A Conversation with Sean H. Doyle
If you’ve ever had the luck of meeting Sean H. Doyle, you’ll realize quickly there are still complete human beings in this world, and that Sean is one of them. His essays offer up a darker matrix of his humanity, but a humanity nonetheless, and one that is so importantly his own. “This Clouded Heart,” featured in Issue 3 of The Atlas Review, draws unsettling connections between our public and private selves, which, for a drug addict, are quite profound. The personal history of such constant physical and psychological abuse is, for Sean, redeemable only in the messy chunks of telling it. This is a writing that writhes under our skins unadorned, glistening only from the dirty punk rock oils of his roots. But it is a story not without its beauty. We exist with this story on a shore, looming through binoculars at the terror of waters we’ve managed to escape by some hairs. But this isn’t a story about survival so much as the difficult addled details of addiction, sex, and grief. This isn’t about safety but the precipice of harm always about to happen. And yet, it is exactly this violent dichotomy that drives Sean, and drives the essay. As second-person narration is wont, the beauty locates itself just beyond the immediate, making Sean the pilot, copilot, and passenger on-board a plane always moving. Read the excerpt, and you’ll know what I mean. Buy the issue and continue to read the story, and you’ll really get it.
Natalie Eilbert: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot of what it means to write the personal, especially where family is involved. It’s nearly crippling to consider the level of exposure involved depending on the subject matter. “This Clouded Heart” is a deeply personal essay, one that punctures and gouges the “I” and its history. When you set out to write this story, did you have any reservations when it came to the details? Were there aspects to the story you felt you could never include?
Sean Doyle: I used to spend a lot of time worrying about how the things I write might impact other people. I realized, that for me, and for my writing, this was a hinderance. I think we all have filters we use in our day-to-day dealing with people–most folks don’t talk to the mailman about their fantasies, most folks don’t tell the kid who works the overnight shift at the 7-Eleven about their toe fungus–and those very same filters sometimes get in the way of communicating through writing. I have finally, after years and years of struggling, done the best that I can to remove those filters. So, I don’t really have reservations anymore. I lived it, I own what I’ve done, and I can write about it. I also think it’s important when people write nonfiction to remember that just because the way they perceived a thing that happened, doesn’t mean that is how the other people involved in that happening remember it.
As far as aspects of the story that I may or may not be able to include goes, I’m the kind of person who feels that the things that make us the most uncomfortable are the things we can learn the most from. If what I am writing makes me feel exposed or anxious, it’s something I definitely need to explore.
NE: “This Clouded Heart” literally ends in the air, traveling away from the events of your near-past. How long after your drug addiction and the death of your father did it take for you to start writing this piece? Did sobriety bring with it a new focus on writing, or was writing always there during the worst of it?
SD: Sometimes the end is a beginning, right? My father died on December 18th, 2005. I made the decision a few weeks after, in the throes of some kind of bottomless bender, that I would give myself around a year to be done with self-abuse and putting chemicals into my blood. I took my last drink on my father’s birthday–a shot of Jameson’s, because Irish father/son–on March 16th, 2007. It was and will always be a very important shift in who I am and how I live my life. It took me a long time to figure out how to get my feet underneath me again, and it definitely changed the way I write. The writing was always there, but it was never sharp, like the ideas and themes were there, but the clarity was fogged over by the mind being dulled, or being driven by fear. I knew early on in my life that I wanted to write. I also knew I wasn’t going to go about it in some traditional manner. I knew that just like everything else I do, it was going to be hard and take a lot of time struggling in the dark to get where I knew I could go with it.
I never consciously think about what I am about to write when I sit down to write. Most of the time there is a tiny chunklet of memory–which is really just a kind of hallucination, brought on by olfactory or auditory stimuli–that keeps on flashing in my head for a few days or weeks, kind of taunting me to dare write about it. I’m not wired to sit down and force myself to write about something that I think is interesting or may have some sort of impact on anyone else. I tried for years and years to be that kind of writer, but everything came out forced and formulaic, almost sterile.
I started writing “This Clouded Heart” in March of 2011. Most of it tumbled right out of me organically, as if it had been lurking there for a long time, waiting for the door to open just small enough for it to slide on through. I think there is something important about taking time and distance from a thing that has happened before sitting down and writing about it, consciously or not. I am someone who needs that time and distance so that I can really step outside of my interior self and look at what happened from the point of view of others, or even some omniscient point of view that is also a hallucination, but somehow seems to have so much less of that desire every human being has within them to want to appear heroic or important. Being clean-blooded definitely helped me to see what I had done and how I had done it and how to write about it.
