On the DVD of the 2000 film, “Requiem for a Dream,” the great actress Ellen Burstyn has a conversation with the book’s author (and co-screenwriter) Hubert Selby Jr. He wrote the novel in the 1970s. It’s an unflinching dive into the hell of addiction, rendered with timeless pathos by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Selby tells Ms. Burstyn that he works consciously to get out of the way:
“The ego has to go. I don’t have the right to put me, the ego, between the people in the story and the reader. They should have an interrelationship and experience each other. Because, if you really want to teach, you have to do it emotionally. The intellect can get a whole bunch of information, but it doesn’t turn it into wisdom. And it’s wisdom that we need if we’re going to save our souls and this bloody thing! We need wisdom.”
He also tells her that it took him a year to write one twenty-page story, and after he was done, he went to bed for about two weeks. For him, this is what it took to go beyond telling a story, to put the reader through an emotional experience.
I have these two chamber musician friends who are just so pleasant and positive and great to be around. I thought they were delightful because they are in their element, happy living the creative life, in their prime. Surrounded by beauty and collaboration and discovery with other artists.
Now I think it has as much to do with this ego-checking as anything. Or ego-fluidity. To see and hear them play, you are directly connected to the music. They literally bring it alive through their bodies: mind, heart, torso, arms, hands, fingers. But you don’t focus on them; you feel the music and its tones. Its color. They don’t get between you and the pure emotional experience.
In the new film, “Genius,” about the great editor Maxwell Perkins of Scrivener’s, he tells Tom Wolfe that the editor should be in the background, unseen. He had equal genius to his authors, who included Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but his ego was a servant rather than a master. In a way, his role was to pull the words of these artists through that gate of ego, to get to the heart of the story.
My question is always, where’s the shortcut? If the ego is more pliant, or more compliant, does the writing or the painting or the music-making go easier or more smoothly? It doesn’t quite work that way, which seems to be a necessary part of creation.
Marie Howe told an interviewer about her experience writing the great poem, “Annunciation.” Acting on a suggestion (one might say a dare) from her longtime friend, poet Stanley Kunitz, she made several attempts and threw them away. She gave up. Her will (ego) finally exhausted, another voice came through. And that’s how the poem feels. Like a visitation. It’s an anthem to the Great Mystery, as well as a doorway into it.
This struggle, then, is less the labor pains of a birth and more a wrestling with something far greater than us. Rilke nails this in his poem, “The Man Watching:”
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
He likens the struggle to wrestling with angels, saying:
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
The ego keeps trying to control it, which only makes it puny and trite and insignificant.
The kind of storytelling that cultivates the heart and emotions bends to this insight: true wisdom comes not from intellect but from feeling. This is the kind of storytelling most needed now. Selby speaks of it as compassion, which is exactly the experience I had with his characters in “Requiem for a Dream.” I felt deeply connected to them, even the strung-out heroin addicts. I understood their choices, even as I wished for them to make different ones. The magic of his storytelling is so immersive, I felt their entrapment acutely. I couldn’t see any other way, either.
I sometimes fantasize about skipping all the struggle and resistance of the creative process and going straight to the giving-over part. It does seem to be a package deal, though. The will is a sentinel with the job of preparing you to cross the threshold. Entry is barred until you are sufficiently humbled. You must appreciate your limitations and give up the need for control and certainty. And choose to resist no longer.
When the thing finally does come through, you recognize it for the miracle that it is.