Creative Nonfiction

The Ink that Binds: Creative Writing and Addiction

What is to give light must endure burning.


INES SHERYL ST. GERMAIN has published five poetry books and two memoirs, the most recent of which is Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century and, with Sarah Shotland, Words Without Walls: Writers on Violence, Addiction and Incarceration. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chatham Universit

I’VE TAUGHT CREATIVE WRITING in universities for about thirty years. For the last twelve of those, I’ve directed an MFA program and paid close attention to what other MFA programs are doing. In addition to constant worry about graduates finding jobs in a bleak economic climate, I also worry that some of our programs have fallen into a kind of elitism, focusing on mentorship that overemphasizes publication and self-promotion, and that ignores the world we live in outside of academia. Too few programs, I believe, make service to the community a central tenet of students’ MFA work, and some even devalue the use of writing for the purpose of healing or creating community. I offer this essay as a call for another way.

IN THE “REAL” WORLD, deaths from substance abuse and suicides have risen to alarming levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids increased 200 percent from 2000 to 2014. More than 33,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2015. And in 2016, the New York Times reported, “suicide in the United States … surged to the highest levels in nearly thirty years.”

The creative arts have been shown to have a positive effect in harm reduction for addiction as well as for the kinds of depression and hopelessness that sometimes lead to suicide. Why, then, shouldn’t creative writing programs show some leadership in shaping programs that target at-risk communities?

In 2009, writer Sarah Shotland and I co-founded Words Without Walls, a creative partnership between the Chatham University MFA program, the Allegheny County Jail, the State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh, and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility for mothers and their children.

For the last eight years, Chatham MFA students, alums, and faculty have taught creative writing courses at these facilities, and nationally recognized writers whose work addresses substance abuse or incarceration—Jimmy Santiago Baca,

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