Sunday, November 01, 2009

Dreams With Sharp Teeth: Harlan Ellison

Last week I watched an excellent documentary about writer's writer Harlan Ellison titled Dreams With Sharp Teeth, directed by Erik Nelson. I found it exhilarating, exciting, and inspirational. One thing you can say about Ellison: he's energized, he's alive, he's never been seen among the typically conformist creative undead. Watching the documentary led me to some deep inner reflections about my own life and creative work. I found myself, not for the first time, mirrored in Harlan Ellison; not an exact reflection, but surprisingly a lot more things in common than I had realized. Here's the documentary's trailer:

There's a lot of additional content on the documentary's website, also called Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

Later that night, after watching the documentary, doing some household chores, making dinner, I wrote a lot in my journal. I was inspired in part by watching Harlan's boundless energy. I decided to leave this in stream-of-consciousness format, as it was written that way, with everything all jumbled together. It's not artless to write this way, nor does it show a lack of attention, or intention. It does all tumble out this way, at times. Most writers choose to make it Look Pretty, later. But in the spirit of Harlan Ellison, uncensored and unequivocal, here is what I wrote. Call it a response, call it a personal review, call it crap, I don't really care.

I never went out today. I am experiencing a full-blown relapse of the ulcerative colitis, and it’s kept me down all day today. I spent most of the day thinking, reading a little, writing a little, watching TV. Watching a documentary on Harlan Ellison, a very good one, full of great quotes I wish I could remember. I realize that he was bullied as a boy even worse than I was, and that seems to be one root of his perpetual anger at the world’s stupidity. I recognize something similar in myself. I also recognize that Harlan is almost always the smartest person in the room, and he long ago lost patience with that; one of the things that really ticks him off is when people do not live up to their full potential. I understand that impatience. Have I lived up to my own potential? I’m not sure that I can say that I have. I have certainly tried to, and struggled with it. I’ve felt held down and held back, the way the bullies used to hold me down when they were beating me up, my whole life, and I’ve certainly not had the career success of a Harlan Ellison. His anger does hold him back, too, in that he is incapable of even necessary compromise, personally or artistically, and so some projects that should have happened never have. And maybe never will. I can say the same. I can also say that only now, in my aging, do I feel like I am approaching my own height of creative ability, my own peak, and getting closer than ever before to my own potential. I still don’t know if I’ve ever lived up to it, or ever can. And I feel extremely frustrated by feeling held back: by stress, by family drama, by this annoying illness, by being surrounded by stupid people or at least people seemingly unable keep up with me, and by the sucking black hole of negative depression and ugliness that I feel surrounded by so much, these past few years. People seem almost willfully to reject their highest potentials, their biggest growths and evolutions, their highest goods. Yesterday I wrote another Spiral Dance essay, which ended up being titled from what inspired it, The Most Excellent Human Quality, as usual only realizing what it was when it approached completion, writing as usual for that group of essays writing at white heat; I am always so focused on the writing that I never think about it till it’s done, which is as it should be. It’s wrong to call the Spiral Dance essays a series, they’re not; they’re more like a class, or genus, a gathering of related species under one taxonomy. I wonder if I have been too passive in life, too outward and other-directed, not driven or ambitious enough. Probably that’s true. Probably I could have made more of myself, if I’d fought harder for it, been more ambitious, more debonair, more in-your-face; in other words, more like Harlan. I don’t know if that would have made a difference though, and I don’t know if that other person would have been me. Are all writers introverts? I don’t think they are, but I know I am. There are times I wonder about all of this, and it only makes me depressed and mad at my limitations, my own failings. So I can’t afford to think about it that much; or it will kill me. I may have been made to be a monk rather than a writer or an artist, and everything that I make creatively is for me, only for me, in my lifetime, with the world never caring about any of it. Which is a Victim whine, of course, which I am also bored with. So I spent some time this week sending out writing submissions to various publications. Most of those will no doubt disappear into the void. Harlan is one of those writers who quite rightly says, and lives by way of example, that what matters is not the person, but the creative legacy. I’ll probably never know if anyone cares about my creative legacy, when I’m dead. I’ll probably never have any fame or success as an artist. Many days, that’s more a cause for depression than ambition; which is one way I’m different than Ellison. Yet I’m getting better about what Ellison says a writer needs, that ability to not care if no one else in the room agrees with you, or agrees with you, or what they think of you: when you’re right about something, and you know it, you just have to speak up. You simply must. I’m getting better at realizing that rejection, even personal attack, tells me so much more about the person doing the attacking than about the work under attack. I’m perfectly clear that when I write in certain kinds of styles, some people think it must be a mistake—but let me be clear: if I put it out in that form, saying what it says, you can be sure I meant it, I meant every word of it, and I meant to present it exactly as intended. The limitation is with your expectations, your filters and ignorance, not my intentions. But then, you’ll never make a lot of friends by speaking the truth. Any sort of truth, not merely that sort of truth. Ellison lacks a self-censor on his mouth, it all just spills out; even he knows there are some things that he probably should have sat on. I’m not as bad as Ellison about letting it all hang out—but maybe I ought to be. Maybe I need to be less Norwegian Bachelor Farmer, and more Harlan Ellison Uncensored. So consider this a warning. The gloves are off, the candy jar is full, I’m dealing with a chronic illness that saps most of my physical energy leaving me frustrated and isolated and lonely, and furthermore saps all of the energy I usually put into being Nice, being Polite, being civil even when it’s pointless. My lack of strength right now makes me less patient with stupidity, less willing to sit on my mouth, and far less willing to let my valuable time be wasted by the claptrap of others. Do I offend you? If so, perhaps it’s overdue, and you needed to be offended anyway. The thing is, you can tell that everything that spills out of Harlan’s mouth is sincere and honest and well-crafted, even when spontaneous. He is THAT good a writer, that good a speaker. I do not subscribe to the critical theory of snark, in which invective is what the professor uses to humble the students till only the tough and non-dilettantes are left. Yet I do see the value, at times, of telling people the honest truth about their work, and their attitudes towards life. I’m actually a very good writer. I can write circles around many people. And Ellison is a far better writer than me. So are most of the writers he thinks are great writers. It’s not a hierarchy of talent, it’s a tier of inspirations. In a way, I missed out on having a living writer as a mentor, because no writing mentor ever felt strongly enough about my talent to threaten me physical harm if I did not dedicate myself to making art. I’ve had some great creative mentors in my life, but they were guides, not goads. They cajoled and inspired and enticed. I never had a goad, not like Ellison is often a goad, in the writers’ workshops he’s taught, in lecturing life, and elsewhere. I never had anybody care enough about my art to threaten to hurt me if I stopped doing it. I feel that as a loss, right now, when I am struggling to have enough energy to even stand upright all day long. I have to force myself to do it. I have to take action. I have to take responsibility for goading myself. I usually prefer to cajole. But now I’m angry, and I feel like being a goad, and being goaded myself. If someone who reads this tries to fulfill that need for me, having read this, it won’t mean anything, because they only made the threat after reading this, which makes it non-real. When I recognize that Ellison was almost always the smartest guy in the room, I’m admitting that has often been true for me, too—but that I didn’t respond to it the way Harlan did, by trying to raise everyone else up. Most of the time, I’ve just felt isolation and inward loneliness, and even though I refused to let myself be dragged down, I still didn’t try to goad everyone else up towards being their better selves. I realize my goading is sometimes disguised as cajoling, though. I know that sometimes I write something inspirational, but there’s a fist inside it, an “or else!” that they’d better hear, or they’re going to fail, and fail hard, and it won’t be anybody’s fault but their own. I can speak hard truths, and hard spiritual truths—I exchange this all the time with my closest friends—and still make people want to hear them. I can be blunt to the point of rudeness, if it’s called for. So I’m a little bit like Harlan that way. Perhaps I just don’t think I always see it, or accept it, or act on it—and I have a better self-censor on my mouth. Better, in the sense of not alienating so many people, of keeping to the social contract; but maybe not better for art, for my art, for their art, for anybody’s growth and survival as an artist. When I choose to write in this manner, it’s not really a choice, I’m necessarily just letting it all spill out, and letting it be what it is. I don’t care what anybody thinks about it, because it’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. My responsibility stops at my skin, my job is to better myself, to take care of myself, not to be Nice to others. (Minnesota Nice or otherwise.) At the moment, being nice is in direct conflict with my own survival, and I will not lie down and die, just to make everybody not hate me. Where do we learn to do that, anyway? At our mothers’ knees? In school, getting beat up every day by bullies? In church, being told to sit quietly and conform in thought to what we’re being told is true? (Especially when it’s not.) Where do we learn to just take it and lie down and die, just to make everybody love us? Of course, that’s not really love, that’s just a lack of disapproval, an absence of malice. Sometimes the bullies have no reason for why they want to beat you up, you didn’t make them do that, and not even your mother will understand. And that’s a major revelation in the frontier of self-awareness and the dawning light within. I’m more like Harlan Ellison than I ever realized, and at the moment, that makes me happy.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

