Take My Advice : Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two
Take Their Advice:
Camille Paglia *Wayne Koestenbaum *Jonathan Ames *Jennifer Belle *Howard Zinn *Joe Dallesandro *Bruce LaBruce *Dr. Laura Schlessinger *Tom Robbins *Judith Butler *Martha Nussbaum Horst *William S. Burroughs *Larry Niven *Veruschka *Lydia Lunch *Spalding Gray *Eileen Myles *Roger Scruton *Ken Kesey Mary Gaitskill *Richard Powers *Mark Dery *Florence King *Mark Simpson *Bob Shacochis *Joanna Scott *Quentin Crisp *Carolyn Chute *Michael Thomas Ford *Alexander Theroux *George Saunders *Charles Baxter *Ian Shoales *Fay Weldon *Bruce Benderson *Scott Russell Sanders *John Shirley *Dr. John Money *Cindy Sherman *Richard Meltzer *Gene Wolfe *Abbie Hoffman *Diane Wakowski *Richard Taylor *Bette Davis *Arthur Nersesian *Jim Harrison *Martha Gellhorn *Lucius Shepard *Dan Jenkins *Steve Stern *Murray Bookchin *John Zerzan *Maurice Vellekoop *Joel-Peter Witkin *Stewart Home *Maxx Ardman *Katharine Hepburn *Bret Lott *Lynda Barry *Alain de Botton *Mary McCarthy *Hakim Bey *Anita O'Day *Chris Kraus *R. U. Sirius *C. D. Payne W. V. Quine *Rita Dove *Robert Creeley *Valerie Martin *Paul Krassner *Alphonso Lingis *Mark Helprin *John Rechy *Ram Dass *William T. Vollmann *and Bettie Page.
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Simon & Schuster
August 31, 2007
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Excerpt from Take My Advice by James L. Harmon
"You'll take it and like it."
-- HUMPHREY BOGART, from The Maltese Falcon
"All artists are two-headed calves."
-- TRUMAN CAPOTE, from Conversations with Capote
Boy, did I ask for it.
It's not easy being an anachronism. What kind of freak in this day and age would sit down and solicit letters of advice? Well, I'm that freak -- and I've got a lot of explaining to do.
Take My Advice, the collection you are now holding, was intended to be published over a decade ago. I'm a lucky person, in that if I walk into a bookstore, my nose will lead me to the exact book I should read at the time. When I was twenty-one, that book was Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. For those burgeoning young adults unfamiliar with it, the book is a collection of ten silver-tongued letters written between 1902 and 1908 from the poet Rilke to Franz Kappus, who, like me, was a young, struggling artist seeking a bit of guidance in his world. Rilke was a truly sagacious cat -- and only twenty-seven at the time -- and he touched upon all of the concerns that were swirling through my head: love, doubt, fear, sex, and, especially, art.
While his words of counsel are timeless and the book pretty much became my bible, I was living in a different time. Nowadays, being an ultra-sensitive creature is more of an embarrassing curse than a blessing. What would Rilke say, in those years leading up to the twenty-first century, to an angry, cynical, ironic, black-clad, caf?-dwelling, cigarette-puffing, wannabe-artist poseur like me? I wanted to find out. And perhaps a contemporary version of the book could be of help to those kindred spirits of mine -- a book that would act as a direct line to those dilettantes hoping to segue into being serious artists, those outcasts, misfits, and black sheep.
To his successors I posed a genuinely sincere question: "If you could offer the young people of today one piece of advice, what would it be?" And while my query did open up a veritable can of worms -- the pros and cons of simply asking for and taking advice -- the response was overwhelmingly positive. I sold the idea in good faith to a publisher that it would be a fresh, illuminating collection of letters to the young artist just starting out. Then all hell broke loose.
