Albany Journal – 7/30/12

Rick Moody, when he read his short piece about the Irish rock band, the Pogues, the other night at a public reading at the Writers Institute up in Saratoga, came to the conclusion that an artist’s work doesn’t necessarily benefit when that artist relies upon drugs and alcohol in his writerly life to create more interesting and more important fiction.  I would have to agree with Rick Moody, although several old time writers, such as the late great William Styron, insisted that alcohol, in particular, accesses a part of the mind that the sober mind does not have access to.  Whether one philosophy is right over the other doesn’t mean so much as what the contrary arguments show us.  It shows us, more than any one thing, the sharp divisions between the post-World War II writers and the contemporary writers of today, Rick Moody being one of them.  But even though I’ve been sober for a full year – a very difficult year, as a matter of fact – I cannot emphasize enough that alcohol and drugs did relieve me of the many tensions and stresses that make a writerly life a grim cross to bear.  Little did I know that I would be caught by the police for two back-to-back DWIs within a period of a couple of weeks a few years ago in 2008.  The Hell that I had to go through after that is probably the main reason why I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, because the punishment drove me into bankruptcy, did away with my licence, and then sent me through to the Albany County Probation Department for a period of five lowly years.  I’m just about finished off with my probation, as I am somewhat of a changed man who stays away from alcohol and drugs these days, but not without the cravings and the longings that I often have for my previous life of living on the edge and living in the fast lane that so thrilled me when I was younger.

Albany is a peculiar type of place for me then.  There’s a bar on every block – almost as popular as the pubs in Ireland and Great Britain – and yet there are more AA meetings than there are bars in Albany, as I have unoffically observed.  Couple the ubiquitousness of the Albany bar with doing hard time at a desk in a room with no windows, and I would easily say that these cravings will never end the hardships that most writers face.  The writer’s life can be so boring and non-sensical that such a life requires a drink – not to produce better fiction at all – but to ease the mind after a couple of hours writing.  The alcohol or the drugs become a writer’s reward for suffering through some of the hardest conditions of writing possible, and so it doesn’t surprise me that many writers will use drugs and alcohol to relax, and when it gets really tough, the writer will begin to abuse these substances until he or she is on the brink of death.

Although I’m a fierce advocate for steering away completely from the proliferation of MFA programs and the formulas of writing that they create, I undertand the opposing view that such MFA programs and communities of sober writers usually end up saving a writer’s life.  The MFA program is not so much strict education than it is an instruction on how to survive as a writer – in large and wealthy institutions.  By opening up the colleges and universities to writers, many writers of today are able to survive with a small salary and perhaps health insurance if that’s what the college or university extends them.  Resoring to alcohol and drugs as a cure for loneliness and immense boredom will kill the writer off early, and so while I have been a fierce critic of MFA programs in the past, it is no surprise, through one’s middle age, that the writer discovers its most important function: to save a writer’s life from poverty, drink and drugs, the horribly dysfunctional marriages and families, and the other things that attach themselves to the writer’s life that lead to some strange kind of torture and even death.

I usually hang around local, city poets more than I ever will those in English departments all over the country, and even though the local poets and writers of Albany do take the initiative and form their own writerly communities, there is still the spark of life in MFA programs that guards one against the tulmult of facing such a life.  And when I talk to the local, city writers here in Albany, it’s not surprising that many of them greet the MFA programs with high disdain, because they figure that it is not poetry or writing that is created but instead a higher, elitist eschelon of writers who write mediocre prose and get away with lucrative publishing contracts that tend to dumb-down their audiences with sugar-coated material that no one in their right mind would benefit from – except, of course, MFA program graduates.

I guess the point that I am trying to make here is that it is much better to save a writer’s life through the MFA program and the adjunct teaching position than to write a spectacular poem or book that would otherwise shake this establishment of these elitist writers and lead to the writer’s own demise and destruction.  In other words, it is better to survive within MFA programs than to wind up on the street – drunk and alone and on the verge of death.  I believe that this is the underlying reason for the ploriferation of writing programs – to save each others’ lives, just so long as the tuitions are affordable.

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.