I'm new to your blog, Art. A long way away here in Australia. I have been reading some of your comments,elsewhere most recently on 'Truth and Lies' about the business of child prodigies and I was so taken by your thoughts I moved over here to your blog.

Now reading this your long monologue, for want of a better word, I'm struck by the immensity of your struggle.

The notion when it comes to writers, that 'it's not a hierarchy of talent', rather 'a tier of inspiration', resonates for me.

I shall spend some time now exploring more of your blog.

11:38 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Welcome aboard, Elizabeth, and thanks very much for the comments, as well as for just dropping in.

Long monologue, that's it exactly. I don't really have a notion of what form I use, sometimes, but I try to let the form emerge from the content. I've been calling this sort of thing stream-of-consciousness—thinking of Virginia Wolff, etc.—but long monologue is a perfect label. Thanks! I'll probably use that as a label in future, if I may. It fits.

12:03 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think I'm going to hunt down that documentary, Art. Did you happen to find it at your library, or perhaps Netflix? Any suggestions would be welcome. As it happens, I recently saw a documentary on a writer who's similarly catalytic for me, Anne Lamott, and found it yet another new way to enjoy her viewpoints. You have to hand it to Harlan. I read only a few weeks ago about how, even at his advanced age, he's spearheading fundraising for his local library, which is threatened by massive budget cuts due to California's budget mess. What a mensch he is, and what an example for all of us.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I did a web search, and they do have it on Netflix. There are also some excerpts on YouTube, as well as on the website.

I watched it on Sundance Channel, where they usually broadcast things more than once.

5:33 PM  

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