Sarah Hepola

Little slips of paper that
might have contained your future

In my senior year of college, I took a playwriting class. We were given slips of paper with dramatic scenarios and told to write a few pages of a scene. It’s been nearly two decades since I read the information on that strip of paper, selected from a pile, and though I cannot be certain, what I remember is that my scenario was about a female rock singer in a hotel room who comes out of a drinking jag to make a startling discovery. She is holding a gun in her hand. The name of the play: BLACKOUT.

It must sound like I’m making up this story. How contrived to think that a fake play scenario a person drew randomly in class would have the same name of a memoir that person would write nearly 20 years later. Life doesn’t work like that, right? But let’s all concede, for the sake of argument, that we don’t really know how life works.

I’d just turned 21, and I’d had a few blackouts from drinking. They were some of the creepiest parts of the otherwise spectacular drinking life — you’d wake up, and someone would tell you things you’d done, like some “Twilight Zone” episode where your body is invaded by another life form, one who likes to eat raw hot dogs and flash her bra. Of course, “blackouts” are also the end to every scene in a play, the key transition on the stage, which led to an epiphany: What if this character’s alcohol blackouts were signaled by the play’s lighting blackouts? And then: What if the whole play were taking place in her mind?

I was into experimental theater, experimental fiction. A straightforward narrative — a guy, a girl, a story that moved from beginning to end — bored me. “Pulp Fiction” had come out the year before, and blown our collective minds. We all wanted to be Tarantino, turning the plot around like a kaleidoscope. My heroes were twisty like that. Durang, Stoppard, Tim O’Brien, the New Journalism gods. (My writing heroes were all men.)

I wrote a few pages of the scenario, and then, as encouraged by our instructor, I changed some parts of the scenario to better suit my interests and continued to write the entire play. The rock singer became an actress. The gun became a cigarette lighter she kept trying to ignite. I kept the hotel, and I kept the blackouts, and because I was enduring my own breakup, I added a storyline about a guy she’d met, and maybe fallen in love with, or maybe that was all in her mind, because: Tricks.

I did not call the play “Blackout.” It seems insane to me now that I ditched that title, written to me on a slip of paper like a fortune inside a vanilla cookie. I remember thinking the title “Blackout” was a little corny, a wee melodramatic. Blackout! BLACKOUT! It sounded like the title of an old pulp thriller, where the town loses electricity and someone nefarious is on the loose (and what if that someone is … YOU?). I struggled mightily to come up with another title. It was like coming up with a band name. Nothing sounded right, everything good had been taken. I eventually called the play “Inside Voices,” which is a soft and mysterious title, not nearly as attention-grabbing as “Blackout,” but I was quite invested in the whole “interior reality / is it real or imagined?” stuff, so I guess it worked.

My friend Bryan and I produced our plays the following year (my second senior year), and our theater friends acted in them, and it was fun. I felt like the first person in history to equate alcohol blackouts with theater blackouts, and maybe I was, or maybe some clever binge drinker comes along every two years and does the same thing. I don’t know.

In my 20s, I gave up theater. I moved toward journalism, and ultimately, first-person narratives, a form that would have elicited a blank stare in college because back then, writing about your own puny life was an act of creative bankruptcy. (Never mind that all writers write about their own lives, just in different ways.) But the more I wrote about myself, the more people seemed to like what I was writing. And the more people liked what I was writing, the more I did it. Writing was about connection as much as the delivery of ideas and opinions, and acknowledging my own internal reality — I’m nervous, I’m conflicted, I’m stuffed with too much deep-dish pepperoni pizza — turned out to be a decent career move. I kept getting writing gigs, and I kept drinking, and I kept having blackouts, and 15 years passed that way.

I was 36 when I decided to write a book about my drinking. I was less than a year sober, fragile but grasping at any rope, and I didn’t know what the book would be about exactly. I was in that frustrating, muddy place, where you have the shadow of an idea but not the language: It’s about, umm, drinking, and umm, women, and umm, how that whole thing works? I sent a batch of pages to a woman in the publishing industry, and she said to me: Your book should be about blackouts.

It was like lightning struck over my head. Of course my book should be about blackouts. This was so obvious: Blackouts had plagued me, I still didn’t know much about them, they had narrative drama and rich metaphorical value. Why didn’t I think of this? I still marvel at the clarity of her suggestion. How is it that a stranger reading about your life for the first time can somehow see your story more clearly than you can see your own?

Over the four years since then, I have heard many opinions about my book. Some good, some bad, but what everyone I have ever spoken with seemed to agree on was the title. “Great title,” they tell me. I went through a low period that lasted close to a year, where I really wasn’t sure what I was writing about anymore or if I would ever finish, but I held on to that title like driftwood on a churning sea. I loved the way people’s eyes sparked when I said the words, and the conversations would result. What IS a blackout? Why do some people have them and not others? Isn’t that bizarre — that you can do something, and not remember it? What the hell IS that anyway?

“The mind is a forgetting machine” I heard someone say on the radio the other day. He was talking about memory, how it changes as we age, how we let go of so much more information than we ever retain. And he’s right. For instance, for most of the years I was working on my book, I completely and totally forgot about the college girl who pulled a piece of paper out of a pile with the words “BLACKOUT” written on it. I forgot that the opening scene of my book is jarringly similar to that scenario: A hotel room, a woman, a drinking jag, a startling discovery.

It was my friend Bryan who reminded me. “Is your book going to mention that you wrote a play about blackouts?”

Oh, my God, that’s right: I did. And while my book did mention that in one draft, it was removed in the next, because it proved a bit confusing. So I’m putting it here now, for a future me who might forget. I’d like to remember that once upon a time, I pulled a slip of paper out of a pile that contained my future, and it took me about 15 years to realize it. That makes me wonder: What other accidental prophecies have I thrown away?

The book comes out June 23. My review in Publishers Weekly can be read here.