Domenica_Ruta_ 32

The Library of Congress breaks down your book into these categories: Children of drug addicts—Massachusetts—biography—drug addicts. What genre would you put your book into?

I really dislike reducing any work of art to a DSM-IV listing. My mother was more than her addictions and mental illness. And I am more than her daughter.

RUTA_WithWithoutYou_trP R O L O G U E


My mother grabbed the iron poker from the fireplace and said, “Get in the car.”

I pulled on my sneakers and followed her outside. She had that look on her face, distracted and mean, as though she’d just been dragged out of a deep sleep full of dreams. She was mad, I could tell right away, but not at me, not this time.

Her car was a lime-green hatchback with blotches and stripes of putty smeared over the dents. The Shitbox, she called it. We called it, actually. My mother hated the thing so much she didn’t mind if I swore at it. “What a piece of shit,” I’d grumble whenever it stalled on us, which we could gamble on happening at least once a day, more if it was snowing. Far and away the most unreliable car we ever had in our life together, it was a machine that ran on prayer.

Rob Roberge is the guest. His new novel, The Cost of Living, is now available from Other Voices Books. It is the April selection of The TNB Book Club.

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By Mag Gabbert


When I was nine years old my Gran and I took a cruise to Norway. We stayed in the Presidential Suite, which was the biggest suite on board. It was bigger than my Mom’s house. It had fountains, and mirrors, and balconies spread out over five different rooms. It had Tiffany blue carpet and thick, cream-colored down comforters. Gran said she didn’t want us to stop traveling just because Granddad was gone. Gran had survived a brain tumor that year, and her mother and husband had died within just a week of each other—Granddad was only sixty-four. I’d lived through a life-threatening heart virus that year, and watched my dog get run over.

PART I/July 2010.


I see him, but I hope no one else does. The guy leaning over between the train tracks and the station bar has a guitar in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other. I am stopped at the tracks waiting for the gates to rise, watching him on the platform, hoping no one else sees him because it’s the kind of thing that makes everyone involved uncomfortable.

Taylor is sitting next to me in the passenger seat, and she is not watching him. She is going through her purse looking for her checkbook so she can pay for the hour-long session with Lisa she is about to attend.

A Eulogy

By Kate Axelrod


I had begun writing about other things these past few weeks. I was writing an essay about my grandmother, whom I love deeply, and whose eyes are beginning to fail her. I was writing about how she loved Anna Karenina and used to read it to her own grandmother, who was blind.  I had also started writing about another client of mine, who suffered, not unlike Henry, from addiction and depression and various other afflictions. But I recently started a new semester of school and a new internship and was having trouble finishing everything. The words were just not coming together easily; the prose felt disjointed and lacked something, some cohesion.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” -Zen aphorism

Death has parted us from another pop star. Whitney Houston, aged 48, drew her final breath inside a bathtub full of water, her heart finally waving the white flag from a fourth-floor hotel room floating somewhere above the boulevards of Beverly Hills.

With his autobiography, It’s So Easy (and other lies), crawling up the New York Times Bestseller list and a book tour in support of that release unfolding as we speak, Duff McKagan’s dance card is pretty full. He is first heading to the UK, where he will tour with his band Loaded while managing a string of appearances in support of his book. Aggressively dodging all opportunities for rest or relaxation, he is then touring South America with Seattle’s Alice in Chains before jetting over to Germany to play some dates with Motörhead.

But wait—there’s more.

 “Why Do You Write?” 

I’ve gotten this one in interviews in the past. Everything I said there was a lie. Let me answer it truthfully: 

I no longer write for you, to get finger claps in Cafes or “Likes” on Facebook. I no longer write to be understood. I don’t do it for fame for fortune, because who are we kidding? It’s public, but only like flashing your genitals in a subway car is public.