NE: You certainly are not traditional or formulaic, Sean. In fact, your answer reminds me of a line I read today from Leslie Jamison’s article, “How to Write a Personal Essay”: “I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.” Threads, chunklets; apples, oranges. There are many threads in “This Clouded Heart,” from your teenage years to your adult life at your father’s apartment complex and your time in Phoenix, and in none of these chunklets do you extract any easy or semi-easy morals, though drug-use is at the center and the borders of each era. Jamison talks in that same article about how some confession “creates something that resonates beyond itself.” After this piece tumbled out of you in all its ferocity, did you imagine how it might resonate—that is, could you see how this might help give voice to other addicts, or even those grieving the death of a father?
SD: Jamison is on to something there, for sure. I think the messy threads and chunklets are how my memories work. For me, nothing comes back to me fully formed and coherent, almost everything that burns enough to be written starts as a ghost of myself or my multiple selves, standing on a corner somewhere in the dark with a cigarette and a tiny voice. An imagining of something that happened always involves an investigation of sorts–did I do this? was it real? who was there? was I loaded, and if so, on what? what changed in me?–and as I investigate it, the untying of the knots begins. The common thread throughout a piece like “This Clouded Heart” probably translates differently to each reader, depending on who they are and where they are in their life or what kind of life they are living. When it started tumbling out, the different threads at first didn’t fully reveal themselves to me, they just felt connected and as though they belonged together. As I wrote and as they came unmuddied, it made more sense to me, and I was able to find what their individual rhythms were and how they fit inside of a bigger rhythm.
After I finished writing it I remember a feeling washing over me, a kind of warmth and a kind of sigh-like thing. I sat on it for a while and then I was asked by M. Bartley Seigel of [PANK] Magazine to step in at the last minute and read in his stead at an event at KGB in Manhattan. Something inside of me felt compelled to step outside of my normal live reading routine where I read something outlandish and kind of brash, and I decided I was going to do something different and read “This Clouded Heart” to a room full of unsuspecting people and see what it did. And it did things. Then I knew for sure that I was headed in the right direction.
I honestly try very hard not to think about how my writing may or may not affect people. I find that kind of thinking to be a little egomaniacal and dangerous, assuming that my words strung together about my life I’ve lived would somehow cause a shift or open a pathway inside of another human being. There is this trend of calling writing “brave” that I find to be a little bit over-the-top and outlandish. Writing is writing. Fighting cancer is brave. Raising a child alone is brave. Surviving hand-to-mouth is brave. The change a piece of writing might cause in other people isn’t because of the goddamn writing, it’s because the person was already on the brink of change and maybe, just maybe, they needed to see that for themselves.
NE: I remember that KGB reading well, and no kidding, it’s one of the more memorable readings I’ve heard in NYC. I have a similar aversion to the word “brave” when applied to writing, though this conversation is making me revisit my feelings on what it means to be brave in writing when that writing applies itself to the terror of what happened. And speaking of the terror of what happened, you’ve got a new book, This Must Be the Place, forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms—will this book share the same darkened hue of personal essay that “This Clouded Heart” has about it? Or is this a completely different endeavor?
SD: I am glad the KGB reading stuck with you. It has certainly stuck with me.
I’m interested in the correlation between terror and bravery you’ve alluded to. Fight or flight response is definitely a real thing, and for people who have experienced trauma, writing their way out of it is certainly a great tool to have available. One of the most glorious things about being a living human being in this world is that every person has their own set of things that only they know exist within them, whether they be terrible or loving or kind or awful. I guess I just seem to gravitate toward writing about those parts of me, or those past parts of me. I think that wise old payaso Neal Cassady is attributed as saying “We all get to heaven leaning on the arm of someone we once helped,” which is a lovely thing to think about and a lovely way to look at how we interact with others.
I could also say, with all honesty, that terror is just another drug. It creates a lot of synaptic response and releases some chemicals that we all love to dabble with and swim in — dopamine and adrenaline — and find ourselves looking for at every chance to have them. Not everyone is wired to enjoy risk-taking behaviors, and I am well aware of that. But those of us who are? Man. We’re a barrel of fucking monkeys to hang out with.
I am truly excited and honored to work with Civil Coping Mechanisms. This Must Be The Place will definitely shine some light on the darkness of my life, but I hope it also shines some light on other things as well. Like I mentioned earlier on in this interview, my memories come back to me as ghosts of me. Those ghosts are attached to the places where things happened. The book will be a series of chunklets about places and what occurred in those places — some will be long, some will be short, some may even be a sentence or maybe even just one word — interspersed with handwritten notes, old photographs, maps, and other ephemera which will hopefully add a little something weird and otherworldly to the writing and maybe nudge toward the goal of making the book feel like finding someone’s dream journal or “hallucination” journal. I have really been enjoying the process of putting it all together and look forward to birthing it out into the world.
