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Literary Circles of Recovery

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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.

Lit was Karr’s third memoir, a bestseller, and one of the most highly acclaimed books of 2009. Critics hailed Karr’s pungent, poetic voice, her vivid descriptions, and riveting storytelling as having made literature out of the usually mawkish recovery genre. In it she traces the role of drinking through her life, from an unstable Texas childhood, to a burgeoning but uncertain career as a poet, to motherhood, recovery, divorce, and, finally, a relatively secure life as a creative writing prof at Syracuse and a convert to Catholicism. The story turns on her bottoming out as the alcohol-dependent mother of a toddler in Cambridge, Mass., in the late 1980s, where she and her then-husband taught and worked at Harvard. Because of her vocation, and its location in an intellectual hub, in the scenes of her early recovery in A.A. meetings and psych wards, the typically motley cast that addiction brings together is peppered with fellow writers, academics, students, and teachers. I want to focus on three writers who are directly or indirectly connected to the recovery story Karr tells in Lit – Thomas Lux, David Foster Wallace, and Koren Zailckas – and the role recovery plays in their own work.

After her final, terrifying relapse, Karr seeks out Lux, a literary mentor whom she knows to be an ex-drinker. Seeking to unburden her conscience and assert her newest resolution, instead of the scolding she half-craves, she recalls instead his matter-of-fact optimism: “You’ll get sober, and your poems will get better, and your kid will grow up with a happy mother.” The middle suggestion — that one’s writing changes in sobriety — is not a prominent theme in Lit, but it is a framing assumption of the book. Karr doesn’t talk much about her poetry after this point, but we know that she has since then become known primarily as a memoirist.

Lux et spes.

Outlines of Lux’s career focus on an “evolution” or “drift” in his style, from neo-surrealism in the 1970s, to more real-world subject matter and tighter formal crafting since the 1980s. Lux summarized this turn in one interview thusly: “I started looking outside of myself a lot more for subjects. I read a great deal of history, turned more outward as opposed to inward.”

While Lux’s later work is not associated with the religious-epiphanic tradition that poetry and recovery share (Yeats: “I will arise and go now”; Rilke: “You must change your life”; Bishop: “Write it! Like disaster,” e.g.), his description of this more gradual change in his approach does invoke the common phrasing around the central, “getting outside yourself” imperative in twelve-step recovery, one that Karr and Wallace will dwell on more directly. Karr expresses this experience in her first moment identifying with a speaker at an A.A. meeting: “Illogically, as I hear this, some frozen inner aspect thaws enough that a small surge of pity swells through me. I heap my watery coffee with powdered cream and stop thinking about myself long enough to come alive a little.” Brief, unpredictable moments of such awareness, undergirded by a steady, but hard to define sense of deep inner resurrection, characterize the rest of the meeting and the rest of Karr’s early sobriety in Lit.

The typical narrative pattern of addiction is produced by the seeming stasis of endless repetition, giving way periodically to inescapable evidence of decline and disintegration. Its counterpart, the rhythm of recovery — or perhaps of the memoirist’s art, or of both — is that of a carefully tended, sometimes grindingly slow, process of change, punctuated by epiphanies of various tones from dark to absurd to ecstatic. Karr’s brief interactions with Lux help to draw out this dual pattern at key moments. She seeks him again when she runs up against the common stumbling block in the literary intellectual’s twelve-step recovery story, the inability to pray. She has A.A.’s “praying for dummies” conversations with a sponsor and a couple of others, but it is Lux’s suggestion, made in a kind of Buddhist dialogue while he tends the grill in his backyard, of a straightforward expression of gratitude that allows her to begin the practice.

A young man named “David” plays a sporadic but important role in Lit. He appears at Karr’s first A.A. meeting as “a tall kid wearing a red bandana over his streaming brown hair,” with “a formal demeanor and gold granny glasses.” A “Harvard Ph.D. candidate in philosophy” who is reputed to be “some kind of genius,” but whose head-rag and unlaced boots are “the flag of gangster or biker,” he is unmistakably David Foster Wallace, which Karr confirmed after his death by suicide prior to Lit’s release.

When Mary met David.

Despite this 800-pound literary identity looming off-stage, “David” remains a character under Karr’s tight narrative control: a potentially tragic figure, in the troubled genius mode; a halfway house lothario with a bad boy’s allure, but whose superficial detachment seems to cover an intense vulnerability; a newly sober divorcee’s younger boyfriend; a devoted partner and would-be step-father; then a slightly dangerous, still sympathetic but rage-prone man, too unstable for her and her young son. During this trajectory his identity as a developing writer barely registers, let alone the type of writing he was working on at that time. But in Karr’s initial depiction, we get a glimpse of what it was in twelve-step culture that appealed to Wallace’s literary mind.

On the way out, I pass bandana’ed David talking with great speed and animation to the musician. David’s actually holding up his finger in some Confucian posture, saying, It’s a logical fallacy that they’re telling me I have a disease whose defining symptom is believing you don’t have a disease, since this a priori implies that any citizen who denies they have this ailment is no doubt infected…

As advertised.

