As a child, I saw life as a simple road: One is born, matures to a tried and true purpose of practicality, pursues that purpose to its staid conclusion, and then bows out, taking satisfaction in knowing that the line has been toed, that the straight has remained narrow.
But life’s not a road. It’s an ocean.
A wide, tempestuous expanse of crests and troughs. Its topography changes on the moment—storms rage and batter, confounding our fumbling struggles to forecast and control. Now, if this is true for even the most unimaginative, the most menial of us, what then for those whose internal compasses deviate from the collinear norm?
Those life waters are fraught with mishap, darkness, uncertainty. We strive, falter, and founder, victim to spindrifts tailored perfectly to our fears and shortcomings. Ships of old relied upon the sweep of lighthouse beacons to bring them through the nightstorms, weathered but intact. We likewise look to the bright presences of those who have endured, who’ve erected stanchions against the tumult, who stand outstretched upon those pillars, waving on any who’ve lost their way to sweeter, greater tides that uplift but do not crush, that wash over but do not sweep away. By their deeds and convictions, such individuals prove that, with courage enough, and strength enough, we can all rise against chaos to the sight of horizons undreamed.
Some are born into this world, naturally out of rhythm with the common beat. A double-edged plight, this state can rear monstrosity from innocence…or greatness from tenacity. At casual glance, Harlan Ellison might have seemed a product of the first thought, but any closer view revealed the truth of the second.
I do not presume to have known him in any intimate fashion. Our paths crossed only a handful of times. But some personalities carry such fulgent intensity as to be impossible to ignore or dismiss, even with casual contact. Such was Harlan. Much more than simply outgoing or “the life of the party”, he was a cyclonic force, a dervish of talent, craft, ambition and brilliance. Intimidating, sure. Contentious, absolutely. Fallible, of course. He was as susceptible to his personal foibles as anyone. But, at the same time, his personal capacity for raw honesty, truth and even self-sacrificial integrity was second to none.
Let me repeat that: Second to none. There are good, virtuous, people in this world who are cast from molds identical to those who have gone before. They step up to keep aloft the standards raised by their predecessors. We need such people. We need their steadfast resistance to the world’s tendency to backpedal, so as not to undo what little forward progress has been made. But, every now and then, someone comes along who is so singular, so outside the bounds of how we typically perceive human nature, that we can only stand with open mouth and widened eye in witness to their alien perambulations and this is a wonder, a life-changing thing—to feel the thundering edge of a maelstrom invisible that can sweep one’s measure for heroism and righteous outrage to unprecedented levels. In this, Harlan was a paragon, though I doubt he would easily have suffered anyone to assert it. He lived as that most paradoxical of creatures: Someone who simply couldn’t help but be what he was, despite obvious, impending costs to life, limb and security.
“I am anti-entropy. My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket.”
I’d never heard him espouse any pat, rigorous formula for his personality. No assertion of deliberate trial and error to become some exacting, pinpoint template of this stance or that belief. Instead, he cut through the waters of his life’s ocean as Ahab cleaved the Pacific in his search for the white whale, owing to no one’s agenda for success but his own. So visceral was Harlan’s quest for excellence in his artistic labors that, just in discovering his colorful and multifarious anecdotes, I realized that I was not alone in my experiences of injustice and marginalization. I was not alone in the feeling of being rolled flat by the wheels of relentless avarice and improvident stupidity, perpetrated by the powers-that-be. So parallel and virile were my own trials that Harlan’s “quenchless feud seemed mine”.
“Writing is the hardest work in the world. I have been a bricklayer and a truck driver, and I tell you—as if you haven’t been told a million times, already—that writing is harder. Lonelier. And nobler and more enriching.”
Harlan Ellison was a writer. Not an author, a writer. I’ll take the blame for the distinction, as I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth. Many authors appear to enjoy easy success by sticking to well-trod avenues of output—the predictable urban fantasy mélange of melodramatic vampires, werewolves and Fae, the feels-strangely-familiar science fiction military novel, the latest offering in the Quest-to-stop-the-evil-Spirit-Lord-and-his-dragon-led-army-of-the-dead. The list may have the feel of something that goes on ad infinitum but swing by a bookstore sometime; a discerning eye can distinguish a disappointingly foreshortened trend. Authors enjoy dinner parties, prominent nationwide talk show engagements, recommendations in the Oprah Book Club and (best of all), embarrassingly lucrative publishing and movie deals.
“The ability to dream is all I have to give. That is my responsibility; that is my burden. And even I grow tired.”
Writers rarely see such lofty heights. Most writers are dray horses. They labor in miserable obscurity, struggle daily against the inertia of anonymity, and usually draw nowhere near the level of pecuniary returns they should be worth. Authors enjoy comparatively rapid dissemination of their efforts. Writers may struggle for years, even decades, to establish even a modest coterie of appreciation.
“The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.”
Harlan worked it, day and night. He seemed to go out of his way to debunk the public perception of writers sashaying with their muses atop ivory towers. For Harlan, it was trenchwork. To do the job, to do it well, one had to get down and dirty. Where other writers might have established a home workspace and declared it the only place in which they could work their magic, Harlan demonstrated, again and again and again, that true writers should be able to do the job anyplace. He was noted for writing in public locales, standout instances being storefront windows, such as the former southern California bookstores A Change of Hobbit and Dangerous Visions. He wrote on airplanes, on trains, and even in a hotel lobby, under a plastic tent. Now, at the head of this paragraph, I said that Harlan “worked it”. You might think I forgot to slip an article in there (Harlan worked at it…), but my wording was deliberate. Harlan wasn’t the sort to send off stories and then just sit back, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for the check to arrive. He was a living perpetual motion machine, always on the move, self-promoting, hustling. Lectures, readings, signings, voice-over engagements—Harlan’s energy was legendary. He proved, on a daily basis, that the writing of a piece is not the end. Even the acceptance and subsequent publication of that piece is not the end. No matter how elated he might have been over seeing his words in formal print, the spectre of “Gotta keep it goin’ ” always loomed for Harlan. He showed that the life of a writer was not just putting words on paper but also of giving life to one’s career by never resting on one’s laurels. By keeping on the move, staying abreast of the industry, trying new approaches, never being afraid to learn what you don’t already know, pushing your talent and skill to the bleeding limit…
It’s a lesson that a lot of would-be writers may never learn.
I once had a discussion with my significant other over the differences between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Comparing their styles of dance, I remarked that Kelly had a more athletic look—watch those muscles work as he and Jerry Mouse bring the heat on “The Worry Song” in 1945’s “Anchors Aweigh” and see if you disagree—while Astaire seemed to glide across the floor. I concluded that Astaire made it look easy. Kelly made it look hard. She didn’t concur, of course, but I’ve got a feeling overall public opinion’s on my side. Applicably, a lot of authors make it look easy: Plug Character A into Plot B. Mix with Complication C and you’ve got yourself a winning Young Adult novel.
Harlan made it look hard. Every. Time.
No matter how quickly he tossed off a story, no matter if you were right there in the room with him (I literally stood three feet from him as he wrote the sort-of sequel to “From A To Z In The Chocolate Alphabet” in the Dangerous Visions bookstore), the concentration, the powerful imagination, the very strength with which he attacked the typewriter keys, made none of what he accomplished seem casually attainable to even a seasoned writer.
For years, Stephen King struggled for recognition. But the arc of success was not a traditional one. Once the spark took, it fanned a wildfire of worldwide célèbre for him. While he would be the first to rightly claim that not everything he’s touched thereafter has turned instantly to gold, he has also recognized that the Sisyphean act of creation is no longer the thankless task it once was, in that long, long ago. By that criterion, he has vaulted cleanly over the No Man’s Land of the Writer, into the garden party estate of the Author. Certainly, this is not to demean him. But it does serve to illustrate fundamental differences between his working life and Harlan’s.
