Why I Love Henry Miller

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten...

Henry Miller, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1940 Jan. 22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t claim that I had always wanted to be a writer. I didn’t. My first passion was theatre. When I was five my school had a play. It was only the fifth and sixth graders that were allowed to perform. I don’t remember the play itself, and I don’t think our school ever had another theatre performance, but as I sat cross-legged on the floor of the elementary cafeteria, squeezed shoulder to tiny shoulder with my fellow schoolmates, my heart jumped. My neck stretched as far as it could so I  could watch the older children act on the stage. I remember in particular a curly dark-haired girl. Up until I was in my early 20’s I could recall her name, but that part of my memory is gone now. I want to call her Michelle. What I do remember is that she lived on the opposite side of a looped street. I lived on the outer edge of this street, but would often cut through the backyard of a neighbor’s house in order to reach it. My friend and I would walk this loop often wishing we could play with these older girls, these actresses, because their families were much more refined than ours. They still had fathers, and those father’s built tree houses and spent time with their children. This was something completely foreign to us. They were also pleasant young ladies who spoke with soft voices and never screamed or hit their siblings or friends. This dark-haired girl, “Michelle”, lived beside a blonde haired girl, that I want to call Tami. Tami’s father had built her a playhouse with a blue door and yellow curtains. The house was on the front lawn, and my friend and I would secretly watch Tami and Michelle play house. Sometimes, I would stand alone and stare at the tiny playhouse with envy. I desperately wanted to play there. I wanted to have a little house like Tami’s more than I wanted to go into her real home and have food at a table where the adults didn’t yell or get drunk. My memory of Michelle in the play is limited. I see her moving her mouth, and walking across the stage. She looks like Linda Ronstadt, a very young Linda Ronstadt. That’s all that my memory gives me, but I fixated on that one moment. It was the first time I ever felt an urge from my gut force itself into my brain. The first time I felt that there was something inside of me that was bigger than me, and it wanted to get out. I couldn’t believe someone could actually stand on a stage in front of all of us and pretend to be someone else. I wanted to do that. I needed to do that. How could I do that? Would it bring me a soft-spoken elegant friend, and a dollhouse that I could live in? I had to do it. No matter how shy and awkward I was because Michelle told me to do it; right there on the stage in that single moment. My childhood and young adult life was obsessed with acting. At one time I referred to the theatre as my temple. It was a religion for me. I would often cry when I stood on an empty stage because I felt something. A purity of potential . I felt like Judy Garland from a Star is Born when I stood in the wings and looked up at the raw lights hanging from the lighting grids and above the catwalk . It was my calling. Then I let it go.

II.

I wont get into my fall from theatre or how I moved to writing, mainly because I’m not too certain, other than I guess it stemmed from fear and insecurity. My interest in writing may be about control and hiding, but once a storyteller always a storyteller, even if you never sell your stories. I believe writers, actors, dancers and musicians are the shamans of our societies. It is hard to tell now-a-days with the desire to be famous and to sell only entertainment where the shaman fits in, but there is always the need to tell the story of the human condition. No matter how saturated the world is with the lure of shallow fame and the entertainment killing machine that has pervaded every corner of art and creative expression, the shamans are still driven to speak. Though I’ve abandoned my first calling it still speaks perhaps that is why I still cling to the form of telling stories.

Writing, when I first played with it outside of journaling didn’t move me the same way as acting. I’d write, but it didn’t feel good, not the way acting did. I felt compelled to write, but why and who’d want to read it? Performance had so much to do with the processes of acting it was the end result, but I could write something and never produce it or share it. When I thought about writing the passion was there, but when I sat down it was a struggle. I wanted to be a writer, but I couldn’t be a writer. I felt that writing was for the intellectual, and the educated. I had dropped out of college only doing well in my theatre classes, and felt I had failed in theatre too. I saw my first real writing opportunity after coming back from auditions for graduate school, which was a joke because although I did get one offer, I wasn’t really going to graduate. My G.P.A was under 3.0 and I needed a math class. I lied. Said I was graduating. So, I went to the huge auditions, but with only one offer I walked away defeated knowing that the truth would come out if I accepted, and it wasn’t my school of choice. What now? Since I was five I had dreamed and planned of being and actor and working on the stage now I felt I had nothing. It was in this feeling of failure that I saw an ad to write a short story to get into a screenwriting school. In a rare burst of writing I wrote a short story in a night and sent it off. I made it to the semi-finals. It was encouraging, but I knew little about writing, and my grammar and structure was terrible. It was back to the intellectual’s world. The world I did not belong to. No acting, no writing.

I read a lot as a child, but stopped as an adolescent. I sleep-walked my way through high school, and did my best to keep my head down and not be noticed. I felt that I had graduated with barely any literature in my back pocket. The books that I remember from this time, books that moved me and still to this day hold me tight are Black Boy by Richard Wright and A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. In college I read plays, but three books changed my life I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou, and Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road. Maya Angelou like Richard Wright taught me that children from poverty and abuse could rise up and become writers and fly. Their stories could be told and needed to be told. (Years later Dorothy Allison would teach me that poor white kids from trailer trash could rise too, but that was after Henry Miller.)  On the Road gave me the desire to take all the components of my past and throw them in the garbage and take off and be free, but nothing said I could be a writer. They were not me and I was not them. What could I possibly say? My life had tragedy but not enough. I wasn’t creating a new way of writing. My life felt boring, stifled and uninteresting. Who would care what I had to say? How could I write about the thing inside me that I felt was too big for my skin? The unnamable thing that thought the world was beautiful and wanted to stop in the middle of the street and turn to the people around me and yell, “Look! Look! Isn’t this all so beautiful, are we not lucky? It’s precious so precious we should take care, we should be reverent,” but never did. I was not allowed to write it was meant for other people.

