The best advice ever given to writers is also the simplest, and the man who gave that advice, Harlan Ellison, embodied that philosophy. Harlan died today, and I can’t get those two words out of my mind as I mourn one of my favorite writers of all time.
I mean, shit; Harlan’s gone? A world without Harlan Ellison? How can that be?
I am a writer, but I don’t write nearly enough. That’s one of the major symptoms of my mental health issues, not a moral failing, although my mental health issues insist that, yes, it is a moral failing. I do write, but most of it’s half-assed, Facebook and one-draft-only blog posts. Very little creative writing; very little pursuit of the stuff that goes on in my head and heart.
Harlan not only pursued the stuff in his head and heart, he ran it to ground and then wrote the shit out of it.
And he lived a life that backed up that writing.
When I was in high school, we had an optional assembly for students who wanted to hear a writer speak to us. No one at Billings Senior High School had ever heard of Harlan Ellison, but it was a chance to skip class, so a lot of us went. And Harlan, being Harlan, held little back. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but he did say “Shit” at one point which caused some of the more high-strung teenage moralists to walk out.
Which Harlan noted. As they walked out. He wasn’t the kind of person to let people’s fake morality get away without comment, even if those people were children.
That evening, he spoke at my dad’s college, Eastern Montana (now MSU-Billings, a much worse name). I did not attend – if only I’d had the necessary foresight – but among the crowd who did was someone who came with the intention of shooting, or shooting at, Harlan. Which he did; I believe it was a .22 rifle.
Now most normal human beings would say “Thanks for coming folks” as they ran off the stage and headed for the airport. Not Harlan. As the tough guys in movies say, Harlan lived in real life: “If you’re going to shoot at me, you better hit me.” He wasn’t hit, so he just stood there. Angry. Calling out the coward who, no surprise, was nowhere to be found
(Today, of course, that same coward would have had military-grade weaponry and possibly taken out much of the crowd. Freedoms!)
As I said, I wasn’t there. I remember this from the newspaper story and what I later heard. But I know I got the story right because, years later, at a book signing at Powell’s, I was able to share the story with Harlan, and he confirmed it.
Yes, I got to chat with Harlan Ellison about the time he came to my rinky-dink hometown and was the target of the world’s most pathetic would-be assassin. He loved the story, but here’s the kicker:
He’d forgotten all about it.
Me, I wasn’t even there and I recall it in detail. Harlan was the target, and the incident – this would have been 1973 or 74 – simply did not rank high enough in his life events to merit storage other than in the deepest parts of his memory banks. That should tell you all you need to know about the life this great writer lived.
This has been a horrible week in the life of this country. The regressive forces are gaining in power, and it’s clear that the world’s situation is only going to get more dire. The United States is not a conservative country, but that’s who has taken control. They are pounding down opposition through the courts and police, and the misery they are inflicting on millions just so a few of them can get filthy rich is heinous.
And now Harlan Ellison has died. Fuck this week.
We need someone of Harlan’s abilities, and his temperament, to chronicle this era. His time was the 60s and 70s primarily; read his books of television commentary or his other non-fiction writings. He could delve into the nature of society and politics with a brilliance few of his peers could match.
(Not to mention write the best episode of Star Trek ever.)
Harlan’s writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, was creative, smart, compassionate, and fearless. He was also special in that he rarely needed to edit his first drafts; that’s the kind of person I think Anne Lamott would consider as hostile and troublesome. (Which, of course, he was.) He was a writer, and he knew how to write. He didn’t need a routine or special setting; he would sit in the window of bookstores and write short stories – his fiction was almost entirely short stories – in a single draft, with people all about, watching him and talking and having absolutely no impact on his creative process.
He was his creative process. That was his secret.
We say “He’s gone” but the great artists never leave. Their bodies die, but no matter how much they cherished life, their bodies never mattered to them as much as their art. Harlan used his life for a single purpose: to write. Yes, he did all kinds of amazing things along the way, from running away as a kid to joining a New York street gang to loving wives, girlfriends, and his numerous friends to standing on a stage in Montana and yelling at some asshole who shot at him and missed.
All of that to feed his art. Some call that pretentious, but I call it Harlan. We wouldn’t have the great writings if he hadn’t lived such an oversized life.
And in case you were wondering, people loved him. For all his braggadocio (which, to be fair, was based in honesty and fact) and assholery, people loved him. From all I’ve read from his friends over the years, he was the best friend you could have. Here’s Stephen King and a few others offering their thoughts over at Deadline.
So Harlan is gone, and the world has a huge hole in its soul. Like Patton Oswalt said, I’m broken-hearted. The only reason this doesn’t feel as awful as the day John Lennon died is that Harlan got to live a full life; he was 84, so this isn’t a huge surprise. More like that terrible day you knew was going to come and begged the universe to delay as long as possible.
And maybe it’s fitting that he died so soon after Ursula LeGuin; two of the greatest American writers ever, peers and friends and, each in their way, unique gifts to the human race whom we’ll never replace.
But, as I said, today, more than ever, we need the kind of writing Harlan showed us is possible. We need that mix of creativity, intelligence, courage, and ruthlessness. We need writers who will write, and will do so without any regard for their own well-being. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. Harlan couldn’t help himself.
Now it’s up to us. I don’t think he wants tributes; I think he wants writers who’ll do exactly what he did: