute to others, but without a certain self-regard, it is sometimes difficult to make breakfast. A knight takes pride in his handwriting. He keeps careful track of his saddle, his boots, and his weapons. He cleans and cares for his tools, animals, and his person. He carries his own bags. The laces of his boots are strapped tight. Always prompt, a knight is not casual with the time of others… A knight is the best kind of servant, leaving every space he enters brighter and cleaner than when he arrived. His surroundings reflect his state of mind.”
The easy out is saying, “Well I’m a writer. I deserve to have my vices,” but with an honest posture that knows we came naked into and will leave naked from out of this world, I doubt any of us deserve much of anything — all is grace. In reality, it’s easy to rationalize our habits and vices under the general personality of writers because, “That’s what writers do.”
And there’s a bunch of freelancers reading this hoping I won’t say it, but it’s easy to rationalize our habits and vices under the general personality of artists, creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs because, “That’s what artists, creatives, freelancers, and entrepreneurs do.”
To quote from the addiction passage in Stephen King’s On Writing:
The point of my family’s intervention, which was certainly as unpleasant for my wife and kids and friends as it was for me, was that I was dying in front of them. Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house. She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that very reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide.
I bargained, because that’s what addicts do. I was charming, because that’s what addicts are. In the end, I got two weeks to think about it. In retrospect, this seems to summarize all of the insanity of that time. Guy is standing on top of a burning building. Helicopter arrives, hovers, drops a rope ladder. Climb up! the man leaning out of the helicopter’s door shouts. Guy on top of the burning building responds, Give me two weeks to think about it.
I did think, though — as well as I could in my addled state — and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, so far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.
It didn’t, of course. The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substance are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual lies of our time. The four twentieth-centuries writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It doesn’t matter if you’re James Joyce, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be preserved at all costs…. We all look the same when we’re puking in the gutter…. Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
Please know I’m not writing this from some high horse. I’m writing from the trenches, this my missive of war. I’m writing because right now I’m struggling with reigning in a bad addiction to social media and I’m trying to replace that keystone habit with the habit of working out in the morning and writing letters. We’ve deleted social media — as a household — for a year. Plus I haven’t seriously worked out since THE EIGHTH GRADE when I played football, but my body’s showing how bad it’s hurting for health. What’s easy is to say, “I’m a writer. I’m skinny enough to hide my health problems for a few more years — how my scoliosis has grown worse, how I’m not sleeping, how my heart and brain have started having irregularities.” Ironically, the worst gluttons I know are all skinny people like me: we know how to hide it. Better yet, it’s easy to say, “I’m a writer. The internet is my job,” when in reality I know, deep down, that the internet only gets me 10% of my results. 90% of my results come from (1) sitting down to do the work and (2) connecting, intimately, face-to-face with people in my life for whom I can advocate and who sometimes offer to advocate for me.
And even if I wasn’t struggling with the internet addiction, I have three different friends who finally admitted in serious ways the last few months that they’re struggling with substance abuse. And I’ve been there too. It’s easy is to say, “Write drunk, rewrite sober.” Cute, even. Strand has fridge magnets that’ll back you up. Truth is, that’s a Hemmingway quote making Stephen King’s point all the more relevant. I have people close to me that practiced the same thing as truck drivers: “Import drunk, export sober.” After a few DUIs, it all came crashing down on them. It’ll come out eventually, it’ll catch up.
It’s inertia. Inertia builds and it will catch up. As someone with an addictive personality, I can confidently say it either catches you or you catch it. Really, the only choice is whether you catch up to it on your terms or if it catches up to you on the terms of gravity. You don’t have to crash land on your way back down to Earth. You could always choose to reenter orbit and land softly. I get it. As Brennan Manning says, “Aristotle calls me a rational animal. I say I’m an angel with an incredible propensity for beer.” I’m with you. I’m here. This is no guilt trip. It’s an appeal to the better side of you: an appeal from my keystone addiction to social media to my keystone attempt to lift weights again, an appeal from my former self who drank heavily to my latter self who switched (mostly) to herbal tea. The sweet things in life make the switch worthwhile — the writing itself is more important than the garb, than the gadgets, than even the vices that accompany writing. Writer vices are just vices and in the words of Alexander Pope:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. This has nothing to do with my writing or my personality. This has to do with a hole in my heart I’m trying to fill and my refusal to face that hole, dead on. Every time I chose to face that infinite hole on my own terms, I grow exponentially and I become intimate with the grounds of all reality — what David Bentley Hart refers to as “Bliss.” If you’re out there and you’re struggling, I want that for you too. I want that for all of us: to face the hole and fill it with joy instead of some physical substance or money or power.
We could conclude at the end of this, “I showed you mine, now you show me yours.” Certainly self-disclosure on your end would help other people be honest in the comments, but whether or not that happens, here’s where I want to start the discussion:
When and where has true community emerged in your life?
Here’s how I’m defining true community:
- An intimate group
- of a handful of people
- who know everything about you
- meet regularly in person locally, not online,
- who come from walks of life different enough from your own that they disagree with you on some key things
- AND who have an authoritative say in your day-to-day life.
In short, good people you trust and heed.
For instance, one of those guys in my group was in the National Guard and I’m a pacifist. One was sixty and I was twenty-four at the time. One was an accountant type and I’m… definitely not. Several were pretty conservative — heck a couple even voted for Trump in the primaries this year and I most definitely did not, but politics didn’t matter because I knew everything about those guys and they knew everything about me and we loved one another as grown men can and should, on the deepest level of friendship — Lancelot and Arthur, David and Jonathan, Robin and Little John kind of stuff. In fact, that love ended up affecting everyone’s politics — the ways in which we cared for the city in which we found ourselves.
Exposing, growing vulnerable, and submitting myself to these men who all wanted to grow like knights of virtue, knights of honor and peacemaking and joy and courage… the best parts of me have always come out of groups like that. The leader I most respect in the world right now is Pope Francis primarily because he still goes to confession every week to a priest under him and receives absolution. The Pope. Confesses. He carries himself with sober judgement in a group of men who want to grow in virtue. And that kind of group ends up affecting stuff like work ethic and politic and passion and prose.
Writer vices have a counterpoint for those that have the courage to confess to friends and then move to change their minds and hearts. Writer vices can give way to writer virtues.