Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

One True Sentence: Only Connect

One of my writing mentors-from-afar is Mary Karr. She talked in the Paris Review about praying before she writes. I was blown away when I read this, not just because of the fact that she prays (how many professional writers have you heard speak about their practice of praying before they write?), but also because she said this in an interview with the Paris Review. The Paris Review is a literary magazine, a cultural institution based in New York. It made its name by running in-depth interviews with literary writers. Beginning with E.M. Forster.

“Only connect.”—Famous sentence from Forster’s 1910 novel, Howard’s End. You might have seen the Merchant-Ivory film, but this sentence was featured in the film only subtextually. You can get this sentence only by reading the book. The link above will let you download it for free. It’s a true sentence and one I love (it is for example among my featured quotations on FB) and it’s one according to which I’ve tried to live.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. 

Margaret (Emma Thompson) trying to teach her husband, Henry (Anthony Hopkins), about "love" and "compassion" in "Howard's End." (In the end, she failed.)

This is what middle-class intellectual Margaret Schlegel tries to teach her new-money capitalist-husband, Henry Wilcox. But she fails. Henry is “not the sort of fellow” who, he says, fritters his strength away on such things as “love” and helping others.

For there was one quality in Henry for which she was never prepared, however much she reminded herself of it: his obtuseness. He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said.

Have you ever known anyone like this?—someone who stubbornly shies away from real human experience, who prefers to deal with either material or abstract life, or both? In my experience it’s usually (and, in Henry’s case, is) because of fear of actually living.

Mary Karr talks about how she and Ernest Hemingway (two drunks; one, fortunately, still alive) have both prayed to write “one true sentence.”

Forster’s two-word true sentence made a difference for millions of people.

***

Addicts tend to isolate.

It’s easy to isolate on the Internet. It’s difficult to dare to maintain real connection—to say, “I’d like to be your friend.” Or to ask for a phone number, and then to call, so two human beings can hear each other’s voices. When you can hear the other person’s voice, it’s hard to ask, “How are you today?” and to expect a real answer. Because the other person might ask us. And what would we say?

Millions of people are trying to find real human connection on the Internet. I began to get sober by connecting with people on the Internet. Some of these people remain, three years later, people I’d trust with the keys to my house. I’ve given them time and prayer and my own art, I’ve given them my phone number and have shared many conversations with them, I’ve shared inventory and other truth with them and have heard theirs, and yet I’ve never clapped eyes on their actual faces.

I love them, though.

But there are many, many more who read and never write in. They avoid connection.

I get lots of email. Readers email me to tell me why they read the site, and I can see they want to make some kind of connection: they tell me how they are that day, what’s happening inside their mind for the moment. Most of these people never comment on the site.

Readers don’t want to risk breaking their anonymity.

Another problem: We ALL get loads of email. We’re stretched thin. How many more connections can we sustain?

I wonder how best to help these people and myself at the same time. How best to connect. It feels a bit one-sided: they get to connect with me, but I get nothing back. As someone who grew up in an alcoholic family, part of my recovery has to be looking after myself. Making sure I take care of myself. Especially financially. Learning how to do that.

***

A scarf I'm knitting for someone I've never met.

For now, I’ll write one true sentence. This is a problem that arose recently in meditation. In meditation I can’t avoid the truth. It also has to do with taking care of myself financially.

My sentence is:

I was a thief while I was using, and I’ve made only partial amends.

More on that later.

Are you capable of writing one true sentence today?

13 Comments

  1. In my opinion, this is a letter.

    As in, a paid letter.

  2. I feel so grounded and humbled reading this post. I think we are both working with Gwen Bell to Align our Websites right now (right?) and it is clear to me that we have both come to the project (or it has prompted in us) a deeper thirst to create community in our writing. Just yesterday I wrote a post confronting (with compassion, I hope) my readers with their silence. I invited them (again) to offer their voices. I even made personal invitations to two people to get the conversation going. They did. No one else has yet joined.
    This brings up questions of “what’s wrong with me/my writing?” but I know that’s not the path toward growth.
    I have realized that I do not want to create a performer/audience relationship with my readers. I do not want to be the only one seen on the blog. “They get to connect with me, I get nothing back.” This is a deep and probing sentence. I am going to sit with it this afternoon. I hope we can engage that sentence more either here or on Google+ as we struggle through our mutual aims of gathering.