I realized very early on the publisher and I did not share the same vision. I was sent list after list of so-called notables to include, and I couldn't stomach it. We're talking grade-B television stars, motivational speakers, phony politicians, cheesy talk-show hosts, and the like. You get the picture. I had to avoid Kathie Lee at all cost! And on the horizon, a toxic cloud of tepid-broth wisdom was mushrooming out of a certain series of books, blanketing chain stores the world over. In my small way, I wanted to combat this. What the publisher wanted was a warm, gooey book with the shelf life of a banana, the literary equivalent to "Up with People." And while Take My Advice might never reach the soupy sales of those books, I was damn sure it was going to be different. Being a discerning and critical-minded creature by nature, I ignored what I was told (a bit contradictory when compiling a book on taking advice) and went ahead soliciting those I truly did admire, most of them controversial: outspoken provocateurs, funky philosophers, cunning cultural critics, social gadflies, cyberpunks, raconteurs, radical academics, literary outlaws, and obscure but wildly talented poets. I then encountered what to me was beyond belief: censorship on the part of my publisher. Eventually, I went through three frustrated editors before finally pulling the book in a fit of exasperation. Take My Advice was going to be published my way or not at all (I'm a stubborn Aquarius). I threw the letters into public storage and threw myself into my twenties and didn't look back.
Yet the perspicacity of those missives had seared into my brain. Looking back, I took some of the advice to heart, ignored a lot of it, and learned a lot from the bitch goddess called "experience." Anyone who survives their twenties -- and I'm talking surviving well-meaning yet strung-out friends, menial and meaningless manual labor, roommates who are master thieves, unsolicited advice from parents on answering machines (skip), and lovers who repeatedly rip out your heart and stomp on it -- will realize the insight in Sartre's observation that "Hell is other people." Growing up a child of the '80s and '90s, I'd been accused of being too sneeringly negative, even misanthropic. I've just been blessed with a sharp bullshit detector.
When I hit the big 3-0, I realized I'd never attack any of my other creative endeavors if I allowed these letters to remain unpublished. Hundreds upon hundreds of talented people had sat down to put thought to paper with the hope of lifting the spirits of one despondent youth -- and perhaps others. I would be a complete ingrate not to share those thoughts.
I had the amazing luck of finding a new, progressive publisher with vision, one who understood exactly what I was going for. I also began writing people whom I felt might have something timely and original to say as we embarked on a new century. And this time I was more direct in my inquiry (just because you're over thirty doesn't mean you have all of the answers). As a young thirtynothing now, I wanted to pick the brains of those people I felt had truly seen it, done it, been there, and survived. These are people over thirty you can trust: Left over from my distracted twenties, my Dionysian traits were still outweighing the Apollonian (get Paglia!), my own feelings of shallowness (see Mark Simpson), my craving for the material (Lydia Lunch's "Consumer Revolt"), the gravitational pull I feel toward beauty ("If You Have to Be Beautiful" by Joe Dallesandro), and being a total loser amorously, I wanted a really smart chick to write on the subject of love (check out Judith Butler's "Doubting Love").
I now realize that when I began writing these letters, what I really wanted was assurance that I wasn't alone in the way I felt about the world and where we were headed. And, to be sure, this anthology would never have reached completion if not for the fact that I am a complete, hundred-percent freaky-boy obsessive. Chris Kraus's marvelous letter gave me solace.
The final piece of advice herein comes from the first artist who answered my query, actress Katharine Hepburn. She's nearing ninety-five. She mentions spirit. If you are young and starting out and are dreaming of becoming an artist of any sort, people will do their best to squelch, choke, and just plain break your spirit. Why people do this, I don't know. Now that I'm old enough, I feel it's appropriate to offer my own little bit of advice here: Believe in the gifts you've been given in this life and fight anyone to the death who attempts to douse that spirit.
And the only advice I take anymore? In the end, I still find myself going back to my dog-eared copy of Rilke: "Don't search for the answers. The point is to live everything. Live your questions now. Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers."