The Importance of Using Your Emotional Events
By Joe Clifford
Photo Credit: Niki Pretti
After a recent guest spot on Suspense Radio, we asked Joe Clifford, “How important is it to use the emotional events from your personal life in your writing? Even if those events are something very difficult to face again.” Here’s what he had to say:
Very! I am assuming you mean the drug stuff? Every writer is going to put his or her trials, emotional journeys, etc., into their work. It’s what we do, mining personal pasts, ideas—infusing beliefs to connect with the reader. Render the unique universal, the universal unique. I do that the same as any writer. I do, however, feel a particular obligation as it pertains to the drug addict.
As I mentioned in our interview (Suspense Radio Inside Edition July 23rd, 2016), I spent a little over ten years as a heroin and speed addict, with a good chunk of that time being homeless. Addiction is a tricky affliction to adequately convey. On the one hand, a junkie is there because of their own doing. Maybe they had a rough childhood. Maybe the street ate them up or they have mental illness issues. Still, I’ve always had a difficult time with the disease model.
My mom died of scleroderma and cancer. I watched her (sober, thank God) slowly die, as her body betrayed itself and withered away, through nothing she’d done. I mean, she smoked cigarettes for a while in the 1970s but then again who didn’t? What I’m getting at is, it is tough for me to ascribe the same weight to what she went through and what I did. I made some bad decisions. Good excuses. Bad decisions.
But something strange happened when I was out there. I grew up in a nice, suburban, solidly middle class family in Connecticut. My father was abusive. Lots of dads are abusive, and plenty of fathers are far worse. My decision to get into drugs was my doing, and mine alone. But living the way I did, I met a lot of men and women who didn’t maybe have the same luxuries and opportunities I did. While I was out there, I saw addicts who were parents. When I explain to people that these addicts loved their children and were “good” parents, I can see the looks of confusion on their faces. After all, they were doing drugs! Ergo, they are bad parents! Sure, doing drugs and raising a child is not smart. Not saying it is. But life isn’t this neatly assembled step-by-step manual. You meet folks out there who never stood a chance. Born in the projects, diminished IQ, brain damaged, psychological abuse, mothers who literally buried them in the backyard when they were twelve to go out of town with a boyfriend—that is not hyperbole—that is a true story. I met a woman in rehab once, whose mother would lock her, underground, in a very tiny space, the size of a coffin, so she could go out of town with different men. She’d leave a bucket, some food, and see you later; lock the lid.
When you get to know these people on a deeper level, they cease being vermin, nameless scum you pass in the street. They are human beings, with feelings, hopes, desires. And, yeah, sometimes they are raising children. It is very important that I humanize them in my work. I am not a social justice warrior, and I am not here to excuse bad behavior. But I do care about these people and that struggle, and I have a particular soft spot for addicts. Going back to that time isn’t always easy. But it is paramount to what I do.
This probably manifests itself most in my rendering of Chris Porter, the junkie anti-hero (of sorts) of “Lamentation,” the first in my Jay Porter Thriller series. Though the series revolves around Jay, a glorified handyman in the northern New Hampshire wilds, the heart of the book(s) is very much Chris. Writing the character of Chris, I use the POV of the straight man, Jay. Though the younger brother, Jay has, in many ways, been caring for Chris their whole lives. Because I lived as an addict, I feel I was able to escape some of the pitfalls I often encounter when reading literature revolving around junkies. It is all too easy to write them off as screw-ups and ne’er-do-wells, or worse, excuse their behavior—a sort of “hooker with a heart of gold” syndrome, but for dope fiends. I hold Chris accountable for his actions—he does some very bad things—but writing through Jay’s eyes, there is still a love, a bond, a loyalty there. Addicts weren’t always that way; they existed long before the needles and pipes. Jay knows Chris’ story because it is a shared one. They both suffered the loss of their parents at a young age. They both handled it their own way. Most importantly, though Jay is understandably frustrated with his older brother, he recognizes that the steps that brought Chris down might’ve, had they been in a different order, dragged him down too.
As Jay is forced to investigate a murder that implicates his brother, and he descends into the madness of that world, he has to come to terms that it isn’t just his brother; there are other addicts like him. Jay has to assign humanity he might not otherwise see.
In the follow-up to “Lamentation,” “December Boys,” Jay is left to pick up the pieces of the wreckage Chris has left behind. That’s the thing with addiction that you really only appreciate after the fact: how much you hurt others. When you are actively using, you are very, very self-centered. Most of us can be, sure. But a junkie feels everyone is against them. And they often are because of the behavior. But addicts don’t view it in quite the same terms. Every day is such a struggle to stay alive; from the cops to the crooks, you start to shoulder a pretty big chip, developing a persecution complex. There’s a lot of “poor me,” “why me”? Well, it’s “why you” because you are spending every minute of the day lying, stealing, cheating, using! But it doesn’t change how much it hurts.
My mother didn’t get to live long enough to see my books come out. She didn’t live long enough to see me earn my graduate degree, get married, have children, or buy my first house either. I turned my life around. Just not in time for her to meet her grandchildren. I have to live with that.
The Jay Porter books, while still being entertainment first and foremost, allow me to examine the wreckage I left behind, make amends to those I hurt, even if it’s in a fictional world.
Joe Clifford is Acquisitions Editor for Gutter Books and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. He is the author of several books, including “Junkie Love,” “Lamentation,” and “December Boys,” as well as editor of “Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Stories In-spired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen.” Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.