As we curl up on couches six provinces apart, the magnitude and warmth of Jann Arden’s heart makes the glowing Zoom screen feel like a cozy fire. A dog snoozes next to each of us, and the laughs are ringing loud enough that an eavesdropper would never guess we’re recounting our spectacular failures and finding the humour in self-inflicted sufferings. Her new memoir, If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging, mines the heft of life with courageous ferocity and loving kindness. Here, she talks dog walks, writing routines, fear and optimism, quitting drinking and the hangover-paved path she’d happily trudge again in a heartbeat to be where she is—and who she is—now.
JEC: First, I love your gravel road walks with Midi the dog that you share on Instagram.
Jann: Oh [the walks are] so boring. It’s just boring! But we have to go, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll turn this on so people can look at f-cking gravel. And Midi!” The way people curate their lives on social media is not always authentic, carefully choosing images to represent a life that doesn’t exist. I feel responsible, certainly at my age, to not do that. I’ll make sure it’s as banal, as boring, and uncomplicated as it is. What you show people . . . you’ve got to be mindful of that.
JEC: When I was drinking, I worked really hard to hide the boring, suffering parts because I really wanted to, you know, keep drinking. I had to seem fine.
Jann: Yes! Oh, I know everything that you said. That could have been coming out of my mouth. The narrative has to protect the optics of your behaviour. It’s so complicated, then it gets more complicated, then you finally just get so tired. Like, “I gotta find an easier way through this.”
JEC: Congratulations on your new memoir! Tell me about your writing process.
Jann: I drink a lot of tea, probably six or seven cups of decaf Earl Grey. Midi and I have to get the walk out of the way. I need daylight to write, which gets a little tricky. It’s not like writing War and Peace or anything! I would read a little bit of what I did, then get my delete button out: “Oh, do I want to say that about my dad? Just because he’s dead, doesn’t mean you can f-cking go off and make the guy look like a dick.” Then, I’m like, “No, I meant it.” That was it. Writing this book was easier than Feeding My Mother. I was such a terrible version of myself for a lot of the [time I spent caring for] my mom. I was scared. But for this one, I was over the hump. My mom gave me a lot of gifts.
JEC: When you write about your youth, you had this hard-fought, unshakable optimism: something we all need right now! What can you share about this?
Jann: I was once in a long-term relationship, and I remember her saying, “Do you know how hard it is to be around your optimism?” I knew that was the end. I was still drinking then. But I was still optimistic. You can be scared and still be optimistic. You can have confidence and no self-esteem. This can all coexist. There’s something charming about that. There are lots of likable qualities in someone who doesn’t know everything and isn’t like, “I’m fearless and oh my god, I look great in every colour!” Because there’s some kind of loss in that, too, that we all recognize. Because nobody wants to be beside that guy at a party. We want to be beside somebody that, when we pick them up and shake them, you can hear a piece broken. We find people where we recognize some part of ourselves. It’s okay to not get things right. My dad used to say, making a decision doesn’t mean that you’re making the right one. It’s important just to make one. Just decide something.
JEC: Yes! To just keep going is the entire point.
Jann: And the people that you meet: If you don’t like them, you just turn and walk. Keep the movement going, just change direction. I like people who have been in recovery because I know they’ve done the work. They’ve come to the edge of something where they really f-cking scared themselves. They’ve ruined relationships, they’ve f-cked up. Iknow a lot of recovered addicts; I like them because I find them trustworthy. And we all recognize the lies in each other! And call each other on our bullsh-t.
JEC: There’s this part in your book where you say three times: “I am myself again.” Did you have recovery moments that really surprised you? Like, “Oh, so this is classic Jann? I had no idea!”
Jann: How reliable I was. How reliable I was, how on time I was. How important it was to me to do the things I said I would do. Do the things you say you’re going to do. Never mind how it affects everybody else. It has a profound effect on your self-worth. It was like recovering a memory of this kid with all these great qualities. I wouldn’t be doing any of this now [had I not gotten sober]. I would be dead by now for sure.
JEC: Before my recovery, I couldn’t have even dreamed of this conversation! Aren’t the miracles wild?
Jann: Oh, there’s so many rewards. That’s the journey. I wouldn’t change it. All the horrible things that I did, the disappointments, the physical agony of hundreds and hundreds of hangovers. I would endure it again. To be who I am, sitting here before you. I would do it all again.
Click here to read an exclusive excerpt from Jann Arden’s new book, If I Knew Then: Finding Wisdom in Failure and Power in Aging.
Jennifer E. Crawford is a chef, writer and Moon Mist ice cream enthusiast. They host and write My Queer Kitchen, an online show and column for Xtra that explores the delicious intersections of food, feelings and identity. Join their visual feast on instagram: @jennifer.e.crawford