I write to momentarily get rid of myself, to get a little more distance, to intellectualize the gnawing in my stomach or ringing in my ears. I like us all a little better when we’ve been turned to symbols. It’s an Other-ing that makes it all more bearable. Sometimes it can even get us a little high, though those are also the worst times, the benders where the words hurt you the next morning and you’re a stranger to yourself. Then the words are like pans crashing and clattering to the ground, lolling around like Murakami’s kittens, and even more words spill out to enclose that noise with comfortable silence. Signal and noise can flip end over end, but that’s subject for another day. That buzzing in my head is already drowning it all out–

“Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like memory. This really came home to me once I started writing fiction, that memory seemed a kind of fiction, or vice versa. Either way, no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another. Warm with life, hopelessly unstable. And then to put these things out as saleable items, you call them finished products – at times it’s downright embarrassing just to think of it. Honestly, it can make me blush.”
— Haruki Murakami

You’re only a writer when you don’t know why you do it anymore, eventually there’s nothing else but the lie that tells the truth. You’re a writer the way a junky is a junky. It’s got little if nothing to do with anything else. If you’re still talking about “writer’s block” and wordcounts, there might still be hope for you. Turn back. Kick the habit.

I don’t write for you to come with me. We don’t need writing for that.

But since I have your attention, I’ve started working on my new book …

The pupils dilate. The rush of expectation met and satisfied.

Everyone who’s done coke knows this: the expectation of the rush is as rewarding as the dopamine hit itself. Maybe more.

I am freaking right out.

The news is coming at me from so many directions, I can hardly absorb any of it. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. As soon as one story runs, three more update, clarify, and supplement it.

And no, the subject is very likely not who you think it is.

It’s Christina Aguilera.

You see, she had too much to drink.

Hello, my name is Seth Pollins and I am a writer. I say this, today, not as a fist-pumping gesture. I say this in the spirit of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I admit defeat. I’m addicted. I do not always feel this way, that my impulse to write is actually governed by uncontrollable compulsion, but today, an otherwise cheery, bright day in Ambler, I do.

I am a married man, childless, creeping towards my mid-thirties, and I’m currently working on my–I’m embarrassed to say this–sixth novel.  I’d like to think that the time I spend writing is productive–that I write not because I expect my work to take me somewhere, but because I believe that perseverance just might. But I have to admit, writing often feels like a compulsion to me; and my writing life does share a certain affinity with the life of an addict.

Right now, I divide my time between two types of work: work that makes money; and work (my writing) that makes no money. Although I do enjoy my moneymaking work, I often feel “unpleasant symptoms” when I am engaged in it. In reality, I’m suffering withdrawal from my writing.  At work, I tell myself: I am not doing what I want to be doing. I am not doing what I am meant to do. It depresses me, creates anxiety. I often have this urge: to just quit my job, to go home and write. That wouldn’t be very responsible, would it? And yet, I think about it all the time.

How many writers, successful and not, believe this is so: Writing is what your meant to do?

I think of the seemingly delusional contestant on “American Idol”, the contestant who struts into his tryout with absolute certainty: I am the next American Idol. Even before he sings it’s obvious: this guy will fail; this guy will torture (or delight, depending on your perversity) in some serious way. Then he opens his mouth and your fear/glee is confirmed: he is terrible. How could he not know? He’s twenty-eight! How could he have made it this far not knowing how bad he really is? He had tried for so many years, but it’s obvious: all along he had been failing. Day after day, year after year, he had been failing. I sometimes wonder if these contestants really have worked so hard. And yet, what if they have? It certainly throws the value of perseverance into question. Yet, without perseverance, what does he have?

Recently, I posted a letter from my uncle, a poet, on my blog. In the letter, written to me when I was twenty-one, my uncle tried to offer a realistic portrait of what it takes to be a successful writer:

“But one thing that won’t just happen to you, like life, is teaching yourself to write well. So whatever time you spend doing that, can stand to spend, and need to spend, all that time that seems wasted and those rare moments that seem volcanic and so sure, is the time that must be spent, otherwise you’ll never become the writer you want to become. And there’s a funny thing about that, too…You’ll never become the writer you want to become. You’ll never be satisfied, never really know if you are any good.”

If you aren’t any good, though, what’s the use of spending all that time “teaching yourself to write well”? Without talent, perseverance begins to look a lot like compulsion.


Gabriel García Márquez wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in a furious 18-month burst. He tells of the hardships of this time in the wonderful book The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez:

“You already know how much lunacy of this sort Mercedes [his wife] has had to put up with…She took charge of the situation. I’d bought a car a few months earlier so I pawned it and gave her the money. I reckoned that we could live on it for six months, but it took me a year and a half to write the book. When the money ran out she never said a word. I don’t know how she did it, but she got the butcher to give us credit for the meat, the baker for his bread, and the landlord to wait nine months for the rent.”

