The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, April 23, 2007

A little more on Harlan

The following went out to my mailing list today:

Last Thursday night I was at the Writer’s Guild theater in Beverly Hills, watching a documentary on the life and work of one of my favorite writers and human beings, Harlan Ellison. Some hate him, some love him—I’m in the latter category, and have been for thirty years. A man of awe-inspiring levels of energy and creativity, his output includes thousands of stories, articles, teleplays, essays, and some of the most rabble-rousing public speaking you’ve ever seen.
He’s quite an experience.
I remember two friends of his, Leo and Dianne Dillon (fabulous artists who create as if they are one single mind) talking about the phenomenal creative stream this man can generate. I believe they were doing something called the “Chocolate Alphabet” where Harlan created twenty-six short short stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, one after another in rapid succession. They were simply stunned at the speed and clarity of his work, even after years of knowing him. He just churned it out.
Maybe you’ve heard of him sitting in bookstore windows doing pretty much the same thing: producing high-caliber stories under the kind of stress that would reduce most writers to catatonia. That’s because, in Harlan, what Steven King refers to as the “Boys in the Basement,” the subconscious demons of the creative process, are in full swing. Far more than almost anyone I’ve ever met, Harlan will, in writing or conversation, say whatever damnedfool thing comes to mind. Because he’s brilliant (or is he brilliant in part as a consequent of this?) much of what bubbles out is great stuff, informed by a lifetime of exploration and experience, and a level of literacy that would shame a librarian with OCD.
It is my belief that his genius is not God-given, that it is a result of a lifetime lived on an emotional edge, combined with a level of commitment and focus that most of us would never embrace. In my mind, anyone willing to give 100% of themselves to the craft, the work, can touch this same place of genius. Of course, there are consequences: his outbursts, antics, insults, lost jobs and long lists of enemies are legend. There is definitely a little kid in there, and that kid isn’t filtered very strongly. It just bursts out, often inappropriately. But this isn’t different from the genius-level creativity. By his own admission, if he’d been able to filter it, he would have achieved a higher level of financial success (but don’t mourne for Harlan: he lives quite, quite well.) But he literally can’t stop it.
But you can delve deeper into yourself without taking such high-wire risks. The idea is to become more and more like a human laser. For your beliefs, values, emotional charges and actions to all operate in a straight line, nothing fighting anything else. I don’t know anyone who is all the way there, but those who even approach it have hugely more energy and productivity, and report back an absurd level of life satisfaction. Now…combine this with balanced goals, and you have a person who can perform at high levels in their chosen field without disrupting family or community, or tearing their health apart.
The question of whether madness and genius must forever dance together was debated before I was born, and will continue to engage philosophers and psychologists after I am dust. My comment: Madness is coloring outside the lines. Genius is being able to harness this tendency to some specific intent. Success comes from convincing others that what you have accomplished is worth their energy and attention.
Someone asked me if there wasn't a double standard applied here: Harlan used the word "nigger" at the screening, and no one demanded his head. Well, I can' t speak for others, but I certainly didn't. Nor did I demand Imus' head. I just commented on how the upset was understandable. In fact, I specifically said I didn't think he was a racist, and that he'd been caught in the culture war. With Harlan, I KNOW he's not a racist: by his words and actions over thirty years of actually knowing the man. He marched with Dr. King in Selma. He paid Octavia Butler's way to Clarion, and nominated her for the McArthur Genius Grant. He's been my friend and verbal sparring partner and advisor for three decades. So when he used that word, I knew EXACTLY what he meant by it, and that's the whole difference. Words don't mean things. People mean things, and they use words to express them. Without context, there is no communication. Ladies, when your boyfriend says "sweetheart" it means one thing. If a groping boss says it, it means something totally different. While I didn't call for Imus' firing, I grasp why it happened (and in fact, if Harlan had said something similar, in a similar context, I might defend him, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if he got fired.)
There is one last thing to think about in the Imus affair: throughout American history, haven't black men been more severely punished for insulting (or even interacting with!) white women than were white men? Doesn't this history of lynching and beatings suggest that, psychologically, people react more strongly when someone OUTSIDE their group does something than if someone INSIDE the group does it? Unless one was to suggest that whites are somehow freakish, is it terribly surprising when black people act the same way? My thought is that this is actually rather self-evident and obvious, but it doesn't serve those with the privilege to notice they've got it...however much they might complain when a fragment of it is taken away. And the vast majority of those who couldn't understand why Imus was pilloried were...wait for it...white heterosexual Christian males, the same group that gets the privilege and is fascinatingly oblivious to it. In other words, they noticed the pain when it finally touched them. THAT was the purpose of the Imus firing. Not to specifically punish that poor idiot, but to draw a line saying "you don't get to decide how far you can step over this." Is it fair? Hell no! It is no less fair than human culture has been, on this issue, when the shoe was on the other foot. Don't point the finger if you don't know your own history.
Or as Sho 'Nuf (the Shogun of Harlem) said: "Stings a little, don't it?"
I can’t help it. I just can’t. I should, but I can’t. Last week I got the student evaluations back from the L.A. Screenwriter’s Expo. I taught three different classes: Plot, Deep Characterization, and Science Fiction. My classes were crowded to bursting (I was listed as a “Star Speaker”) but you never know whether people really get what you’re saying. Well, just for giggles, here’s a sampling of the comments:
“This man rocks! One of the best workshops I’ve been to in 12 years…should be available on DVD”
“Fantastic depth of knowledge”
“Taught with great passion…great class”
“Best of the seminars.”
“Easily one of the best of the best…”
And my personal favorite: “This gentleman is a genius—pure and simple.”
Frankly, I am neither pure nor simple, but I appreciate the thought.
At any rate, if writing is your goal, I’d strongly suggest you pick up a copy of my LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG set. It’s the core of everything I teach, applied specifically to writing. End of ad.

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