Building the Muscle: A Conversation with Kristi Coulter

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When Kristi Coulter self-published an essay on Medium in July 2016, she was a high-ranking Amazon exec who’d earned an MFA in fiction years earlier and had since written essays. Writing wasn’t her day job; she didn’t expect much from it. In fact, Coulter says she felt “invisible” as a writer. Much to her surprise, “Enjoli,” which takes up the issue of women and drinking, spread like wildfire. In the essay, she argues that women drink heavily because of the patriarchal pressures put upon them to be “24-hour women”:

Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77% of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?

I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?

Her debut essay collection, Nothing Good Can Come from This, was published on August 7. The frame is Coulter’s sobriety, which she’s maintained for more than five years. But her essays consider innumerable other subjects: finding herself drawn to a coworker and grappling with an affair within a long, happy marriage, for instance.

In late July, Coulter and I talked about perfectionism, desire, and putting it all out there.

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Rumpus: “Enjoli” provoked an intense reaction and had such a strong anti-drinking argument. The other essays in this collection are really internal and reflective in a different way.

Coulter: Yes—and we even changed “Enjoli” for the book to make it more internal. I love a polemic; they’re fun to read and sometimes they’re fun to write. But I didn’t want to write a whole book that was a polemic. It would have been more journalistic, more sociological, and it wasn’t what I was interested in exploring. Though those books are getting written and people should write them.

I’ve found that a lot of recovery books follow the same narrative arc. It’s like drink, drink, drink, drink, then there’s a really low bottom, and then there’s a chapter at the end that’s like, “And then I went to rehab and I didn’t want to go, but I’m glad I did. Now I take life on life’s terms.” This includes some beautiful, well-written books.

But I didn’t want to write that book. First of all, my story was really different. And sobriety is fascinating; I find it much more interesting than drinking. The end of my drinking life was boring; it was just a woman drinking a bottle of wine every night. Have you read [Sarah Hepola’s] Blackout? I loved how she spent roughly as much time on her sober life as on her drinking one.

Blackout came out when I had been sober a couple of years and it was definitely an inspiration. I heard an interview where [Hepola] said people complained about that because they were like, “The sober part’s not as exciting.” But I decided that was fine.

Rumpus: Another thing that was different about Blackout is that she was sober for like a year and a half in the middle and then went out. So she wrote about different periods and types of sobriety, which isn’t part of the conventional recovery narrative.

Coulter: I think the conventional narrative is pretty male in some ways, too. I toyed with the idea of teaching a workshop on recovery writing where the whole goal would be to get people to write really specifically about their experiences because there is a tendency to flatten. Leslie Jamison writes about this in her book The Recovering: in AA or recovery talk generally, your story tends to sound pretty similar to other people’s stories.

That’s comforting and helpful, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t really, really specific details to explore on your own. I would love if people read this book and started writing in whatever way, even just in journals, about their own sobriety without making it fit any kind of cozy narrative.

Rumpus: Who were your north stars when you were writing this book? Were you looking to other women who have written about recovery, like Mary Karr and Caroline Knapp?

Coulter: I love Caroline Knapp’s book, Drinking: A Love Story; I read it for the first time when I was about twenty-six. I totally recognized myself in it and then put it away for another fifteen years. But my big north star is the writer Laurie Colwin, who died in 1992. I’m always trying to write a book that she would love because she’s so funny and smart.

Claire Dederer, who’s a friend of mine, was also a big influence when I was writing this because she’s not afraid to write memoir narrators who aren’t necessarily likeable. They make choices that can be hard for people to understand.

My north stars from way back are women like Amy Hempel. I love sentence-level writing that’s funny and has a distinct voice. My biggest goal is to have the kind of voice that you can’t forget, whether you like it or not.

I’ve heard from some people who say, “Oh my God, I loved you in the book,” and others who say, “You seemed sort of irritating.” Both are fine; I just don’t want them to forget the voice.

Rumpus: I think that being detached from other people’s experiences of you as a narrator is really generative.

Coulter: “Enjoli” did that for me. When you go viral like that, you realize you have to separate yourself from the feedback or you won’t make it. Daphne would say, “All these outlets wrote about you! That’s great.” And I kept saying, “Well, they don’t like me and they don’t think I’m nice.” She’d say, “It doesn’t matter.” I eventually realized she was right. It doesn’t matter because that’s not me. It’s a distillation of who I was at that time in my life. The experience gave me a thick skin.

Rumpus: When readers respond to something with such force, it tends to be because it affects them.

Coulter: It was overwhelming. But it also made me feel better about humanity in a way that sticks to this day. I heard from tons of women. I heard from the usual kind of creepy men who hate feminists, but I also heard from so many men who were sober. I heard from men in tech who wrote, “I think I’ve been that guy on a panel, dismissing a woman.” There were others who just thought it was fun to read and they wrote me a little note saying, “Hey, I really enjoyed that. Keep writing.” I had never done that before; now I send those kind of notes to other writers. I got letters from every continent but Antarctica.