This piece of nerdy newcomer’s impertinence contains a central conceit of Infinite Jest, the 1996 novel that cemented Wallace’s literary reputation and has emerged as one of the most compelling fictions of the contemporary era.  The narrative arc of recovery is not a structural feature of Infinite Jest. Instead, recovery pervades the novel as a subculture, and more than that, as an alternative way of ordering both inner and outer experience, possibly even a mode that resists the fascistic consumerism that characterizes the novel’s larger world. In other words, it is possible to perceive in Infinite Jest a society in which every citizen is indeed “infected” by the addictive compulsion, and only those badly damaged, outcast denizens of the underground world of recovery have a language, however apparently hackneyed, for recognizing it.

As a writing teacher at Syracuse, Karr mentored the author of the most talked-about book on drinking of 2005. Koren Zailckas’s Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood featured in numerous newspapers and magazines as an unprecedented window into student binge-drinking, in particular by young women. It is less a book about alcoholism than a meditation on what consistently dangerous drinking tells us about the pathological gendering of adolescence and young adulthood. Some of its saddest scenes are not the blackouts, dry-heaves, and even rapes, but the aborted friendships and senseless betrayals.

A good student.

In her ability to sustain narrative momentum across lucidly composed anecdote and deep-driving exposition, one can see traces of Karr’s writing influence, but not through the medium of recovery principles. Karr only appears by name in Smashed in its framing matter, as the author of a warm blurb, and in an effusive paean by Zailckas in her acknowledgments. It seems clear that their relationship was not remotely one of sponsor-sponsee, but that some parallel effect took hold through the medium of literary mentorship. “Thank you for saving me from the life I thought I wanted” sounds like a reference to alcoholism, interrupted; but the qualifying phrase that follows – “from stale jobs and a hard heart” – reveals it to have been artistic-professional advice.

In the text, Karr is “my poetry teacher,” who hires Zailckas to drive her teenage son home from school. This boy is the same Dev Milburn who would appear as a newborn and young child in Lit in 2009. As a 15-year-old in Smashed, he explains to Zailckas’s prying friend that he does not drink because the history of alcoholism in his family makes it too risky. “It will be forever the most informed argument against underage drinking I’ve ever heard,” Zailckas avers. “And it’s far more honest than all the bullshit kids get dished about drunk driving and peer pressure.” This improved “messaging,” based on what Dev has learned from his mother through her recovery, is ultimately what Zailckas is interested in. She ends by turning away from storytelling and into analysis, exerting some control over the inevitable reception of her story as a “what’s wrong with the kids” issue. Some of her promotional activity for the book blended into a collaboration with alcohol awareness campaigns on college campuses.

This little network of sober writers connected through Mary Karr’s memoir is clearly not a “circle” or “set,” in the sense that Bloomsbury or the Beats were. And each had formative friendships with other writers that reached far beyond the single experience of recovery. But there is a specific kind of literary connection that arises through the medium of their real-life recoveries. They each partook variously of the same specific subculture which appears in their work in different guises. The relationships between their texts map to a series of recoveries, from Lux’s, to Karr and Wallace’s, to Zailckas’s. So what is to be learned from this map, and what might be learned by future exploration?

The first thing I note is that the relationships between these writings cross over boundaries of genre and cultural hierarchy. Each of these writers interprets recovery differently and does so through different forms: poetry, novel, memoir, social analysis. The recovery theme is a medium through which these texts speak to one another. (While I have centered much of this initial observation in Karr’s memoir, it will be important in further investigation to resist this temptation to rely on the nonfictional aspect of memoir as a baseline of fact that controls other meanings.)

Beyond genre differences, there are hierarchical presumptions to contend with. A novel with the reputation that Infinite Jest has is not supposed to hold any truck with the confessional recovery memoir. And a literary memoir like Karr’s is supposed to have freed itself from the common run of the genre, and certainly from the merely issue-oriented book like Zailckas’s. But if we allow these distinctions to occlude these texts’ originary relations, we will miss key aspects of their meanings.

In just one example, Karr’s depiction of Wallace in Lit should be of interest to the growing number of scholars studying his work. Among the first fruits of the archive of Wallace’s personal papers at UT-Austin was an essay by Maria Bustillos on Wallace’s extensively annotated collection of popular therapeutic wisdom literature. For epigraphs, Bustillos quotes a sentence Wallace had underlined in his copy of Ernest Kurtz’s The Spirituality of Imperfection, on humility as the acceptance of the shared human condition, juxtaposed with a related point about the heroism of everyday mindfulness in Wallace’s unfinished final novel, The Pale King. Bustillos also quotes an anonymous note of gratitude that Wallace apparently submitted to Granada House, the recovery facility where he lived when he first met Karr, and which served as the basis for Ennet House in Infinite Jest.

In other words, it seems apparent that the scenes of recovery culture in Infinite Jest flow from a relatively orthodox understanding of the twelve-step experience. The distinction between self-help as a model of consumer individualism versus mutual-aid traditions that are in varying degrees democratic and pietistic, is an aspect of how Wallace makes meaning in Infinite Jest that it will require some familiarity with recovery culture to draw out. In turn, appreciating the sophistication with which recovery can be treated by a writer like Wallace might allow scholars of culture to return to the confessional narrative with a new respect.



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