Recovery experts say to attend 90 meetings in 90 days if you really want to get sober. Post-rehab, those 90 days are exactly what was staring Bill Clegg down as he returned to his old using grounds of lower Manhattan.
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A rising star in the literary world and a talented agent, Clegg chronicled his addictions, especially to crack, in his acclaimed 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. In Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery, he tackles the aftermath—continuing to work on his sobriety in downtown New York, where the streets are littered with memories of using buddies’ apartments, hotels he used to hole up in for days-long binges, and ATMs beckoning him to withdraw cash, enough to fund just one more score.
We called Ninety Days a “gritty, lyrical and potent portrait of what it really means to be addicted.” It makes for a fascinating book about the very human struggle of addiction.
You began writing this shortly after completing Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. What were your reasons for delving into the recovery process with this book?
Some of the stuff that ended up in Ninety Days came out while writing Portrait, and it just didn’t fit, and I thought when I finished Portrait that I would just feel this kind of closure, and yet I kept on in my spare time, going back to these open files and writing down stuff I remembered.
In fact, Portrait came about as a book because I had started writing out things I had remembered, as early as rehab and then after. So much of that time that had been transcribed in Portrait had been clouded by drug-fueled paranoia and things like that. When I woke up in the hospital, as it were, I felt like I’d lose those details and never discern what was paranoid fantasy and what was real. I just wrote everything down I could remember. If I didn’t, it would be lost.
For me, that process just kept on going…I just kept writing it out, and it had the shape that suggested itself as a book… It wasn’t done until it was done. What was so different was when finishing this book I had absolute no instinct, or desire, to write anything else. Yeah, the tank is empty.
You described that immediate post-rehab time to the New York Times when Portrait came out: “It was a very discreet period of my life and also the most amazing.” How so?
I think part of it was that once the sort of obsession to drink and to use lifted it was as if this great curtain was being pulled back, and I could see the world as it had been around me the whole time. Before, it had not been visible to me, I’d been so wrapped up in covering my tracks and hiding my use and sort of reacting from one period of oblivion to another.
I’d lived in the Village for years, almost a decade, and I was getting lost on the streets of the West Village. There were so many streets I’d never been on, I traveled such a steady narrow path through the city from work to home to a handful of restaurants to places I used, and then suddenly, there was this whole new thing. Even on streets I lived on, I noticed things I’d never noticed before. I remember there was this doorknob on a townhouse near One Fifth [where I had lived] and it was the most magnificent doorknob I’d ever seen. I passed by it for seven or eight years, but it was like I had just passed it for the first time.
The city came alive and vivid for me for the first time. I felt honest for the first time. I didn’t have secrets. I felt sort of new, excited, and I was poorer than I’ve ever been in my life. I had no prospects for employment, and on the surface of things, on paper it was bad. Yet I felt after the 90-day mark, around the time I didn’t have the desire to use any more, I felt this kind of exhilaration.
At the book’s end, you say the meetings, the 12-step process, works for you. What in particular makes that process helpful?
For me, being emancipated from my own worry—my own self-concern and even just obsession to use, struggling with that, all that inward thinking—the only thing that emancipated me from that was thinking about somebody else.
I actually feel that I can trace my first generally unselfish thought to [fellow recovering addict] Polly, which is sad cause I was in my mid-30s. While I was trying to get sober, I eventually saw how much more connected I was to other people in recovery, the less I thought about myself, and the happier, more hopeful I was. The only place that happened was in my relationships with other addicts and alcoholics who were struggling, especially Polly, who was relapsing right next to me. We were right there, in the trenches together…
Even later when I relapsed, the only thing that stopped me from continuing to use, in Bangkok of all places, was my sponsee texting me, this guy for the first time reaching out for help…That just stopped me in my tracks. When I look back now, I don’t quite understand how after four vodkas I didn’t pick up, go into the city and find drugs and go so deep I couldn’t come back. Again, it’s just being in that network of other alcoholics and addicts, and you’re accountable. If I don’t show up at the meeting I go to every day, I get a text from one person. And that kind of connectedness has kept me sober.
Addiction and recovery are common themes for books—when done well, they’re done extremely well—i.e., David Carr’s The Night of the Gun, Mary Karr’s Lit, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. It’s also a relevant topic for many… any advice on how to do one well?
I hadn’t really read any addiction memoirs. I feel like, as an agent, when I think about labels for literature, I resist them, so there could be four novels that come out of North Carolina that would be from a distance labeled like “Southern coming-of-age novels,” and they could be completely different from each other.
When I’m talking about books I’m selling to publishers, I resist those categorizations—they’re inaccurate and reductive on some level. I’ve represented and loved memoirs that include alcoholism and addiction, namely Another Bullshit Night in Suck City [by Nick Flynn] and Goat by Brad Land—each of those would read and edit and lay out on the terms they laid out for themselves.
I wrote without a sense of what an addiction memoir was. This is my story, and I was going to tell it as honestly, effectively, artfully as I can. I didn’t hold it up to a pre-existing standard of an addiction memoir. It was writing first as a process of memory, the point that there was a message, voice, tone that I sort of recognized as effective in telling the story.
I tried to sustain that over the course of the book, and if there was a concern in both books, somehow especially in Ninety Days, underneath it was that my imagined reader was someone who was struggling with alcohol and drugs, someone contemplating getting sober, someone having a tough time, or struggling to stay sober. Somehow, underneath everything, I wanted the book to be useful, a guiding idea. If that was my only concern, I wanted it to be that.
Molly Brown is the features editor for Kirkus.