I’ve been slowly, luxuriously, reading through Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-up Generation, a 1961 collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison, and it’s got me thinking…
Maybe we should all be (at least a little bit) more like Harlan Ellison in the approach to both our writing and our writing careers.
First, here’s the relevant section from the Foreword from the book, by Frank M. Robinson, that started me thinking about this…
[Being a writer] is an easy thing to say, and a very difficult thing to be. You have to have a certain talent to begin with, and then you have to develop it.
You develop it by first giving up your regular job because, as you quickly find out, serious writing is a full-time proposition and steady employment saps your strength and enthusiasm—so you take part-time jobs in bookstores, libraries, and beaneries, and you write in the early morning hours when the rest of the city is sound asleep (few people in the rest of the city have talents they want to develop).
You develop your talent by living on crackers and beans, by washing your own clothes and stringing them up on a wire in the john, by wearing the same shirt for a week and sleeping on your pants to give them a crease, and by living in a roach-ridden third-floor walk-up where there’s only one water tap and the water’s the same temperature come summer or winter—cold.
You develop that talent by writing like mad every free moment you have; by stealing away a few of those moments to read what’s been written by other people; by submitting material to every magazine you know of, even if they only pay in packets of birdseed, and by being thrown bodily out of publishers’ offices as well as agents’.
A lot of writers go through exactly this.
A few writers have the guts and stamina to claw their way up from the bottom and finally Make It.
All writers worth their salt (and despite what they go through) develop an empathy and a compassion for people and realize what so few outsiders do: that the characters you read about in fiction are not much different from the people you meet in Real Life, the acquaintances you make and the friends you love. It’s not so much the material you work with, it’s the view you take.
Ellison realizes this.
I know we’ve all heard advice like that before. I’ve offered versions of it myself here. This is something you commit to, that you give your life to, yes? But that story of deprivation in pursuit of a higher calling is a common one. Precious few authors just sort of materialize into some kind of successful career. Few have had a hand up by influential relatives or other contacts, and let’s set aside forever the “celebrity author” whose ghostwritten book rides in on the wave of a reality TV series or Instagram following. If you have that going for you… more power to you. But for the rest of us mortals who are actually writers, yeah, it’s writing while feeling as though you’re banging your head against an impenetrable wall.
But I want to add more to this idea of being more like Harlan Ellison. He didn’t just make a career happen for him by writing while everyone else was asleep. He wrote well. He was a master of the form. He could put together a sentence like no other. His stories were as meaningful as they are readable, and vice versa. He learned the craft of writing fiction, and took that part of the equation seriously. Let’s continue to learn to write well, and practice writing well, just like Harlan Ellison did.
Then, the other part of “the equation”:
I know he could be kind of an asshole, which is to say a total fucking asshole on more than one public occasion. He tended to lead with anger, a bitterness born of childhood trauma kept alive and in conflict through his own writing. He was a difficult guy who wrote difficult fiction and at no point could any of his work been the work of anyone else.
Harlan Ellison wrote, exclusively, Harlan Ellison stories. He didn’t just develop his own voice and hope an audience would find him, he infused his writing with his whole self, and his whole self with his writing. He wrote on his terms. Even when he took on paid gigs like screen- and teleplays he steadfastly remained himself, regardless of anything resembling a “school” or worse, a trend.
He was put in amongst a few other (mostly incredible) science fiction(ish) authors (like Ballard, Moorcock, et.al.) who became known as the New Wave, but I don’t think Harlan Ellison had any intention of founding or participating in any sort of school of writing. He bristled when people referred to him as a “science fiction author” and instead preferred the appellation “fantasist,” and even then, wrote whatever the hell he wanted to write, entirely on his own terms, regardless of what genre or category someone later put it in or took it out of.
This is how I think we should be trying to emulate Harlan Ellison.
I often work with authors at the very beginning of their careers, and sometimes we talk about the business of publishing in relation to what they wrote. How could this novel best be positioned, can we identify comp titles, what does it seem like agents and editors are looking for, and whatnot. I try to give the very best advice I can, always, but the best advice I give is on the craft of writing and storytelling. Again, as strange as a lot of Ellison’s short stories could get, there was always an attention to the craft at work. Words, punctuation, syntax all used with great care to make sometimes difficult subject matter come alive. In his best stories, Harlan Ellison the cantankerous personality disappears, and you’re immersed in the characters and the world they inhabit and the often terrible things that are happening to them, so it feels like those terrible things are happening to you. This is what all fiction should do—always.
So then how do we become more like Harlan Ellison?
Do we have to send a dead gopher to a publisher’s office, touch another author inappropriately at an awards ceremony, get in a fist fight with Frank Sinatra’s bodyguard…?
Of course not. That was Harlan Ellison’s life—his thing, his baggage he carried around all his life.
Be like Harlan Ellison in how he approached his own writing and that was that it was his own, and not the agent’s, the editor’s, the culture’s, the New Wave’s, the business’s, the… anything other than yours. This is your short story. Yournovel. Your characters. Your plot. Your theme. Your structure. Your voice. Not J.K. Rowling’s or Stephen King’s, or George R.R. Martin’s, as rich and famous as they all may be.
Let’s face it, everybody, the odds of achieving some massive financial windfall through publishing novels, even carefully crafted and “on trend” genre novels, are against us. The act of writing something worth reading, that carries with it some substance, and is a story that could only ever have been written by you and you alone, is entirely in your hands.
Just like, however hard he toiled or however he got a crease in his pants, Harlan Ellison’s writing could only have been written by Harlan Ellison and Harlan Ellison alone.
“After a while,” Ellison wrote in his own introduction to Gentleman Junkie, “I flashed on the simple truth that you canchange your life, if you make a sudden, violent commitment without stopping to rationalize why you shouldn’t.”
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