García Márquez had already published a few books, and yet he knew this was his make-or-break moment. “Either this book will be my break-though,” he said, “Or I’ll blow my brains out.”

Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude went on to become one of the most famous novels of all time. But what if he had failed? He had two children at the time, a wife. How might we look at his compulsive behavior if it led not to worldwide fame, but suicide? Two children.  To abandon your responsibilities as a care-giver for eighteen months! Was García Márquez selfish? Do you have to be selfish to write a masterpiece?

Children. Since adolescence, I’ve associated the writing-life with the images borne towards me from my uncle’s life. My uncle introduced me to many of his poet friends–truly genuine, loving, funny people. One thing I noticed as a teen and young adult, without ever thinking too much about it, was that many of these poets did not have children. So it seemed to me, growing up, that a life of poetry might not be compatible with parenthood. Of course, this is an egregious generalization. And, of course, people have and do not have children for any number of reasons–reasons that need not be explained to anyone. But I often truly do wonder: is the writing life compatible with parenthood?

I’m speaking specifically of a writer at the beginning of their career: the unpublished, the hopeful, the compulsive–me.  Because, obviously, many successful writers have successfully raised children. No, I wonder, more specifically, of the writer I soon hope to be: the writer trying to break into the business who is also raising a child–or two, or three, or more.

For me, just now, this question of the writer-parenthood paradigm is important. My wife and I, we are trying to get pregnant. If we are blessed with a child, well, then, I will need to make more money. It’s not merely a question of my wife not being able to work. She will go back to work; she will continue to make money. That’s her preference. And, of course, I will spend time at home with my child, feasibly writing. No, it’s a question of the way I feel about my role. I want to provide for my wife and my child. I want to contribute meaningfully to our financial situation in a way that will enable us to move out of our apartment, buy a house, perhaps buy a second car–basically ease the burden that is now primarily on my wife, a successful lawyer. I am frantically searching for teaching jobs. I am frantically applying to writing fellowships. I am frantically trying to finish my third rewrite of my novel.

All of this strikes me as productive.

On most days, too, the time I spend writing strikes me as worthwhile and productive.

But at what point in the near future will the time I spend writing begin to compromise my ability to meet my responsibilities as a husband, a father? How long can I continue to spend my time writing (without making money) before the ballooning financial responsibilities of adulthood swallow more and more of my time–the time I had previously set aside for writing? It seems I’m confronting a make-or-break moment.

Obviously the people who become successful writers are the ones who do it. Perseverance, finally, is more important than talent. You can’t just write when inspiration puts your head in the furnace. And the more you write, the more you discover: inspiration comes later in the process. You have to work through the soot. You have to spend weeks looking into the twilight just to see the twinkle in the first star. Writers do this. Writers write, frantically.

And yet, when you make no money, this frantic activity seems a bit suspicious, doesn’t it?

I do not believe I have an addiction. But really, what is the difference between addiction and perseverance? What is the difference between Gabriel García Márquez writing furiously for 18 months, and, say the terrible “American Idol” contestant singing furiously for 18 months? Talent, obviously. Talent is important too. How do you know if you got any? At what point do you decide that you’ve tried hard enough–that you’re just not talented enough, that your wife, and your potential child, need you more than you need your writing?

I’ve found the best thing to do is to not think about these things. The best thing to do is to simply write. And that’s not hard for me: I’m addicted.

On October 9, 2010, I had the privilege of sitting down with Dennis McCarty, PhD to discuss drug and alcohol addiction treatment in the US. I have the great fortune of working with Dennis, mostly by turning his printouts into PDFs and booking the conference room for him, and I’ve always been fascinated and heartened by the work he and his team does; I’ve secretly always thought of him as a bit of an unsung superhero – out there fighting the good fight. After reading some posts about drugs, addictions, and treatment here on TNB in recent months, I asked Dennis to share his thoughts on all of it from the angle of policy. Here’s what he had to say.

I didn’t really take notice World of Warcraft until my friends started disappearing.One by one they seemed to drop silently from my social circle, among whose survivors their departure was reported with the solemn warrant of a war film.

I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.