A few months ago I had every reason to get mad, say nasty things and exhibit the kind of unwarranted, snide, rude, antagonistic behavior that is so common on the Internet. Every reason but one: to what extent is negative, obnoxious, offensive behavior going to make a difference? Will I feel any better after emitting caustic fumes? And even if I have a little snarky schadenfreud–pleasure at another’s discomfort–when my words hit their target, will it get me what I want?
When I was younger I became a fan of Harlan Ellison, a talented screen and science fiction writer who died recently. Ellison realized that part of “making it” in Hollywood is establishing a reputation, and defending it. To promote his books, he once sat in the window of a bookshop with a portable typewriter and composed a short story while passersby stared.
Ellison was notorious for saying bad things about Hollywood power brokers, and suing them when he felt wronged. He did this, he said repeatedly, because those who wrote were treated so badly and disrespectfully. This behavior was considered toxic in the entertainment industry, where the powerful stole or perverted a screenwriter’s work. Ellison did not change an industry that–with rare exceptions–cares little about screenwriters as originators, but he did win an out-of-court settlement after claiming that Cameron’s Terminator movies were stolen from an Outer Limits TV episode that Ellison wrote (Camerson said it didn’t, and that Cameron’s film was original to him, but, because Cameron was a “beginning” director, the studio made the payment to avoid trouble). Ellison also sued Paramount and won damages after Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry changed his time-traveling Star Trek script, The City on the Edge of Forever.
When he wasn’t writing screenplays, Ellison pounded out vivid, sensational, highly emotional genre fiction and won a shelf of awards (that he never failed to say reflect ironically on one of his first and, admittedly worst, screenplays, for the 1966 film The Oscar). He had his admirers in Hollywood. The comedian and actor Robin Williams financed a documentary about him, and clearly admired Harlan’s arrogant side.
Ellison was science fiction’s angry young (and, when he died at the age of 84) and old man. Impossible pain and boiling rage was a feature of many of his literary work. One of his Hugo award winning stories, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” is about a group of people who are being tortured to death, and then brought back to life, by an all powerful computer.
He experimented in prose styles and edited a Hugo-winning anthology series called Dangerous Visions, which purported to include science fiction and fantasy stories that were too controversial to publish. Reading it, I imagined that being as obnoxious (if not more so) was the way to success.
I was talked out of that by Keith Laumer, a science fiction writer to whom I was apprenticed for a while. Keith knew Ellison and told me that the story he gave to Ellison for Dangerous Visions was no more controversial than anything else he had written, and that anything worth writing was worth publishing.
Keith also claimed never to have seen a rejection slip.
Keith said that Ellison was a good writer who would be better if he spent less time promoting himself, and suing other people (which Keith astutely realized was another kind of self-promotion). Keith told me that the time you spend promoting yourself is time away from your writing.
Of course, I had to have a few novels published, and promote myself and my books, to understand that Keith was correct. But the snarky mouthed part of me that liked annoying people I didn’t like, envied Ellison. Even if he didn’t win a lawsuit, he had the satisfaction of saying terrible things in public about those he felt had done him wrong.
You’d think, as a journalist, that I turn my snarkiness into prize-winning articles that punish the corrupt, craven and vile people whose deeds are forever exposed on front pages everywhere. What held me in check was a moment when my father my father was the subject of media coverage. I watched him slowly losing his mind, as things that he did that he thought were honorable and decent were corrupted, not by anything he did, but by a judge who secretly demanded a bribe to let him off. My father had always had faith in the law as the savior of society and, most importantly, the common man. This judge destroyed my father’s faith.
My father did not pay the bribe. He was convicted, but, a few months later the judge was exposed. The judge went down, my father was exonerated, but his spirit was crushed, forever.
That lesson taught me what it was like to see things on those front pages that did not tell the full story. The fix had been in from the start and my father could not pull a Harlan Ellison and fire back at the judge. He had to hold back, keep as much negativity inside, and do his best to survive a fight he knew he was going to lose, all the while praying that the wheels of justice caught up with the judge.
His prayers were answered, but whatever zeal he had for the law died. He had something of a retirement career practicing bankruptcy law (one of his more destitute, but grateful clients paid him with the shirt off his back) but had to give that up when Alzheimers Disease eroded his brain.
I may have spread some small amount of anger, negative criticism and snark in these pages, but I like to think I’ve held back most of it, choosing to write about things that I believe are worth reading. It’s not that I lack things in my life that bring on the rage: I get three newspapers every day and can barely turn a page without and feeling angry about what isn’t happening, what should happen and, worst of all, what is going on with little regard for consequences.
So, a while ago, I could have boiled up with anger about a slight I had received. The slight may have been unintentional, but I felt badly about it. If I had blown off some caustic, Ellisonian bile, I would have made everything worse.
So I did my best to think about why I felt bad and what benefit feeling bad was giving me. I watched. I waited and–
To my surprise, things happened that not only made the slight go away, but reframed it, not as a slight (as I had assumed), but as a bump in the road to getting what I had hoped.
Henry Thoreau may not have been correct when he wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. We can, and do, despair, while we’re waiting for the good stuff to happen.
And then it happens and we look back on the anger and negativity that made despair seem so right, so reasonable. We see that it wasn’t. We learn, again (why is it that so many of life’s great lessons must be learned over and over again?) that few things happen quickly, and that how we behave when we are feeling bad and don’t know what to do, may have an effect on bringing the good things to us, in ways we cannot foresee.
I’m glad that Keith Laumer talked me out of my admiration for Harlan Ellison, and those like him, who feel that their lives are a battlefield and that all slights, disappointments or bumps in the road–must be answered with anger, insults and aggression.
I still have a long list of good things–things I deserve, things I worked for, things I paid for in toil and tears–that should happen,
Sometimes you need a bump in the road to remind you that there’s more to life than your personal satisfaction. Who you are between the good things, and bad, may be much more important than you know.