by Ted Downum
I come from a proud Irish-American drinking family. Even by the high standards established by my mother’s ancestors--even by the standards of my grandfather, who drank himself to death when he wasn’t that much older than I am now--I was a high achiever in the field of alcohol abuse.
Though I’m now several years sober, I have usually shied away from delving too deeply into my personal experience of addiction (or my family’s experience). Who would want to read what people in twelve-step programs would call “war stories”—sordid tales of alienated girlfriends and vexed relatives, lost jobs and DUIs, trips to the emergency room and various rehab clinics? Why would I want to relive those experiences, fictionalize them, and put them on display for the world?
I never saw myself ever fictionalizing my life as artfully as other fiction writers until I read Lucia Berlin's stories. Because of her work, lately, I feel less hesitant about using a real event as the seed for a work of fiction. In reading Berlin, I realize that the central aim of her work--like any conscientious writer of literary fiction--is to unearth and present to her readers, the humor and devastation embedded in the human experience, which is probably the most powerful aspect of writing.
In carefully wrought and deeply affecting stories often drawn from her own unusual life, Lucia Berlin displays lives thrown out of balance by addiction, poverty, cultural displacement, and simple, powerful human urges--for love, belonging, and comfort. If you’ve never read a Berlin story, you need to add her to your reading list.
As an aspiring short-story writer (and one who shares many of the same thematic interests as Lucia Berlin), I found a great deal to admire in the posthumous collection of her selected work, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), published eleven years after her death. The pitch of emotion Berlin summons in her stories, with language that somehow manages to be both spare and rich, is painfully intense and incredibly engaging. Her stories about alcoholics—Berlin herself struggled for much of her life with a crippling alcohol addiction—have all the unsparing honesty of Raymond Carver, but where Carver’s drunks are often lost or numb, Berlin’s alcoholic characters suffer terribly, and she makes us feel every twinge of their thirst.
“Unmanageable,” one of the short stories in the collection, follows the efforts of its Berlin-surrogate narrator to secure a drink in the early hours of the morning. The story holds a bitter irony in its title: though the narrator’s drinking problem has clearly reached the point where an outside observer could call it “unmanageable,” the narrator displays focus and determination that no alcoholic in the maintenance stage of her drinking would find surprising, or even especially remarkable. "Taking the bottle with her, she went to the bathroom then. She showered and combed her hair, put on clean clothes. Ten more minutes. She checked to see if the door was locked, sat on the toilet and finished the vodka [...] She moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer. She was mixing orange juice from frozen concentrate when Joel came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "No socks, no shirt” “ (153).
Berlin is concerned with engaging the reader in her characters’ desperate everyday realities, such as the alcoholism of the narrator in “Unmanageable.” Through the recovering alcoholic’s journey, she asks readers to connect with their own humanity, recognizing that life can be messy and unromantic, and fraught with its own kind of peril.
Berlin once said in an interview that, "I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense” (Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice And More…).
Indeed, Berlin’s ability to sift through her life, to mine her personal experience for story material in an attempt to make sense of it, is quite artful. Having herself raised four sons while working assorted odd (and sometimes degrading) jobs, locked in a long battle with alcohol addiction, Berlin honed her talent for portraying everyday human struggles to an amazing sharpness. She excels in capturing the moments of grace and beauty that arise in the midst of family dysfunction, economic struggle, and substance abuse. “This sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break. I patted her and she flinched. She hated to be touched. So I just watched her by the light of the streetlamp through the window screen. Just watched her weep. She was totally alone, like my sister Sally is when she weeps that way” (Panteón De Dolores 251). While she conveys breathtakingly lovely demonstration of empathy for her characters, Berlin, still never glosses over their struggles, or the hurt and bitterness her characters feel.
Lucia Berlin's clarity of language enables the reader to share in her raw, hard-won honesty about her addiction, about the damage it permitted her to do to herself and her life. She reminds me that employing my own experience--however uncomfortable that might be for me, the writer--is crucial to the emotional depth of my writing. Berlin reminds me that writing good fictional characters is about revealing what it means to be human, and that experiences are not the only place I should look when I set out to create a plausible character, but to always look into my own heart.
Learn more about Lucia Berlin
Other books by Lucia Berlin
By Ashley Spurgeon, fiction editor
Many of us read to find a sense of familiarity, to know we are not alone in the world. We read to see ourselves. And we also write for the same reasons. When I write, I’m trying to process the current events that flash like an afterimage when I close my eyes. I’m trying to understand the people I’ve encountered whose voices I find compelling. I’m trying to make sense of my world, my humanity, and sometimes that’s easier when I can set it in a place outside of my day-to-day life and let my characters figure it out.
In many writing workshops and craft lessons, I was taught, “Write what you know.” It was a common refrain that I jotted down in my notes but didn’t really think about until I had finished the first draft of my first novel. I finally knew exactly where the plot ended up and what my book was about, and when reading back through, I realized just how much the narrative reflected events in my personal life, the current political climate, and social issues I had been struggling to understand.
When I sit down to write, I don’t disappear into my fiction and forget the world around me. Yes, I immerse myself in the world that exists on the page in front of me, but that world is informed by the reality that I live every day. The real world crosses over into a fictional world, whether it’s intentional or not.
This blend happens because all creative work strains to get closer to what we are all looking for--a better understanding of the complexity and vulnerability that comes with being human. Our truth sits at the tips of our tongues waiting to be formed into words, and it doesn’t matter whether it is laid bare in a piece of flash fiction, a lyric essay, a sestina, or a graphic novel.
Fiction allows me to reach for truth in a less literal way than nonfiction does, but it still presents something real and relatable for the reader. Nonfiction presents a literal truth that isn’t attainable in fiction. Both genres challenge the reader’s ideas and enlarges their world simply by putting words on a page.
Perhaps that is why there is a draw toward hybridity. Perhaps one genre just isn’t quite enough to reach the level of truth we work so hard to find. If we can weave fiction and nonfiction, with elements of visual art and music and moments of poetry, we can lift the veil a little higher and expose a bit more of our humanity and remind ourselves exactly why we are here.
Fiction and nonfiction are not opposites--genres do not function exclusively of the other, they are parallel, and sometimes intertwining, quests to find truth.