Literary Circles of Recovery

Writers’ social groupings feature prominently in literary history, whether in intentional, tightly knit circles, or in more amorphous, but still influential, “scenes.” In some of the more famous sites, the social element has depended on heavy drinking or drug use, not only as a binding ritual, but also as a medium of the intellectual endeavor: opium and absinthe among certain Romantics; heavy drinking by expatriate modernists in Paris; speed and weed among the Beats on both coasts. The point is not about “writing under the influence,” but that these drugs’ rituals and effects symbolized important aspects of those intellectual and artistic systems. Further, writers’ relationships with each other on such scenes influenced their literary outputs, as illustrated by the presence of fictionalized versions of one another in their work. They produced texts that are hard to understand without some knowledge of these relationships and their milieus. Several such scenes have been mined exhaustively by scholars, artists, and fans alike, even living on as reading-and-drinking themed tourist destinations.

Some drunk writers never die.

But many writers, too, have been changed, as writers, by their recoveries from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. And many also must have done so in conversation with one another. Recovery is a process that tends to take over a person’s life for a time, and change it irrevocably. And especially in its twelve-step varieties, it binds people together in social rituals, through which they develop, somewhat collaboratively, new theories about self, society, and world. In other words, recovery as a social and cultural practice would seem to be the kind of “scene” from which could flow new forms of literary production. Have there been literary recovery circles, and if so, how might we define them? And what might they have to teach us about literature and about addiction?

Mary Karr after three memoirs.

I’m not talking about private print culture, or therapeutic writing groups, though one can easily imagine published work emerging from such origins. I mean relationships among vocational writers that are informed strongly by their recoveries, relationships which shape their subsequent writings. This is not a phenomenon that I have researched closely, nor that I have any strong theories about. Here I want merely to trace one such set of textual “recovery relationships” and discuss briefly what significance they might hold. One fairly jumps off the pages of Mary Karr’s 2009 recovery memoir, Lit.

Read more