Rumpus: I was amazed by the details and richness of your recall in Nothing Good Can Come from This. In my mind, I’ve only ever had one kind of hangover; I’ve just had it a thousand times. Did you keep diaries?

Coulter: I didn’t. I’m one of those people who remembers things forever. There’s a joke about Tauruses never forgetting anything; for me, it’s true. Especially when something makes me angry. I’ll remember exactly what was said and I will replay it later on.

Rumpus: With your background in fiction, did you ever consider writing a fictionalized version of this story?

Coulter: I do have a novel that’s been sitting half-done for a while and it did have a component about alcoholism. If I go back to it, I’ll probably take that out. But it always made more sense to me to write this as myself. Part of getting sober for me was claiming my own problems and flaws.

Someone asked me the other day, “Was it hard to show your ass?” And I realized that it wasn’t, because I had spent so many decades trying to be perfect. I think showing my flaws is an act of defiance now. Getting sober took away a lot of my shame.

Rumpus: There was a lot of humor that emerged from that willingness. I loved how you wrote about FarmVille getting you through the hairy days of early sobriety.

Coulter: I still play it, by the way.

Rumpus: The Real Housewives got me through the first few months. There’s this view that sobriety will make you a whole new better person, but you’re still yourself. The reality is, we wanted cheap thrills before and sometimes we still want them.

Coulter: I have different problems now and they’re better problems, but I still have problems. I’ve always been able to see the ridiculous in myself and others. And I think I was kind of scared to get sober because sobriety culture can seem so earnest. I just didn’t want to have to start spouting affirmations and stuff.

I finally realized that I could take my sobriety seriously, but not reverently. Listening to the Since Right Now podcast really helped me; it was such an oasis because the hosts are irreverent. One is in AA and the other is super skeptical of AA. I realized they were just like me.

You’re always going to be yourself, whether you like it or not. Sobriety is awkward and weird and funny.

Rumpus: You wrote about having “a high bottom,” meaning your drinking was fairly acceptable in public and consisted largely of what you referred to as “private acts of sabotage.” Is there a gendered element to that kind of drinking from your perspective?

Coulter: I do think that women tend to be less publicly performative about their drinking. I used to live across the street from the University of Michigan hockey team and those guys would just get drunk and beat the shit out of each other. You don’t typically see women drinking like that.

I know a lot of women who had what would be considered a really high bottom and I think it’s partly because it’s harder for women to come back from the low bottom that men tend to write about where they lose everything. I don’t know if we hold ourselves to a higher standard or intervene before things get as bad or keep more secrets, but there is some “good behavior” element.

I think part of the reason women drink excessively stems from the thought, “Fuck you, I can get sloppy, too.” It’s a strange kind of feminist idea. But then we tend to check ourselves a little more also. That is, of course, a generalization; I’m sure there are plenty of men who drink quietly and privately and mess their lives up that way.

But everything about my drinking had a gendered element to it because it was all about trying to be perfect. I couldn’t do that without self-medicating.

Rumpus: I thought it was interesting how there was even a perfectionist or achievement-oriented, “Useful” with a capital “U” as you call it, quality to your drinking. You learned about wine and ordered expensive vintages; you tried to be “good” at drinking, you know?

Coulter: It was really important to me to be someone who was “living her best life.”

Even in sobriety, I struggled with this idea of, how am I going to be Useful? I still struggle with that. I mean, I wrote a book. That wasn’t totally for myself; I’m still trying to prove that I deserve to be on the planet. I think women are prone to apologizing for just being here and taking up space: “Am I helping other people enough? Am I being of service?” Blah, blah, blah.

Rumpus: You said that none of the putting-yourself-out-there you did in this book felt like that big of a deal. But it did seem brave to write so candidly about your experience with Noah [a coworker], and I’m wondering—

Coulter: Yeah. That felt brave to me, too. That was the one that was really frightening. When I got sober, it really changed my sex life. I’d sowed plenty of wild oats before I got married, but I never really learned how to claim my own desires. When I got sober, I went through this period where I was like, “Hey, everyone in the world is someone I could potentially have sex with.” It was very distracting.

Rumpus: “How do I get any work done around here?”

Coulter: It was so weird—and it was with people that I wasn’t even interested in. Generally, I just thought, “No. Why would I do that?” But I did wander into this thing. Well, wander is a word that doesn’t take a lot of responsibility. [Noah] and I both made a thousand choices that led us there. But it was a really gross moment when I recognized that I had this in me.

And then the key thing was in deciding or realizing that it was okay. I talked to my husband about it. I’ve been in a really happy marriage for twenty-one years now and we both had these assumptions about each other that were not true. What emerged from that conversation was that neither one of us actually assumed that we were going to be perfectly monogamous in what we hope will be a sixty-year marriage.