Then Came Henry

Then came Henry Miller. I was staying in a hostel in Scotland. I had spent all of my money on a week’s accommodations and week’s worth of food. I couldn’t find work since I didn’t have a visa, and I had no way of attaining any money. I wasn’t able to go out because I was broke, and by my fourth day I had visited every museum (they are free there) had walked every inch of Edinburgh, and was hired as a maid, and quickly fired. It was my first and only job I had ever been fired from. I had three days left till I was going to be on the streets of Edinburgh, and had no idea what to do and nothing to do. A girl that I shared my room with empathized with my situation, but all she had to offer me was a book. It was Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. I had heard of Henry Miller. An ex-boyfriend of mine had read one of the Tropics, but advised me against reading it saying that it was too crass and offensive and that I probably wouldn’t like it. I had avoided this writer in the past, but now I had nothing else to do but read and only this book to read. As I read through the pages I found that I was not able to put the book down. In Scotland on the very fringe of my homelessness a narrator was calling for the world to climb to the mountain tops and show themselves bare and raw. To piss and shit and be human. He took all of my fear away and all I was left with at that moment was the desire to live and to shout about it. “You can write like this?” I said out load to no one in particular. I was in awe. I didn’t know a person was allowed to write like Henry Miller wrote. In that room in Edinburgh that I shared with four other people I was given permission to be a writer. In fact I was dared to be a writer. That unnameable that pressed against my skin aching to get out was there on the pages of Miller’s book. He spoked differently and his stories were unique to him and his time period, but the passion and the ache and the frustration and the fire was the same. Henry Miller told me I could be a writer. But often I forget.

III.

It’s been a rough patch of writing block. Going to my desk to write is like asking me to sit bare assed on hot coals. I feel isolated from the other writers I know. I feel uncool, and uninteresting compared to my contemporaries, and the young up and coming writers that are so near to me that I could touch their shoulders. I have a book I could try to publish. I’ve worked for years on it, got professional help on it, but can’t bring myself to finish off the final touches and shop it around. Who besides those who love me will want to read it? Who will publish something because my mom and friends will read it?  I often feel that writing is not for me, but I keep stumbling back to it because I don’t know what else to do. My unnameable spirit feels small, like I’m giving up writing like I gave up acting, and frustration turns to depression. All this writing business is talk, nothing but talk.

I picked up an anthology recently. Into the Heart of Henry Miller at One Hundred edited by Frederick Turner. In the introduction Turner writes about Miller at the age of 38, just arrived in Paris, unpublished, unknown, broke, alone, and begging for the city of Paris to tell him how to be a writer. Henry often elaborated on his life as a writer when giving interviews. He gave readers the impression that through and through to his very soul he was a writer, and he always knew he would be published and he often blurred out the years and years he struggled to just sit down and write. Turner writes:

“Yet the Henry Miller who regarded his stint in Paris as the opportunity of a lifetime really had little more idea of what becoming a writer might mean than the Henry Miller who some years earlier had hauled a giant mahogany table from his father’s tailor shop to the house he shared with his first wife Beatrice and installed it smack in the middle of the living room. That had been an almost desperate statement of his literary ambitions, but when it came to composing at the table, Miller had found himself to be a stammerer with nothing worth articulating.”

It was the words, desperate statement of literary ambitions, and a stammerer with nothing worth articulating, that reminded me of me. How many desperate statements of literary ambition had I attempted? Too many to count. It was easier to count the number of times I felt like I was really writing than the number of times I felt like a stammerer with nothing worth articulating. If Henry finally stopped stammering and articulated and found his literary worth could I? Can I?

I read the excerpt from Tropic of Capricorn, the same book I read twelve years ago in the tiny hostel in Scotland. I had forgotten the details of the book similar to how I had forgotten the name of the dark curly-haired girl and the action on the stage of my very first viewing of a play.  As I read this excerpt about the narrator’s childhood, I felt like I was reading a story, and good story, but I couldn’t remember what it was that Henry had first done to me those twelve years ago that made me exclaim, “you can do that?” I’d read many books since then, many amazing books, and this excerpt was good and interesting but I didn’t see where I got the “permission” to write. Then it happened. On the last page of the excerpt. He seamlessly transitions from recalling a childhood, and the events of a certain summer into his cause. Into what he really wanted to say. Into the unnamable inside him that can’t help but articulate onto the page. To tell us about “the wonder and mystery of life—which is throttled in us as we become responsible members of society” because he can’t help it. You can say that, write that? Yes you can.

From Tropic of Capricorn

“I want to take as my guide Oberon the nightrider who under the spread of his black wings, eliminates both the beauty and the horror of the past; I want to flee toward a perpetual dawn with a swiftness and relentlessness that leaves no room for remorse, regret, or repentance. I want to outstrip the inventive man who is a curse to the earth in order to stand once again before an impassable deep which not even the strongest wings will enable me to traverse. Even if I must become a wild and natural park inhabited only by idle dreamers I must not stop to rest here in the ordered fatuity of responsible adult life. I must do this in remembrance of the life of a child who was strangled and stifled by the mutual consent of those who had surrendered. Everything which the fathers and mothers created I disown. I am going back to a world even smaller than the old Hellenic world, going back to a world which I can always touch with outstretched arms, the world of what I know and see and recognize from moment to moment. Any other world id meaningless to me, and alien and hostile. In retraversing the first bright world which I knew as a child I wish not to rest there but to muscle back to a still brighter world from which I must have escaped. What this world is like I do no know, nor am I even sure that I will find it, but it is my world and nothing else intrigues me.”

And this is why I love Henry Miller.

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