Addiction can happen at any age. But teens and young adults are most susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction – and face the greatest effects. In his debut memoir, Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk, author Seamus Kirst explores his journey of addiction, starting at age 13, and his path to recovery and sobriety. Here, we discuss Seamus’s experience of sharing his personal story, his publication decisions, and what he has planned for the future.
Before Pen Hits Paper: The Inspiration
Charlotte: Why did you decide to write Shitfaced? Did the inspiration come at a certain moment? Did you know that you wanted to write a book when you started your journey to sobriety?
Seamus: Not at all. When I was in the early stages of sobriety, I wasn’t fully sure how to talk about my experiences with addiction to people to whom I was close. The idea of writing about these experiences so that strangers could read them would have been completely out of the question until after I was sober for an extended period of time.
During the first two years of sobriety, I realized that, for many people, I was the only young person they knew who was sober and/or in recovery from addiction. Many people I didn’t know well asked me very detailed and personal questions about my own sobriety and would share with me their fears about their own relationships with alcohol and drugs.
This made me realize how much these topics are still so taboo. People I hardly knew were talking about their mental health and addiction to me and were explicitly telling me these weren’t topics they felt comfortable talking about with the people in their lives to whom they were extremely close.
I began to feel a powerful urge to push against this taboo, because I saw how it was negatively impacting people. So I started to publish essays about my experiences with addiction, and my decision to become to sober. I was blown away at the amount of people who reached out to me and said they identified with aspects of my story, even when they hadn’t dealt with addiction, themselves.
I had always thought about writing a book in some small section of the back of my mind, but I wasn’t actually sure I would, and I definitely did not think my first book would be about this subject. I’d spent most of my life wanting to be a lawyer, and maybe even a politician, and I believed that to hold office I would have to totally hide my history with addiction and mental health struggles, not publicize it.
But, the feedback I was getting about my writing made me feel like I had something to offer with my story, and so I made that leap.
That experience has taught me to always reach out to people when I enjoy their writing, because when I started I was sort of like, “What the hell am I doing?” Having other people encourage me and give me the push to keep writing made all the difference.
Charlotte: Did you ever consider writing the book as a fictional account, rather than a pure memoir? Why did you want to write it as a memoir in particular?
Seamus: I did consider that, but I decided to write it as a memoir because I’d been writing personal essays on these topics, and the book became an extension of those. I’d taken one creative nonfiction writing class during college, and so my (limited) writing background was only in nonfiction. I’d also never written fiction and wasn’t sure that I could.
I also enjoy public speaking about these topics. So I thought that giving a nonfiction account of my own experiences would make my talks more valuable for people, particularly teens who are struggling with addiction and their parents.
At that moment, I was spending so much time thinking about my experiences with addiction, and I believed that writing it out would help me process. I assumed that if I wrote a fictional account, I would essentially tell my own story through a thinly veiled character, so I figured I’d just go for it and write what really happened.
The Process: How to Write a Book
Charlotte: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process – what your day to day looked like, if you had an outline for the book developed prior to writing, if you had certain deadlines you gave yourself, etc.?
Seamus: At first, I tried to write the book without an outline. And I quickly realized that I was all over the place and without having some sort of organizational structure I was having trouble deciding what to include in the book.
Then I outlined the entire book, and it made the writing process so much easier. I could look at the outline and select a scene that I was going to write that day, and I didn’t necessarily have to write in a chronological fashion.
I gave myself deadlines as I wrote, but, to be honest, I often missed them. There were some weeks where I wrote every day, and there were other weeks where I didn’t write at all. I tried to make myself stay on a fairly steady schedule, but my biggest goal was just to finish the project while also taking care of my own mental health. To that end, I gave myself what I needed to achieve that goal, whether it was a push or a break, depending on the week.
Charlotte: The style of writing in Shitfaced at times blends the lines between prose, poetry and vignettes. How did you develop the writing style in this book? Did you experiment with any different voices or styles beforehand?
Seamus: One of the best parts of self-publishing a book is that it does give you room to be creative and experimental. I thought about writing the book in a million different ways, some very traditional and some incredibly experimental. When I tried many of the different ideas I had, some worked, and some didn’t. In the end I kind of created a hybrid form of writing that I felt allowed me to share my story through vignettes, while also dissecting greater topics and themes through occasional essays.
Going Viral: The Origin of the Memoir
Charlotte: Shitfaced found its origins through an essay you published on your blog that quickly became a viral post, shared by news outlets worldwide. Can you tell us a little about that experience? What was the inspiration or intention for writing the original essay? What did it feel like to see so many people reading, connecting with and sharing your story? Did you know that it was going to develop into something as big as writing a book when it first went viral?
