Albany Journal – 7/29/12

What may be the best remedy for those poets and writers who are struggling to get published or want to make a little bit of money by selling their own work is to find a good community of poets and writers instead of shooting for the moon and trying to woo publishers by sending them query letters, book proposals, and sample chapters.  Why do I think this?  I think it’s because a community of writers can at least support each member through the trials of the writer’s life, not necessarily improve one’s fiction, but to help the writer or poet to carry the weight of the stone – the grim writer’s life, as John Gardner put it.

Being a former writing teacher at community colleges and by paying close attention to the Writers Institute here in Albany, I’m not really sure if poetry or creative writing can be taught, and if it is actually taught, I’m not sure if being taught how to write is the greatest idea – and this is coming from someone who has graduated from an MFA program!  While I do believe that certain rules of thumb can be passed down from teacher to student, and the teacher can at least suggest what the poet and writer should be reading, I’m still unsure if writing can be taught in full.  What I found to be most helpful in this regard is to – yes – to practice, practice, and practice.  Also, a poet or writer doesn’t have to beat the competition or become better at his art than anyone else.  Comparing one’s writing and art to someone else’s becomes ridiculously insane if taken too far, and also because there are so many different styles of literature, so many tastes and so many audiences, the writer can appeal to, that in the end it doesn’t really matter how one’s work compares to another writer, just so much as a writer and poet whom develop his or her own style continues with that style of writing until, within that style, one actually discovers a new form – the style of his own natural abilities that will, I’m sure, attract the interest of an audience eventually. 

It’s a bad idea, I believe, to imitate another’s style or succumb to hacking just for the money.   One should try to develop his her own style and get so good at communicating what is unique about that style, that the writer and poet gives rise to what can be called his/her own distinctive voice.  I don’t believe publishing houses or writing programs can allow this to happen, simply because we are usually stuck imitating another writer’s style.  I believe that writers and poets can like styles that are most suitable to finding an audience for it, but anything beyond that tender beginning I don’t think is possible.

I’m saying this, because when times get tough, and there isn’t enough time or money to move things along in life, it is always very comforting and also very necessary to let fellows from your own writer’s community prevent the writer or poet in you from the terminal abyss of not being able to get out there as a legitimate poet or writer.  Also, and I have to add this – a good writer’s community could help save your life.  I’ll use the example of my good friend, Robert Milby, who eats, sleeps, and dreams poetry while living up to the standards that poets in the past have already established.

Robert lives in Florida, New York, and somehow he has managed to devote himself and his entire life to poetry, even though he is poor and sometimes can’t get published himself.  Without sounding too ingratiating here, I can say that Robert is one damn fine poet, and the work that he does within the Orange County writers’ community is invaluable and also immesurable.  He is now in middle age, and his longevity with being a poet and a worker for his writing community defies the laws of gravity.  But when Robert fell sick to Lyme disease quite recently, he turned to his fellow poets for comfort, and what his friends and fellow poets did for him in return  is really an example of how writing communities should operate and how such communities can help save the writer’s life.

Apparently, after many members heard about his illness, and since Robert doesn’t have any health insurance, they all held a benefit for Robert at a coffee shop in Beacon, New York, I believe, and raised enough money so that Robert could get adequate care from a doctor or hospital.  It was from that point on that I knew I’d rather belong to a community of poets and writers and no longer shoot for the moon and try to publish within these cultish and elitist environments that only let a few writer’s in to begin with.  I find great comfort in the poets’ community here in Albany, and what’s funny about this is that I don’t even write poetry!  I write all prose, as poetry proves to be more difficult for me and is not direct enough in what it has to say to an audience than prose writing is for me.  A community of writers, then, is essential – more essential than any lonesome deal with a publishing company.  A poet or writer will die from loneliness if not careful.  A communtity of poets and writer, and even the other arts such as painting and performing, can help take away the pains of isolation and heal the writer’s worbegone spirit.  I would highly recommend joining a writer’s community before seeking publication.

I’m advising the young people especially to look for writing communities in their area and neighborhoods and take part in the local readings that they have.  The community will feed you when the chips are down, and this is something that can’t be treated lightly or taken away.

Harvey Havel is the author of five novels. This past spring, Stories from the Fall of the Empire, his sixth book and his first collection of short stories, was recently released by Publish America. Later this summer, Two Tickets to Memphis, his sixth novel, is forthcoming from Publish America as well. Havel has previously taught Writing at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey and also at SUNY Albany and the College of St. Rose, both in Albany, New York. Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1971, Havel now resides full time in Albany, New York.