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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Litquake's Writers in Recovery: "All of My Artistic Heroes Were Addicts"

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 10:30 AM

"I'm clean ... and that means I'm probably going to be around for a lot longer," said Cary Tennis.
  • "I'm clean ... and that means I'm probably going to be around for a lot longer," said Cary Tennis.
A group of people filed into a large room. Seven of them got up in front of the crowd and told stories about their addictions and the terrible things they did. Most of the stories were true. Deeply confessional. Brutally personal. It should have felt like an AA meeting. It didn't.

"Re Write: An Evening of Prose from Writers in Recovery" presented some of the Bay Area's best known addicts to a Litquake crowd at Delancey Street Theater that already knew their names. Bucky Sinister, Alan Kaufman, Cary Tennis ... these are writers who have in one way or another made their struggles with addiction and rehabilitation central to their artistic lives.

They didn't invent the connection between art and insatiable appetites, of course. As event host and organizer Patrick Hughes noted: "Several hundred years of documented debauchery has left the indelible impression that the life of a writer requires us to be the first to arrive at every party, a witty raconteur, doused in champagne, and adept at finding the last crumb of drugs on the shag carpet." From Samuel Johnson to Dorothy Parker to Hunter S. Thompson, "writers seem to possess an insatiable need for extremism in all forms to counter their solitary existence."

Bucky Sinister put it another way: "All of my artistic heroes were addicts."

Perhaps that's why addiction is a debilitating personal affliction that has also become a cultural cliché. Twelve steps have become A Million Little Pieces, and the addiction memoir is part of a recognizable genre of literature that, through no fault of its own, now shares space with reality television in America's collective unconscious.

It shows: The breathtaking drama of a stranger opening up about the monsters that devour him loses a sense of urgency when it's a writer confessing what he's already confessed thousands of times before, often in trade paperback.

Writer, poet, comedian, and storyteller Bucky Sinister sees the lighter as well as heavier sides to addiction in his work and performance.
  • Writer, poet, comedian, and storyteller Bucky Sinister sees the lighter as well as heavier sides to addiction in his work and performance.
Last night became more like a symposium -- albeit in the best sense of the term -- on human frailty. It was less like the raw, jagged, confessional that we expect to come with stories of self-destruction.

A lesson emerged: Addiction is addiction, never mind to what. Wendy Merrill, author of Falling into Manholes: the Memoir of a Bad/Good Girl, admitted that her relationships went through the same stages as her alcoholism. Tim Elhajj, author of Dopefiend: A Father's Journey from Addiction to Redemption, suggested that the truly needy will kill themselves any way they can to find a home.

"It wasn't really the drugs," he admitted. "My big thing was anxiety and depression."

In Ali Liebegott's story, nothing and no one is left.
  • In Ali Liebegott's story, nothing and no one is left.
A pattern emerged. In story after story, the truly damned are those who have no people left to burn through. In this regard, community differentiates the levels of addiction. The gradual loss of it signifies how much damage the addict has done, and the return of it signifies mental health. Addiction afflicts the lonely, and it leaves them lonelier. At the point of no return, the addict is an island.

Alan Kaufman reads from his memoir, Drunken Angel.
  • Alan Kaufman reads from his memoir, Drunken Angel.
This is why Sinister says he is an atheist who strongly believes in the need for addicts to reach out and trust in their higher power. It's why Elhajj says learning how to be a father to his son was the key to finally kicking drugs and making it stick. It's why Ali Liebegott's fictional story of a homeless addict who was kicked off her corner was far and away the evening's most depressing -- because there were no people left. It's why Kaufman, in an astonishingly moving piece from his upcoming memoir Drunken Angel, could learn how to love again by getting a pet goldfish. Love, that most primitive of emotional connections, was the only one available to him since he was still too damaged to be good for people, or cats, or birds -- but having something to take care of that he didn't kill was a lifeline.

It's also why addicts tell their stories together when they want to recover.

Yet these were not those stories. Whatever the stories were ostensibly about, in this venue they were stories of people who have already recovered.

These are also all top-notch writers -- there wasn't a bad performer in the bunch. Some readings were "I need to go buy that book now" good: I'm a proud owner of Drunken Angel, and if Falling Into Manholes had been for sale I would have grabbed a copy.

But the award for best and worst moments of the night definitely went to Tennis. He read two pieces, one of which is a fictional exploration of taboos and perhaps the filthiest thing ever written in the English language: It begins with the narrator fucking a dog and then picks up steam. I've seen him read this in a different venue, and it killed. But here, sandwiched between tales of real downhill slides and lost years, even the part about Liza Minelli singing underneath a scrotum just didn't play. Ouch.

In the middle of his second piece, however, a moving excerpt from his collection of advice columns on creativity, Citizens of the Dream: Advice on Writing, Painting, Playing, Acting, and Being, Tennis interrupted himself.

"You know," he said, "for a cancer survivor, the word 'clean' has a very different connotation. Just yesterday I was in a really sterile doctor's office, and they told me I'm clean ... and that means I'm probably going to be around for a lot longer."

Suddenly we weren't at a literary reading anymore, and this wasn't a mass-market paperback. We were a community, bound by a member's struggle with our common mortality. We were the first to learn that Cary Tennis is not going to die of cancer.

It brought into stark relief the difference between the rehabilitation process and the rehabilitation genre. Rehab has life and death stakes -- rehab memoirs have editors.

Litquake continues through Saturday, Oct. 15.


Benjamin Wachs is the editor of, publishing a short story a day.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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