I’d spent the better part of the decade leading up to that essay trying to hide my relationship with alcohol, and the impact it had on my life. I was, on some level, convinced that if people saw this side of me, in full, they would label me as “crazy” or “mentally ill” and that it would have negative impacts on my job and relationship prospects.
Then, on my two-year anniversary, in this random moment of inspiration, I wanted to write it all down and put it out there. I had this urge to tell my truth, and so I did.
I’d never done anything like this before, and it was terrifying. I thought people might judge me and look at me differently, but I also must have believed on some level that it would help people better understand alcoholism, or I never would have pushed it out into the world.
I was totally shocked when the essay started to be shared to the degree that it was. It truly traveled all around the world. I began hearing back from people who related to different elements of self-destructive behavior. So many people were so different from me, and yet they said my story resonated with them, and that was the biggest motivator to keep writing. In a day and age where we, as humans, are so polarized on so many issues, it was fascinating for me to see how talking candidly about addiction could allow me to connect with people quite literally from all walks of life. Addiction doesn’t discriminate; it can, and does, touch almost everyone, in one way or another, at some point in their life.
Charlotte: In addition to writing Shitfaced, you write for several news outlets including Vice, the Washington Post, and Huffington Post. Did this prior writing experience influence how you wrote Shitfaced at all? Did you find yourself using a similar writing process, or even a similar voice or style? How did this previous experience influence how you promoted the book and reached readers?
Seamus: Definitely! Writing personal essays is what inspired me to write a memoir rather than a fictional account. Through personal essays, I realized how you can talk about something scary and taboo, and then, by putting it out there, it doesn’t feel very scary or taboo anymore.
Also, writing for these other publications allowed me to reach wider audiences, which was incredibly helpful for marketing and publicity.
Behind the Scenes: Publishing and Design
Charlotte: You decided to self-publish Shitfaced. Can you tell us how you came to that decision? Did you prefer self-publishing to traditional publishing? What were the steps you took to get it published?
Seamus: Basically, after I wrote my essay that got a decent amount of traction, I typed up a query letter, and sent it to a bunch of agents. I got some positive feedback from some of them, but they were all also like, “Write the entire manuscript and then we’ll talk.”
Because I wasn’t really coming from a writing background, the idea of just writing a whole book by myself seemed so daunting.
The more I read, the more it sounded like if I were to go the traditional publishing route, my book could take years and years to be published.
I wanted to have it out sooner, and I had all of these people who were engaging with me in that moment on social media because of the essay. So, I decided I would crowdfund my memoir, and use it as a pre-ordering system. With the money I raised, I hired a developmental editor. I believed he would make it feel less like I was in the wilderness on my own, but, to be honest, he was incredibly expensive, and not very helpful, so in the end I still did wind up writing the whole thing on my own.
Then I hired a graphic designer to do the cover, and I did all the internal formatting myself. I read a bunch of articles about the pros and cons of the different self-publishing platforms, and I landed on CreateSpace because it was cheap and straightforward.
Also, I enlisted the help of friends and family for line editing, which I am so grateful for!
The crowdfunding idea was nice too, because it created an external source of accountability. I now had other people’s money, so I had to deliver a product.
Opening Up: The Personal Nature of Memoir Writing
Charlotte: Writing a memoir is creating such a personal account for others to read and really making yourself vulnerable to your readers. In Shitfaced, you share openly about your own experiences, but also about your family and friends. Did you have any fears or concerns about sharing your personal story? How did you overcome those to be able to write?
Seamus: I was definitely nervous about writing about other people. To be honest, that was the hardest and scariest part of this entire process.
I tried to think about how I would feel if someone else were writing about me, and then I took as many steps to make the process as easy and comfortable for the people I was writing about.
The most important idea was to just tell the truth, and to not write about people in a way that was inspired by getting vengeance or punishing them.
From my parents to my ex-boyfriend, I let everyone who was in the book know beforehand. If people wanted a pseudonym, I gave them one. I tried to not include any details about the lives or thoughts of other people that I did not think were totally necessary, or that were hurtful or invasive for no reason.
Even with those precautionary steps, it was still hard for some people to read about themselves. I totally understand that, as I think I would have trouble reading about myself in someone else’s book.
I had many concerns about telling the story, in general. It is never easy to portray yourself in an unflattering light. But, at the end of the day, I had to believe that it was worth telling this story, even if there were scenes that I’d spent years trying to hide. It was a very surreal experience to put into writing moments that I’d spent my whole life trying to repress, and then making them public.
But, I do believe if there is one young gay teen who reads my book and feels less isolated; or if there is one person struggling with drinking who reads my book and seeks help; or a parent who reads the book and better understands what it’s like for their child to deal with addiction, then it was worth writing.
Being Vulnerable in Writing a Memoir
Charlotte: Did you find it was difficult to be so vulnerable and honest in writing this memoir? Or did you find it to be more of a cathartic experience? Did anything about how you would usually write and publish pieces change because of the nature of the subject? For example, were there any details you omitted that you might have otherwise included?
