Alcoholics Anonymous and Storytelling
March 4, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Benjamin Selesnick
I left my twenty-eight day stay at rehab in the summer of 2011, a few months before my seventeenth birthday. The night I got home, one of my parents’ friends from our family’s synagogue, who, unbeknownst to me, had a few decades of recovery under his belt, took me to an A.A. meeting at a Methodist church on the other side of town. For the next two months, I went to meetings at that church three times a week, and when I reached my ninety-day sober anniversary, the meeting’s chairperson asked me to do something he asked all group members that hit ninety days to do: share my life story with the group.
Telling one’s life story—in front of people or on paper—is no easy task, regardless of your age, recovery time, or recovery status. I certainly had no idea what to say. I walked up to the podium that stood before the night’s twenty attendees, with no clue of how I’d possibly manage to configure the messy seventeen years I’d lived into a cohesive narrative.
Coming to my rescue, the chairperson intercepted me on my way to the podium and gave me some advice: “Tell them what it was like before your addiction, what happened in your addiction that brought you to your knees, and what it’s like now in recovery.”
I nodded, and went on to tell my story according to that framework. People mhmm’d along, they paid attention. I made sense, my talk had shape. In hindsight, there were many parts of my life that contributed to my addiction that I failed to recognize and include—and that I’d fail to recognize and include for many years—but I felt empowered in having people hear my story, and more importantly, in beginning to understand it myself.
Since that night, this three-part framework—what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now—is the one I use whenever I tell my story at A.A. meetings, and it’s one I’ve heard hundreds of other people use to tell their stories, too, for good reason: it maps neatly onto the addiction/redemption arc. And, as I’ve learned since I started writing, it works as a simple and effective framework for writing memoir, also: what happened reminds me to plot, to not lose track of the essay in reflection, thinking, and questioning; was like gives space to reflect, think, and question, and to establish setting and context; and the consequential nature of this form invites me to consider causality and to draw connections I might otherwise miss.
For my own purposes, I’ve reshaped it into the following:
Write about what it was like [just before person/event/activity/etc. entered my life], what happened [with that person/event/activity/etc.], and what it is like now [that this person/event/activity/etc. has left my life/I’ve made peace with them/etc.]
I’ve found this Mad Libs-styled structure particularly effective when I’m early in the drafting process, overwhelmed by the wide pool of experience that I want to write about but that currently has no shape. Recently, I wanted to write about this small community where my family and I spent part of our summers, and how out of place I felt, but I didn’t know where to begin. In a free write, I remembered that there was a wall that I would hit tennis balls against for hours and hours, to pass the time and to feel a small sense of mastery and control over my life. Once I discovered that it was through this wall that I would write about this feeling of being out of place, I turned to the form:
What it was like [being in this community before finding the wall], what happened [to my relationship with the wall as my place in the community shifted throughout my adolescence], and what it is like now [that I don’t spend my summers there, and that I’ve found more effective coping skills than hitting a ball against a wall].
The firmness of this structure has fallen off as the essay has entered later drafts, as it often does. And still, much like newly sober Ben, standing at that podium in the basement of that methodist church, I know that I’ll always have this familiar structure in my back pocket, and that it’ll give me a path to follow, if I ever need it.
Benjamin Selesnick lives in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in decomp, Lunch Ticket, Santa Fe Writers’ Project Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander, and other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from Rutgers-Newark.
Thank you for sharing this insightful piece in parallel to recovery— it’s thought provoking and offers more meat to the bare bones structure of beginning, middle and ending.
Not only have you offered a helpful writing outline, but also the “what was it like/what happened/what’s it like now” method encourages digging out the emotional/spiritual experience that gives meaning and life to the writing – and that helps the reader relate to the narrator.
oh how I wish my dad, twenty-five years sober with AA, was alive to read your remarkable recounting of your experience. Thank you very much.
Brilliant to have a tried and true scaffold that can be rebuilt later when the piece has outgrown it and is insisting on its autonomy. Thank you. Borrowing.
Thank you got sharing.
Keep coming back, it works – if you work it. (It won’t if you don’t)…🙏☮️🥸✌🏻
An excellent, easy-to-use tool. Thank you.
And you are living proof that it works if you work it! This is just terrific. I will share widely.
It works IF you work it…
Thank you for sharing your story and your writing advice. Your advice was timely because it helped give me direction on a story that I’m working on.
Great piece, I especially like the ending, talking about later drafts, how the structure gets you started, but also to a point of continually shaping the writing. Well done!
this is great! thank you for sharing:)