He thought that was very important to me. I don’t actually care. He doesn’t particularly care either. So what came out of that very, very painful situation was an honesty and clarity that I had never had before.

The fact that [Noah] was married is not something I take a lot of delight in, but he also owns that. I am not going to own the entire situation. It ended less harmfully than it could have and my marriage is a much more alive and free thing now, two years later. I wanted to claim that.

That said, when I think about what I’m going to be judged for in this book, I don’t worry about the drinking at all. People can get very nervous about infidelity and especially about any hints that you might be in a marriage that allows for that kind of thing, which I am now. I wouldn’t call our marriage polyamorous by any means, but we have this realization now that if someone has a dalliance, it’s really not a deal-breaker. That could freak people out, but I’m okay with being judged by strangers for it.

Rumpus: Why do you think people have such a strong reaction to a mutually agreed-upon decision to open up a marriage?

Coulter: I’ve read and thought a lot about this. I’m on this Facebook group called “What Would Virginia Woolf Do?” for women over forty. There are some heated discussions where people talk about open marriages. Maybe ten percent of the respondents will be women who say, “That’s also my situation. Here’s my take on it.” The other ninety percent are women who are like, “You’re a horrible person. This is awful.” Often it’s because they were cheated on by a spouse and they don’t understand that this isn’t cheating that’s happening.

I’ve been waiting for more people to ask me more about the adultery, or near adultery, and sex stuff. Interviewers have been very nervous about that and it’s actually a pretty important part of the story in terms of claiming who I am now.

People have also shied away from the obvious class privilege that I had, but that’s started to come up. For instance, “Was it easier for you to get sober because you were fairly affluent and do you feel like people in different class positions will relate to this?” My answer is, “I don’t know, but that’s why I tried to address it head on.”

Ultimately, I think my privilege helped me to get sober and it also helped me to lie for myself for longer. I could just be like, “I need more Reiki. I need more yoga.” And I had a job where I could hide; I controlled my own schedule.

Rumpus: Are there any parts of your life that you’re unwilling to write about at this time?

Coulter: I had parents who did the best they could and they were also difficult people with their own challenges. I didn’t want to make this book about them. A lot of recovery books start out like, “I started drinking because this happened in my childhood.” I didn’t feel that was my situation. I had some real challenges in my childhood, which resulted in a sense of anxiety that I carried into adulthood and that certainly didn’t help. But my parents also did a hell of a lot of good for me and I didn’t want to drag them through the mud. I decided to just touch on my childhood as general context.

There were also some abusive incidents that happened in my childhood, but I feel like I want to tell stories that only I can tell and people have basically told that story in other ways.

I guess I’m kind of an open book.

Rumpus: That’s how people connect.

Coulter: That’s what I found when I got sober and connected with other sober women. We had so many experiences in common. It’s like the #MeToo movement. Once you say “me, too” about anything, the door stays open and you don’t feel as weird anymore.

Rumpus: Even though you say you conceived of this book as a writer and not necessarily with a social purpose, I think that’s achieved here. And it’s huge.

Coulter: Someone asked me recently, “What do you hope people will take away about drinking from this book?” I do want them to realize that it doesn’t alter reality. I believed somewhere that if I was drinking, I was solving problems or making them go away. It doesn’t work that way, sadly. Your pain is going to be right there. The bad things that are happening will continue to happen.

I think most of the world already understands that, but I really did not. I was sober when Trump was elected. I remember thinking, “Well, you could drink, but guess what? He still won.” That was a hard moment.

It was also kind of a turning point. I see people online all the time writing, “I’m just drinking my way through this administration.” We all have our ways of numbing out and I would never begrudge people theirs, but don’t let Trump take away four—please, let it only be four—years of your life. He doesn’t even drink; don’t let him make you do it. That’s actually the only good thing about him.

Rumpus: You write in the book, “In the end, the way I stopped was by stopping.” Could you explain that to someone who might not understand alcoholism?

Coulter: I hear more and more about that part. I heard from a guy the other day who said he wanted to journal his way through his past traumas and issues and then he would stop. But he found that it just made him want to drink more. When he read that line, he was like, “Oh, shit.” He’s on day thirty now.

Sometimes when you quit drinking, you just have to gut it out. You have to build the muscle. If you start running and expect it to be easy, you’ll be disappointed right away and you’ll quit. If you go in thinking, “Okay, this might be challenging,” then you can start building.

And at some point, you run out of options. I tried so hard to want to not drink; I went on like that for a year. But there was a moment where something in me surrendered.

People sometimes say, “I don’t want to read a book about drinking.” And I tell them that it’s not really a book about drinking. It’s a book about giving up the one thing you thought you had to have and what you do when you no longer have it.


Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a journalist and critic living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, Town & Country, San Francisco Magazine, Pacific Standard, U.S. News & World Report, VICE, The Daily Beast, The Verge, The Rumpus, Refinery29, InStyle, Girlboss, The Lily, and The Hairpin (RIP). She is a contributing opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times. More from this author →