Seamus: It was incredibly hard to be vulnerable and honest in the book, because I believe it is part of human nature to want to portray ourselves in the most positive way we can. In this book, I definitely wasn’t doing that.
When I started writing the memoir, I made the decision to try to write it from how I felt when it was happening, rather than how I feel now. For instance, if there were times where I was mad at my friends for confronting me about my drinking, and I now know they were right, I still wrote it as though I were mad at them. Having to go back to how I felt in the moment allowed me to create writing that more authentically shows what it like to be in the throes of addiction.
I tried not to omit any details that were relevant to the story. If anything, I initially included too much. I had friends and family read the book, and I was fortunate to have people who were very honest about parts that were boring or seemed unnecessary to be included in the book.
It was interesting writing this because in some ways it was very depressing to write about certain moments and experiences, and to have to relive them over and over. But, in other ways, it was also extremely cathartic as a form of processing and letting go.
Insights and Healing from Writing a Memoir
Charlotte: The book can certainly be used as an example and be particularly inspirational for others who are sober or becoming sober. Did you find that the process of writing the memoir gave you insight into your own substance use? Did writing the book affect you the way reading it might affect others?
Seamus: Writing Shitfaced gave me insight, for sure. I had to relive so many experiences in my own life, over and over, as I tried to figure out how to write about them. By the time I was done writing, there is no question I better understood myself than I had before I began.
Charlotte: Has the way you view the times you were drinking and your sobriety changed since writing and publishing Shitfaced?
Seamus: The way I view my drinking and sobriety is always evolving as I grow more comfortable with myself and continue to go to therapy. I would say the major difference between right when the book came out and now, is that I forgive myself a bit more. The self-inflicted wounds from those years feel more healed, and it is hard for me to even remember myself as someone who drank (it’s been five and a half years!).
Every year, I am more able to process my own experiences, and I have a better sense of humor about my struggles with mental health and addiction. I think it is probably better that I wrote the book when I didn’t have as much of a sense of humor about it, because that allowed me to be rawer.
The Post-Script: Looking Back
Charlotte: Now that Shitfaced is published, is there anything you would change about how you wrote the memoir, published it, or promoted it? If so, what and why?
Seamus: If I could go back in time, I maybe would have considered working harder to get it published through a traditional publishing house. At the time, I wasn’t really sure how the system worked, and it felt daunting. But, now that I better understand the world of agents and publishing, I think I could have had more financial success in the long run if I had published traditionally.
Of course, on the flipside, publishing traditionally wasn’t even guaranteed to be an option, and at the time I just wanted to write the book and get it out into the world. I’d heard that even if you go publish traditionally, you wind up doing a lot of the marketing and publicity work yourself, and lose a great deal of creative control, so self-publishing felt right.
I think that either way, I may have had a “the grass is always greener” moment and wondered if the other option would have been better.
At the end of the day, I figured if I liked writing, I would keep doing it, and I would have opportunities to try it the other way.
I also knew that addiction memoirs are a pretty saturated market, and it might be easier for me to self-publish the book and prove to agents that I could build a platform for myself, and that is what I tried to do.
Self-publishing Shitfaced helped me gain the confidence to keep pushing in the writing world. It is definitely a tough field, where you face a lot of rejection. Having Shitfaced, and the experiences that came with it, have helped me realize that I want to be an author, and I want to be in this world, and that facing the rejections and pushing through is worth it for me.
And Looking Forward
Charlotte: Lisa Tener tells me that you recently signed with an agent and publisher. That must be exciting! Can you tell us about any future projects you may be working on or thinking about? What you think having an agent or publisher will bring to your writing that you didn’t previously have?
Seamus: Yes! Last week I sold my first picture book, which was really exciting. Having an agent is really nice, because they take care of all the business aspects. I like the feeling of having someone to bounce ideas off of and feeling like I have a team that is supporting me.
Right now I am also working on a novel that has a sardonic tone and tells the story of a boy in college navigating the world of sex and dating. It’s been a total change of pace, and really fun to write. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought fiction would be something I’d be interested in, but after writing Shitfaced and having to be so careful about not making things up, it’s fun to do something where I have to make things up. It’s definitely been a means of escapism and a way to relax.
Charlotte: How can our readers get in contact with you?
Seamus Kirst is an author, journalist, comedian, and mental health advocate. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, Vice, Forbes, HuffPost, The Advocate, and more. As an entertainment and political journalist, he has interviewed people ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren to Khloe Kardashian; from Congressman Joe Kennedy, to Snooki.
Readers, do you have any questions or comments about writing? Share them here! If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy this author interview on healing from burnout in the medical field with Shawn Jones or Lisa Tener’s article on how to start writing your own book.