Processing Life on the Page: A Conversation with Erin Khar
Strung Out: A Memoir of Overcoming Addiction
by Erin Khar
Park Row (2021); 336 pp.; $15.80 (Paperback)Buy Book
Erin Khar has been processing life on the page since she was seven years old. Her extensive collection of handwritten journals and tape-recorded messages with a best friend served as a wellspring of material for her acclaimed addiction memoir, Strung Out. Khar’s trove of lived experience and her willingness to share her hard-won, life-saving knowledge about substance use influence her as a writer and mother. Erin shares her perspectives through various media: she’s a cherished advice columnist and a regular podcaster. Her current endeavor is another writing project—this time, she’s delving into fiction—and her memoir, now two years old, continues to develop a devoted following.
As hard as it was for Khar to reckon with the truth of her heroin addiction and the pain she brought to herself and others, she expresses reverence for the person who survived the story. “Our character isn’t built on our mistakes,” she says. “It’s built on our recovery from mistakes. And who [we become] as a result of the lessons we’ve learned. I’ve put [mine] out into the world . . . and they’re very extreme . . . [but without them] I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t be the wife that I am, the friend that I am, the daughter that I am, and so on, if I didn’t have the experiences I had, for better or for worse.” She laughs at the thought of anyone being bothered by the transparency of Strung Out. “I spent many, many years carrying that shame around. My attitude about it now is that I’m done carrying it. If somebody else wants to carry it around and it really bothers you, please take it and try it out.”
Despite Erin’s harrowing survivorship, and her accomplished curriculum vitae, she has hands-on advice to share with regular old writers like me (and possibly you?). Erin can’t deal with Scrivener—but she uses the notes app on her phone to document ideas. If she’s driving, she uses the voice app to transcribe notes. She’s also a big believer in the deeply challenging act of writing a book proposal for a memoir before drafting a whole manuscript. “It’s harder than writing a book,” she says. “And I’m not even being hyperbolic.” (I feel seen.)
I could have talked addiction, craft nuts-and-bolts, and the myth of “candy fent” with Erin all day (she is a true expert in substance use, and her views on American drug policy just might save our kids) but this interview focuses on Strung Out, released during the early days of the pandemic. Many of you have already read or “Asked Erin” questions in her advice column—now you can meet her.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jennie Burke: You mention that you collected material for your manuscript over many years, but you wrote the book in about four months. Can you share what those four months were like regarding child care, family support, and the mental-health load of putting a memoir together in that short amount of time?
Erin Khar: I’d worked on pieces of the book, as you mentioned, over the course of a few years leading up to this. But I think what helped me most is that I had a strong framework throughout the chapter summaries in my book proposal. It was essentially a map of the narrative arcs within each chapter. In general, I am a fast writer. By the time I sit down to type it all out, I have done a lot of the prewriting process—in my head, on my notes app, etc.—which makes it easier to get it on the page quickly.
I had a one-year-old at home but was fortunate to have childcare. I couldn’t have done it without that childcare in place. One challenge is we had a fire in our apartment, which displaced us for two years during the reconstruction. Being in temporary housing wasn’t ideal, but I was lucky and grateful that our homeowner’s insurance made that possible!
I returned to talk therapy and started seeing a new psychiatrist so that my mental health would be well supported. Diving back into trauma was challenging, but having that support system set up made it a lot easier. I also planned little rewards or breaks for myself when I knew I was writing through heavy scenes. I made space for a walk, a mani-pedi, a coffee, or a treat—any small thing that would offer a little relief from being in it.
JB: Do you have any tangible tips on collecting a trove of material for a memoir over a span of years? You kept journals, but I wonder if you also interviewed the friends and loved ones who were part of your life. How did you organize the material and drafts you collected over the eight years you imagined and wrote the book?
EK: I was so fortunate that I’d been such a prolific journal writer from childhood on. In addition, my best friend and I wrote letters and tape-recorded audio cassettes to each other for years. I had held on to all of them, and so had she. So she sent me a box with everything. It was indispensable! I was able to check my memory against my primary sources. As I was writing that first draft, I did call upon my parents, friends, some ex-boyfriends, etc., to fact-check myself. Memory is not objective, but it was helpful to have people remind me of other moments or details. In terms of organization, I looked at things chronologically as I needed them. I didn’t dive in all at once. As a side note: in the eight years of writing leading up to the book, I didn’t really compile all this information. It was more gradual than that. For the first few years, I was figuring out what I wanted to write. It was only in the two years leading up to selling the book that I knew I wanted to write it.
JB: There are a lot of characters in your book, many of whom are coping with their own trauma. What guidelines or ethos did you hold yourself to while writing about other people? Did any other writers advise or influence your decision-making on writing about other people? I’m especially interested to know who advises the advice columnist.
EK: I changed every name in the book and some identifying features to protect privacy. The exceptions were my husband and children because I had already written about them for magazines and used their real names, and they came along after all of my drama!
I was very conscious to always shine the harshest light on myself and to not tell anyone else’s story, not fill in the blanks for anyone. I tried to present the narrative through my experience (as the narrator). There are personal details of others’ lives that I left out because they weren’t necessary for this story. There is a balance there in discerning what was and wasn’t my story to tell. I wanted to always be truthful and transparent and as neutral as possible, letting the action speak for itself rather than explaining who someone was.
JB: I think “permission” is a loaded issue for women regarding writing their lives. I know you’re a Scorpio, but still, did you seek anyone’s approval or permission in writing what you call “the truth as [you] remember it”?
EK: No, I didn’t. But again, I was very careful about how I wrote about others. I was also willing to be unlikable on the page, knowing that to write an honest book, I had to be. And there will always be someone who remembers events differently, but that’s because everything we take in, even in my at-the-moment journal entries, is filtered through our perception and history.
JB: Are there any contemporary trauma/addiction memoirs written by fathers that come to mind? I can think of books in this genre written by women—not as many by fathers. Am I missing out, or do these titles not exist?
EK: Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight delves into the intersection of fatherhood and addiction (and is still one of my favorites). Also, Joshua Mohr’s Sirens and Model Citizen are both compelling and nuanced books.
JB: You mentioned that in writing your memoir, you had to be willing to be unlikable. Can you share why you felt this way? Has your feeling changed now that you can see yourself through your readers’ eyes?
EK: I felt this way because, like many of us, I want people to like me. But I knew that I had to be honest on the page, which meant that some people weren’t going to like me—both as the character in the book and the author. My feeling hasn’t changed because I have read memoirs or essays in which I felt a lack of ownership or some concealing by the author for what transpired and that always leaves me feeling like I am not getting the whole truth.
JB: What surprised you—or was there anything unexpected you learned—in the two years since Strung Out was released?
EK: I’ve learned that as much as the book is about me, it is no longer mine—meaning it exists for other people now, separate from me. When I hear from folks about what the book has meant to them or what it helped them understand, or how it made them feel seen, that is such a gift. Writing the book is only part of the equation. The reward for me is that connection or conversation between me as the author and the reader.
1 reply on “Processing Life on the Page: A Conversation with Erin Khar”
What a fabulous conversation on writing memoir. Everyone who writes memoir and those who read memoir and are interested in the impetus, creation, hard choices, and rewards that come with writing need to read this. I’m going to share it everywhere!