Harlan Ellison Died In His Sleep…
I am sure that over the next few days you will hear good and bad things about Harlan, and a ton of Harlan stories, as people like to call them. I have my share as well. Not going to give you many. At least not here.
I considered Harlan a friend. Kris and I got to know him in 1987 when we started up Pulphouse and he was a friend and mentor to us for a lot of years. And I had read his writing for years before that, including The Glass Teat columns.
We were not in touch much the last decade because of distance, health, and other reasons, and I knew he was ailing, but still his death felt like his passing has left the world a bleaker place.
Over the years, Kris and I spent many a night in Ellison Wonderland. We always stayed with Harlan and Susan when in LA for just about anything. And the place really is a wonderland. Harlan hated that I could spot his secret rooms when I would ask him what was behind this or that wall. He couldn’t figure out how I could know until I told him I had a masters in Architecture and could see building shapes and voids.
After that I got to see his building plans for new additions, including the plans for Susan’s office wing, before they were built, and I even made a few suggestions he liked and used.
But right now I want to point out something most of you will not realize about Harlan and how he influenced me.
Harlan wrote some of the classic stories of his time, got more awards across more genres than almost any writer, and never lied to writers. He was a champion of writers, with his most famous three words being “Pay the Writer.”
He would be deadly blunt with writers at times, often making writers angry. He did not believe in patting someone on the head who didn’t deserve to be patted on the head.
So Harlan hated all the crap about rewriting and group writing and editing. He followed Heinlein’s Rules completely and even added a phrase to rule #3… Never Rewrite Unless to Editorial Suggestion. And then only if you agree.
Harlan hated making writing a fancy, special thing, so he started writing in public. He would write in the middle of a science fiction convention. And then after a time he would write sitting in bookstore windows to promote a new book or to help the bookstore through a tight time.
Someone would give him a phrase or title to start with and he would sit in the window, with people peering in through the window, and write a short story from the phrase. He would pull the sheet of paper off his manual typewriter when he finished a page and tape it to the window so those crowded around outside could read what he had written.
As he wrote it.
He wrote clean copy. First draft finished.
On a manual typewriter. In front of a crowd.
(Many of you just shivered because that hit you in the myth so hard.)
Harlen wrote many, many stories like that, maybe over a hundred by the time he finally stopped. At Pulphouse we were going to do a project called Ellison Under Glass. A three volume collection of all his stories he wrote like that in public. Many of them had won major awards before we even started the project.
But as many projects did with Harlan, it got sidetracked because he kept doing more stories in public and wanting to include them. Eventually we shut Pulphouse down never publishing the books and Harlan was still writing award-winning stories in public.
I learned from Harlan that it does a writer no good for me to tell them a lie or push some myth, to pat them on the head when they don’t deserve it. I am as honest as I can be with writers. And as many of you have discovered, brutally honest about some things.
For decades I have fought the stupidity of outlining, rewriting, and group writing through such things as workshops or beta readers. I find all of it head-shaking stupid.
I learned this from my mentor Harlan Ellison, even before I got lucky enough to meet him and even luckier to become a friend and get to know the true man.
Harlan was a normal human, with human failings. I won’t elevate him above that. And often his opinions were just flat wrong.
But when it came to writing, he told it like it was (in his opinion). He didn’t care if anyone knew he wrote the story in a bookstore window. He knew his work stood for itself.
Of course, he wrote those stories like that for many other reasons besides trying to make a point to writers who would never listen. He was a performer at heart, a carny, and a man in need of a reason to write a new story.
Yes, I said that. He was a normal human, with writer failings just like most of us. His audience, no matter his relationship with them, often forced him to write new work because he put himself in these positions of either failing in public or creating new work. And Harlan’s ego could not allow himself to fail in public. So he created the new work, with the adrenaline of the challenge of an audience watching pushing him forward.
I know that feeling well.
My challenges here (like thirty stories in thirty days or four novels in a month) are my way of writing in public to illustrate what Harlan illustrated for decades to those smart enough to see and learn. And they get me new stories and novels I would never have written otherwise.
I understand why Harlan wrote in public. And I use some of the main reasons in my own writing.
But one thing to keep clearly in mind. Harlan called bullshit on the rewriting myth. And he not only called bullshit, he showed clearly, in public, another way.
And some of us actually listened and have careers because of him.
Thanks, Harlan, for the career, the friendship, the leading by example, and being so damned blunt with writers.
And if Harlan could have read this, I am betting he would have shook his head and said to me with a smile (as he did a number of times), “Smith, your a putz.”
And I would agree, because we would both know that no one will listen.