  3. i loved this appeal to being human on both ends of the relationship over internet. i just started reading your words, and i know that i like what you say and how you say it (and especially, how (it seems) you mean it).
    i work with addicts every day and i’ve started referring to what i learn from you.
    with gratitude,
    danny

  4. guinevere

    October 3, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    @Lauren, you wrote: “I have realized that I do not want to create a performer/audience relationship with my readers. I do not want to be the only one seen on the blog.” This lands at the center of my recent re-visioning of this site. One idea is to include other voices, other rooms on the site—a (small) set of other folks who speak to certain themes/sub-issues the site investigates. … I’ve also been thinking about how I give away the store. I write fully formed essays every time I blog, and I’m doing it for free. Does Melody Beattie give away her writing? (I’ve interviewed Melody Beattie at length. The answer: Hell no.) I happen to agree with Gwen’s comment above.

    @Gwen, thanks for your comment. More will be revealed.

    @Danny, I have lots of addiction professionals reading this blog and I’m glad you’re among them. I’d like to learn from you as well. How can I help you do your work? What do the addicts you work with want to know? How do you use what you find here?

  5. The longer you are sober, the more credibility any recovery blog will have. It’s not just about the writing, it has to do with lived experience of being sober year after year and thinking slowly and clearly through issues around recovery and just getting on with sober living.

    As a freelance writer, I write for publishers on commission but also suggest projests and send unsolicited monographs, articles and fiction out to various publishers. Most of it gets published or considered because I’ve been doing professional writing for a while and know my strengths and areas of expertise. It is hard and lonely work but very rewarding.

    The recovery blog is something different, rather like writing a letter or jotting down notes in a diary. It isn’t as much work as professional writing because I don’t have to do interviews or research or fact-checking and I’m not speaking for anyone in recovery except myself. Some readers identify and understand where I’m coming from, others don’t. I write the blog because I want a record of my early years in sobriety and because I like participating in recovery blog community conversations. I enjoy blogging, it is primarily an outlet for me. Self-indulgent and insubstantial at times, more hefty at other times, surprising. I learn something about myself over time and I like keeping a diary in public. If it helps someone I’m delighted, but that is not a given.

    And I don’t second-guess why many regular readers don’t respond in comments — many prefer to email me because over the years we’ve built up a conversation. I myself pop in and out of blogs and tend to respond when the writer is in trouble or because the post mentions a writer I like. I don’t have that much time for commenting. A recovery blog is not the place to grow a career option unless you are already well-known as a public speaker or a published author on some aspect of recovery. I can only think of one or two blogs I would pay to read and those are written by people who have a great deal of sober experience distilled into remarkable writing.

  6. guinevere

    October 4, 2011 at 9:57 am

    @Mary, interested in the notion of a professional writer separating out certain writing as “non-professional.” Wondering if you you consider the writing you do in your blog separate from your “professional” writing. Do you give it less care in choosing subjects for posts, less thought, less attention to language?

    Interested too in your idea that “recovery” as a subject to explore in writing is separate from the rest of life. I’ve heard many times in “the rooms” that people who are not alcoholics or addicts could well use what we learn in taking the steps—it’s just that they never find that wisdom because they don’t have an addiction.

    Also interested in the idea that only “people who have a great deal of sober experience” are worth paying for. I’m thinking of the musician Marshall Mathers (also known as Eminem), who a meager two or three years after he got sober issued his album “Relapse,” then on the heels of that “Recovery,” both of which which have helped countless people come to a better understanding of addiction—and also of the broader idea of recovery from any deep personal challenge.

    Thanks for your questions.

  7. Well, this is an interesting post. Actually I thought this blog was your way of giving back, sharing your experience, strength and hope with your readers. To put the question of payment for your efforts to this audience only served to deflate MY experience of your blog today. If you do this to make money per se, then sell ads … isn’t that what many other bloggers do? You seem to not want a commercial site but you want to make money from these writings but, really, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    I’m not sure how you arranged to write for the Fix but I would hope they pay you for your work which is more “beefy” than your musings and insights. And this blog would serve as a good example of your writing when pitching new publications for stories. I don’t know; I’m not a writer, just a recovering addict who feels slightly wounded that you have expectations (oops, there’s that word that sometimes leads to resentments) from us. In fact, this whole business leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Sorry but that is my truth this morning. Wishing you well in your endeavors.

  8. Interesting questions Guinevere! Thanks for the response.

    My blog posts are more idiosyncratic, spontaneous, improvised — no, not professional writing, nowhere near the hard work involved in oped pieces or columns or analytical articles or short fiction. In blogging I do take care and I think very carefully before I post on controversial issues. I don’t give advice. But the diary form is partial, episodic and rambly, relying on the continuity of previous posts. What works in a blog would not work in a short story or in an article.

    I don’t think that professional writers can’t write about recovery. And I don’t think that recovering alcoholics can’t publish pieces on recovery. But I am only four-plus years sober and I keep discovering new ways of thinking and flounder at times in uncertainties — I wouldn’t write for publication about recovery quite yet. (Remember this is my personal opinion.) I do bracket recovery off from the professional writing but that may be because much of my commissioned writing is more impersonal. I don’t often write about recovery in fiction because it tends to take over the storyline and that doesn’t work for me.

    I think there is a difference between people being helped because they can identify with the experience of someone newly sober and being helped by long-sober insights or scientific breakthroughs. Some of us in recovery are insightful and articulate about what we have been through. Time may not be the only factor, but originality is rare.

    One factor for me is whether one has something new or significant to say in a piece for publication. Not just a moving story or a great tune or stunning photographs. What do I have to say to a paying readership that hasn’t been said 1 000 times before? Most recovery memoirs put me to sleep or make me cringe. Blogs are different because they are less manufactured, because I have a relationship with some bloggers and I can read them for free.

    Again — and this is my own opinion Guinevere — I don’t know that people in society generally can use the steps. I think the steps help with those of us trapped in the desperation of addiction. Other problems (such as mood disorders or coping with trauma) need or benefit from other methodologies, therapies, coping aids.

  9. guinevere

    October 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    @sobersister… Appreciate your response—thanks for being here. I mean I totally understand your disappointment in the idea that people might be asked to actually pay for writing. Especially writing that has to do with sobriety and recovery. But writing life-experience is different from sponsoring or sharing/doing service at meetings, which are the primary ways I give back in sobriety. … Mary Karr, in the interview linked above, says outright that the ONLY reason she wrote her memoir about getting and staying sober is to make money to pay the bills. None of us can afford to give away “musings” and “insights” for free: the costs are unsustainable. …

    Right now we all can get a great deal of content for free on the Internet and I like getting it for free, too—if someone gives me their writing for free, I’ll take it. But that’s changing, traditional models of publishing are eroding, more and more writers are self-publishing, the economy sucks and will continue to suck for some time, and pretty soon we’ll see more and more online writers, including bloggers, charging for their work. It’s inevitable, because the writing we do is in fact work, and most people can’t work for free.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  10. This is an interesting post. I would agree that many people besides recovering addicts would benefit from a twelve step program. I certainly have and I am not an addict. I am also sure many people have benefitted from your insights and your writing. The question you might want to consider is would there be a demand for your product if you decided that you were going to charge for it. My one true sentence: Rational or not, fear of ridicule is one reason people don’t comment.

  11. Was this entry edited? In the original entry, the one to which I responded, there was a question regarding you, the author of this blog, receiving remuneration for your writing. (I take nothing for granted, by the way. Your choice is to provide free content and my choice is to read it. If there was a financial arrangement involved, our choices might be quite different.) Well, since content seems to have been removed, some of the comments in this section appear to be from another “conversation”. You ask for comments, feedback, conversation but then you change the game in the middle? That’s hardly inviting.

    I still enjoy reading your blog and hope you continue to meet with success on the internet.

  12. guinevere

    October 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

    @Krista… so glad to see you here. 🙂 Question: where does the fear of ridicule come from?

    @sobersister… My friend, I haven’t touched the content of this post since it was originally put up. But thanks for checking back. You’re very welcome here.

  13. A very small fear comes from the possibility that someone may post unkind things in response to my comments. Though I doubt it. The big fear comes from the “committee” in my head. The one that asks “Who are you to think your opinion is worthy?” Al Anon, bicycling and contemplation have gone a long way to tame those negative voices. However, posting my opinion on the World Wide Web is enough to wake the comittee up. I suspect I am not the only one who battles with the voices of self ridicule.

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