NE: You describe your memories as ghosts, but you don’t sound haunted at all. You also make music. Are these separate enterprises, or does your music operate on similar planes to your writing process, re the darkness and tumbling and chunklets? Is there a similar release? (Can I just say I have never used “chunklet” in a sentence before now and feel fantastic about having said it four times in this interview?)
SD: I don’t sound haunted because I’m not. I am not afraid of who I have been. If anything, who I have been — good, bad, drunk, high, violent, scared, indifferent, etc — has led me to right now and who I am in this very instant. One thing I think writing deeply about the self or the experiences of the self can do for a person is teach forgiveness. Not just forgiveness in regard to others, but also the writer themself. I cannot grow if I do not forgive myself. So, being haunted by my past and the ghosts of who I have been would be some form of emotional/spiritual stasis, which I am pretty sure would turn me into a bitter and uncomfortable-to-be-around human. Also, I am someone who believes very strongly that no matter how bad your day is or anything is going terribly wrong for someone emotionally, if you throw on “Ghostbusters,” by the thirty minute mark, you will have forgotten what was bugging you and fallen deeply into the joy of the movie. I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
Making music is a different means to have a similar release, yes. The release itself being the removal of some signal or some ghost that needs to be freed. This might be TMI, but I am pretty sure I am someone who has mild aspects of synesthesia going on. When I compose music, I hear it in different colors, which has always made playing in bands difficult for me. I might hear a melody change somewhere and think to myself, “this melody is green and the main riff is magenta,” so then I have to try and make other instruments or countermelodies find shades that compliment or lift up the other parts of the piece of music. The same things happen in the musicality of the sentences I construct. I see them as waveforms, kind of like an EKG readout. I read every sentence aloud to myself over and over again as I write, listening for places where the wave changes, trying to find something acoustic in the tone to ride or use as a pedal like one would when composing a larger piece of music. If you’ve ever listened to a raga or spent time listening to music from other cultures beside our regular I-IV-V chord changes, there is always a pedal tone, a tone that is constantly being struck or rung to move the melody of the song around. I didn’t fully realize this was something I did [even unconsciously] until last year when I took an incredible class with Daniel Long at The Center for Fiction, about constructing sentences. The things Daniel taught us in class all rang true to me about my own work, and I even think they may have done something to the way I currently compose music as well. I can never thank that man enough and wish everyone the opportunity to take a class like that with him. He is a gift.
NE: I have synesthesia too, and interestingly enough (at least for the purposes of this interview), my memories are the most violently colored waves. Music heightens it for me too, and so I love this connection you make to sentence construction. One final note: We have talked a decent amount about what it means for you to have used art as an almost meditative balm against that bitter terror of your history. Are there others whose work you have always turned to when you’re not creating art? “Work” is a broad, broad term here—interpret as you see fit.
SD: Oh my. I love this. When the well feels like it has dried up and I am unsure when/how/where the next release will come from, I have some staples I turn to that get juice moving around again, for sure. I have four or five well-worn copies of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son in different places throughout my apartment. The first time I read that book I felt like I had been given a gift and that I had finally found a book that touched on what I wanted my work to kind of do. There is a little Fuckhead in everyone. I also have been known to hand copies ofThe Hagakure to friends when they least expect it. That book is full of so many things that I try to remind myself of every day, to keep myself on the right type of path and keep myself from being swallowed up by the muck and mire of living an imperfect life and feeling the pressure to be perfect. I mentioned Ghostbusters earlier, which, as corny as it sounds, reminds me of a time in my life when I still felt like a fresh and unsullied thing. Curtis Mayfield on a Sunday morning overflowing with coffee and laziness. Any of the extended jams of Hendrix with Band of Gypsys can elevate my vibration, no matter the surrounding circumstances. I’m a huge fan of Michael Gira and I always gravitate toward Swans and his Angels of Light project. The music is so repetitive and it feels like guided meditation. The same thing happens to me when I listen to Lungfish. When I feel like I have lost touch with my own female energy, I throw on a PJ Harvey album and let it take me over. Danielle Pafunda’s work does the same thing to me — pulls me into this almost-feral energy space and reminds me that in the womb, I was, as we all were, a woman waiting to come out into the light. I think that’s the thing about mining the darkness — we’re mining it to find our way back into the light.