On This Day

Harlan Ellison Taught Me How to Be Interesting

In the 1990s I was watching a promo documentary about Babylon 5—likely playing out its 5th season on TNT at the time—and in it J. Michael Straczynski related the best piece of writing advice his friend Harlan Ellison ever gave him, which was something to the effect of “stop sucking.” This might be one of those fuzzy memories where the meaning I derived from it is more real than the actual quote, but it stuck with me. Harlan Ellison inspired a lot of writers and provided a gateway for many of us into New Wave science fiction. And he did it with a lot of personality.

Today is his 81st birthday, and I’m sending him this birthday card.

My favorite bona fide quote from Harlan Ellison, and one which I repeat to my writing students in New York all the time is this: “The trick isn’t becoming a writer. They trick is staying a writer.” I like this for a lot of reasons, but mostly I dig how much Harlan Ellison is constantly reminding the populace at large that writing is a job and it is a difficult one. I’ve been lucky enough to have chatted with Ellison a few times, and each time I’m reminded of something he said to me when I first met him, “Read this book, kid. It will clean up your zits, your writing and maybe get you laid.”

I’m not sure if I needed Ellison’s help in any of those departments, but the zit-clearing book in question was Troublemakers, which is a 2001 Ellison “greatest hits” collection. If The Essential Ellison is like the Red and Blue Best of the Beatles albums, then Troublemakers is like the Beatles 1 album; a shorter, more concise way to get into this seminal author. Other than the stories, the best part of this particular book are the individual introductions from Ellison. If you’re a true believer like me then you know that Ellison’s essays about his stories, and sometimes about other writers, are almost as good if not sometimes better than the stories themselves. Is this a problem? No! Because the experience of getting into Harlan Ellison doesn’t just involve reading his work, but an immersion in his total personality. Yes, some have dismissed Ellison’s outspoken behavior as “annoying” or “tedious,” but the supposed flaws of a person are part of what makes art exciting. And whether you’re a big fan like me or not, one has to admit Harlan Ellison is super interesting.

I have so many favorite Harlan Ellison stories that it’s almost impossible for me to pick just one, but for the sake of being strange, I’ll mention a wonderful story that is not contained in Troublemakers, but instead is in the pages of a collection called Slippage. The story is called “Go Toward the Light,” and in many ways represents to me the perfect blend of what Ellison is able to do with the genre of science fiction and his own personal brand of moral crankiness. Focusing on a small group of time travelers, the story presents a very basic conflict between the narrator and one of his co-workers. Both are ethnically Jewish, but the orthodox non-narrator character is giving the narrator a lot of grief for being a “bad Jew.” The narrator is sufficiently grouchy about this, as only an Ellison narrator can be.

This is nice because it reminds me of another hazy remembrance I have of Ellison speaking on the Sci-Fi Channel in which he described himself as a “card-carrying atheist.” The narrator of “Go Toward the Light,” is able to scientifically reconcile the mystery of how the famous Hanukkah oil was able to last longer than it should have. It’s from the future! The narrator brought it there! And yet, at the end of the story he doesn’t stand up for himself when the more orthodox guy continues to needle him. He keeps the knowledge to himself.

This to me is the essence of what makes Ellison interesting as a person and a writer. One doesn’t need to be heroic or even proven right, to be interesting. They simply need to be themselves, even if that means certain people get the wrong idea. The narrator of “Go Toward the Light,” is in many ways the reverse of what Ellison might have done in real life; I imagine if time travel had really created Hanukkah, Ellison would be the first to tell us. Which is why the story is so nice, because Harlan Ellison wrote the story, it’s kind of like it is real and he did tell us.

For many writers and artists like me, Harlan Ellison gave us permission to take chances in our writing, and to be brave in standing up for our own work. But most importantly, he is adamant that writing is a job and one we must be willing to work hard in order to do correctly. As he says in the introduction to the short story “Night Vigil”:

“DO THE DAMNED JOB. Just do it.”

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

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