Author Mayukh Sen on Writing Sober
"I've been ruthless with the red pen."
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning writer, a teacher of food journalism at New York University, and the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. The book, which will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in November, is available for preorder here (and you can read what some very talented women said about it here!).
Somewhere between writing the first and second drafts of Taste Makers, Sen, who is a friend, decided to become sober, and I'm honored that he was willing to talk about it with me here. Below, find an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
You have a book coming out soon! How are you feeling?
I'm under some stress, between deadlines and my teaching commitments, but I'm hanging in there. All things considered, I'm doing okay.
Glad to hear it, Professor Sen.
Ha! You know, teaching isn’t public-facing in the same way that being a writer is. That’s something I really appreciate: I’m with a group of 12 students and it’s very private work. Over the past year, I've really relished being less of a public person. But, as you said, I have a book coming out later this year, so I'll have to balance those parts of myself. That will be a challenge.
Yes, we’ve spoken a bit about the relationship between drinking and writing, and I’ll get to that, but first: What did your drinking look like, say, two years ago?
In 2018, I drank every night. I developed this rhythm as a freelance writer: Once the clock hit 5:00 p.m., I would pour myself some mezcal and make a shitty cocktail with whatever else was lying around and I would drink until my mind got blurry.
By 2019, I was waking up every morning and shaking my head—literally, physically shaking my head—to determine whether or not there was some sort of lag or if I had a headache. Based on that, I would determine what the rest of my day would look like. It was such an unsustainable way to live.
I'm being specific about these dates because a lot happened in my life during this time. In 2017, my father passed away from lung cancer. I was 25, and it gave rise to so much in me. Then I experienced an upsetting incident during my first month at a new job, so I was dealing with the emotional weather of grief as well as workplace harassment.
In 2018, though, some nice things happened: I got nominated for and won a James Beard Award, which felt like the biggest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, it’s embarrassing to admit that I was so earnest about an arbitrary achievement like that, but I also realize that getting that kind of recognition allowed me to paper over the traumas I was working through.
Anyway, all of this was the context for my drinking. My life felt like it was this mix of incredible highs and the lowest lows, and I needed something to stabilize me. I told myself that alcohol would be that thing, but of course now, as someone who's sober, I’m able to realize that drinking actually introduced more chaos into my life, not stabilization.
Had you used alcohol this way before?
My senior year of college, I was kind of drunk most of the time, which is truly embarrassing to admit. After I graduated and moved to New York, I remember a roommate of mine sitting me down and saying, "Look, you're doing this every night and I'm worried about how you're treating yourself." So yeah, there were inklings of a problem prior to 2018.
So, at some point, you realized you had a problem with alcohol. Define "problem" for you.
The physical discomfort is what really served as a wakeup call for me. Every morning, feeling as though my head was being weighed down by a bunch of bricks? That chaos within my body? Alcohol was directly responsible for it. I had my last sip of alcohol in late January 2020 at a restaurant in Manhattan. I can't even remember what the drink was, but I got so sick that night.
Two of my best friends were sober, so I looked to them as examples. I reevaluated everything: my bank account, my emotional status. I needed to acknowledge that the loss of my father had really affected me, and I needed to allow myself to grieve in a sober way. Otherwise… It was starting to feel like I was dishonoring his memory. That guilt was a big motivating factor for me, too, I think.
I know that this is a theme throughout your work, that you examine people from the reference point of loss. I wonder if that has cropped up for you, personally, in regards to alcohol: The loss of the experience of drinking it, the drug itself, the identity you might have had for yourself as a drinking person...
Of course, I miss the version of myself that I was when I drank: a person who was freer and looser and funnier than this hesitant, clipped person I am now. But that's okay, you know? I think I've kind of made peace with it, and that's part of the process of maturing. I'm okay to say goodbye to that Mayukh.
You stopped drinking somewhere between the first and second drafts of your book. How did your writing, thinking, or process change? What were the differences between those two phases?
I went into my book-writing process thinking that alcohol would fuel me creatively. I was latching onto that very tired and pernicious myth—and while I don't want to discount that it might be true for some writers, for me, drinking became an impediment.
I would start writing at 8:00 a.m., go until 5:00 p.m., and then I would start drinking. Early on, I was hoping that alcohol would provide me with that burst of energy that I needed to push through, especially for 10,000-word chapters. I wasn’t used to such a vast narrative terrain. It took me many months to realize that if I tried to sit down and write with one or two drinks in me, the sentences would start to blur and I would lose control over what I was putting onto the page. Most of what I wrote that way was unusable.
There’s a world of difference between the first draft, which I wrote drunk or hungover, and the second and third drafts, which I wrote as a sober person. I finally had clarity of vision. When I read the first draft now, I see how indulgent I was, overwriting sentences and being excessive. It’s kind of horrifying to look back. I'm very glad that I stopped drinking!
I do actually think parts of my creative brain are more lit up when alcohol is in the mix. When I was tipsy—not drunk—I could access certain places I haven’t found a way to access without it.
I'm really glad you said that, because I did write with a sense of whimsy and freedom when I was drinking that seemed foreign to me otherwise. Alcohol would silence the critic in my head. It was like when I first started my writing career, when I felt freer to experiment. A lot of it didn't work, but when it did, I felt proud of myself and I wish I could recapture that sense of imagination that seemed to guide me. Now I feel so much more self-conscious, and it’s harder for me to loosen up.
But still, eventually, it was just all a blur. You made this distinction between tipsy and drunk. For me, there was no tipsy; I would just go straight to that extreme. I think that's what made writing while drinking so difficult to me.
As a sober person, I’ve been ruthless with the red pen. I can read sentences aloud and understand when something isn’t quite hanging together or when a detail isn’t germane to the overall story. I was pretty ruthless with myself when it came to those second and third drafts, but in a way that felt positive not punitive. I didn't feel as though I was being too hard on myself; I was just able to see a story more clearly.
Another thing that sobriety has brought me is a healthy sense of shame. Sometimes I revisit my old writing, and it feels so try-hard. I’m like, "Wow this 25-year-old really wanted to make sure everyone knew that he'd read a book before and he had access to thesaurus.com!"
This is a writing tip I've been giving my students, especially as I've sobered up: If this bores you, chances are it's going to bore a reader. It’s so tempting to show everyone how much reporting you did and how much research you did, but that doesn't necessarily make for a great reading experience. “Wow, the author clearly spent a lot of time on ProQuest!” That's not a great measure of a book's strengths. You want the reading experience to be enjoyable and fun and also enlightening. It's not bad for a book to be entertaining, and I think sobriety helped me come to terms with that reality.
What do you want people to take from this book?
I’m sure that someone could see the listing for my book and think, “Great! I’d love to know how America came to be this country that has such culinary diversity.” While that might be a takeaway, I’m more interested in complicating that narrative, because it feels very simplistic. When you say that, you’re essentially de-centering immigrant voices and measuring their worth based on their perceived value to the American consumer. I don’t want to do that. I want to put these women first. So what I really hope I’ve shown in this book is that these women faced a lot of pressures—you could say the pressures of American capitalism, and what was reflected of it in American food media—while just trying to express themselves. Some of these women were really able to make an impact within this system that was designed against them. Others had to work outside that system. So this is a story of triumph, sure, but it’s also a story of real struggle. Creative struggle under capitalism, let’s say. And I hope readers see that.
Anyway, history allows us to put everything that's happening into a broader context and to understand that these are patterns that have developed over time—and have been bolstered by certain institutions. As we imagine what food media could be in the future, I hope that we look to some of these women as models.
Photograph by Jason Favreau. Book design by Amit Malhotra.