Memos From Purgatory

The internet tells me that Harlan Ellison is telling the internet that he’s dying, and i’m kind of fucked up about that.

Ellison is one of my favorite authors of all time. He’s certainly my favorite short story writer. But more than that, i owe Harlan Ellison for three things.

My initial exposure to Ellison was a mixed bag of informed respect (i knew that he was the writer of my favorite Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever”), uninformed adulation (he was also the writer behind The Starlost, a series that i loved despite its general horridness; that probably needs a post all on its own at some point), and outright contempt when i read in Starlog in about 1979 how he thought Star Wars was dreck. I, too young to know better at the time, took this as a sign that despite my informed respect for him, the man was not to be trusted, not to be read, and was most likely suffering from a brain tumor that would end his miserable life any minute. (Yes, i was one of those sorts of Star Wars fans…)

As a result, i avoided Ellison’s speculative fiction through most of my high school years, knowing of him by reputation but dismissing him as one of those science-fiction writers who took things more seriously than i liked (cf. my attitude toward Star Wars; see above). But then a few years later, i was trawling through a used bookstore looking for something to read in advance of a nine-hour Greyhound bus trip i was about to embark on. (My parents were separated and lived that far apart, so i took a lot of nine-hour Greyhound bus trips.) And i happened upon a copy of an Ellison book i’d never seen before. A book i’d never heard of before — Memos from Purgatory.

I flipped through it quickly; i read the back cover. It was a memoir, it said, of the time Ellison spent in a teenage street gang and in jail, neither of which were things i was aware were part of Ellison’s resume. Something about the cover (this was the paperback edition with art by Barclay Shaw) and its image of a sparrow being gutted by a switchblade caught my eye. So i bought the book, thinking that as long as it wasn’t Ellison’s SF i was reading, my ad hoc ban was still covered.

As i read it on that bus trip, Memos from Purgatory carved out matching holes in my head, my gut, and my heart with a rusted ice-cream scoop.

Up to that point in my life, it wasn’t like i was reading crap. As were many SF fans of my generation, i was a devotee of the holy trinity of Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. I worshiped at the altar of Herbert and Niven and the younger demigods. I had dabbled in Tolkien and Conan Doyle. I’d started in on Shakespeare on my own in 8th grade. I wasn’t a literary savant or anything, but for an awkward teenager growing up in a town of 2,000 people, i was doing okay. But in that one particular moment of my life, reading through the endless dark of a northern BC highway, nothing prepared me for the emotional honesty that Ellison dished up in that slim volume. The straight up, no holds barred surgical precision with which he could lay down words on the page to create a voice and build a narrative was like something i’d never seen before.

Up to that point, i had always idly thought that i might like to be a writer someday.

From that point on, i knew that i was going to be a writer someday.

I owe Harlan Ellison for three things. That’s number one.

I read a lot of Ellison after that, and quickly. I generally avoided talking about how i’d avoided his work initially, and about our Star Wars spat. (This got a whole hell of a lot easier some years later, after Return of the Jedi came out…) Then a few years later than that, in 1992, Ellison was in Vancouver to do a kind of free-form presentation/lecture. A couple of weeks before, i did a phone interview with him for the alt-weekly i worked for at the time. I wrote a profile. I went to the gig, which was great, and then got to meet him oh-so-briefly at the end of the show. He shook my hand; we talked for a bit. He told me he loved the profile i’d written, which remains pretty much the only thing from my short semi-journalistic phase that stands out as something like real writing.

Then Harlan Ellison told me he thought i had talent.

In the years since, i’ve read similar anecdotes from other writers who’ve met Harlan, so i suspect in retrospect that it might just be a thing he says to writers, knowing from personal experience how much those words can mean coming from someone with his reputation, someone we respect. And i don’t give a shit about any of that, because Harlan Ellison told me he thought I had talent.

That’s number two.

A few years after that, i tripped across the following quotation in a screenwriting book whose name i can’t remember anymore. I should know but can’t recall offhand its original source, even as i know it better than that as the words that wrap around my office, set in 2-inch high Corona Typewriter letters in a kind of rough wash of white where the black of the walls meets the ceiling.

Don’t be afraid.

That simple; don’t let them scare you.

There’s nothing they can do to you. If they kick you out of films, do TV. If they kick you out of TV, write novels. If they won’t buy your novels, sell short stories.

A writer always writes. That’s what he’s for.

And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off  at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place. And if they close off all the bazaars, then by God go and work with your hands till you can write, because the talent is always there.

But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done.

Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.

Despite my own best instincts, i’m one of those people who spends a fair bit of time afraid. Writing is a process of constantly setting yourself up to be judged, and let’s just say i have issues with that sort of thing. But from where i sit at my desk, when i’m dealing with idiot editors (as a writer) or idiot writers (as an editor) or agents or publishers or producers or bank managers or any one or another of the endless indignities that are the writer’s lot in life, i can look up and straight ahead, and i can see the words “Don’t be afraid. That simple…” And it is that simple.

That’s number three.

I’ve read the interview with Harlan where he talks about dying, and it’s short enough on detail that i want to think he’s just taking one last shot at proving the aptness of what’s always been my favorite Ellison title: “All the Lies that Are My Life”. His attitude in the interview is positive and upbeat about where he is and what he’s accomplished, and i want to believe that’s all good.

But when it comes down to it, i’d like a chance to owe Harlan Ellison a few more things. And i’d like a few more years and a lot more Ellison books as a hedge against being able to make that happen.