Even though, in the eyes of Hollywood, the iron might not have held the heat it once did, if Stephen King came up with an idea for a television series, a dependable measure of people still sat up and listened. By contrast, so many of Harlan’s efforts in Hollywood were met with crippling contention.
“When you’re all alone out there, on the end of the typewriter, with each new story a new appraisal by the world whether you can still get it up or not, arrogance and self-esteem and deep breathing are all you have. It often looks like egomania. I assure you it’s the bold coverup of the absolutely terrified.”
There seems to be an unspoken existential rule that, if someone is self-aware enough to realize their life’s calling, success will come. It’s just a matter of time.
In time, success came to Harlan in the form of numerous awards and accolades. 8½ Hugos. 4 Nebulas. 5 Bram Stokers. 2 Edgar Allan Poe awards. The list goes on. However he may have rubbed some people the wrong way, there was no denying the outstanding ability he brought to the table.
“There are certain injustices in this life you’ve got to do something about. You can’t just say that you can’t fight it, or it’s too much trouble, or that you don’t have the time or the effort, or that you can’t win.”
Harlan was forever running afoul of some societal impediment: Racial bigotry, resistance to Equal Rights, lack of fair pay for honest work, lack of industry recognition for one’s labors. His tilts at the windmills of mediocrity and mendacity for the sake of championing worthy causes could involve such attrition as to feel downright exhausting, even to the most casual of outside observers. But, even in losing a fight, he was a winner, because he made people care about issues that might otherwise have slipped by the public consciousness with the toxic fluidity of quicksilver.
And he was there, to do for others who lacked the means to do for themselves. He acknowledged talent but respected drive. And, when he discerned verisimilitude in one’s endeavors, his praise was genuine and profound.
“Possibly the only dismaying aspect of excellence is that it makes living in a world of mediocrity an ongoing prospect of living hell.”
For some, he was not the easiest person to know. In my experience, most people are non-confrontational. For them, it’s easier to just go with the flow, whether professionally or socially. Many believe that it’s better to just keep your head down and not make waves until you can say “I got mine!”, at which point, you can retire to Bermuda or Oahu, mojito in hand, and just watch the rest of the world wriggle its way up its own backside.
“I go to bed angry every night, I wake up angry every morning.”
Harlan would not, could not, abide sidelining. In a situation of wrongdoing, if he perceived that something needed to be said or that something needed to be done, he was there, to say those words or to do what was necessary to make things right.
He was supremely dedicated to his work, treating it as the holiest of chores, and, to my observation, never approached it with anything less than “clean hands and composure”.
“Art is not supposed to be easier! There are a lot of things in life that are supposed to be easier. Ridding the world of heart attacks, making the roads smoother, making old people more comfortable in the winter, but not Art. Art should always be tough. Art should demand something of you. Art should involve foot-pounds of energy being expended. It’s not supposed to be easier, and those who want it easier should not be artists. They should be out selling public relations copy.”
As I write this, it is 29 June 2018. On the 28th, less than an hour after hearing of his passing, I made the first fumbling attempts to get my thoughts down. I couldn’t do it. The words just wouldn’t come. I found myself as witless and emotionally fatigued as when I struggled to write the eulogy for my father’s funeral, so many long years ago.
The parallel struck me keenly, forced me to ruminate for a bit, sort some things out.
I tried to sleep on it but sleep wouldn’t come. Each time I began to drop off, Harlan’s face appeared in the dark at the foot of the bed.
Though I was awake all night, inspiration was not to be had. I think the problem was one of self-possession. Just as with my dad, I felt that, whatever I said, it had to make sense, it had to matter. Anyone can talk about “that time I met Harlan Ellison”, and I’m absolutely certain that many people out there have stories that completely dwarf my puny reminiscences. This had to come from someplace deeper than derma.
I was ashamed in the lack of even my meager narrative skill. I’m not the most talkative thing on two legs but I’ve always found satisfaction in written expression. Working in tandem, my mind and fingers are able to forge thoughts that my mouth seems ill-equipped to handle.
Harlan was not a surrogate father figure to me. It wasn’t like trying to reopen the door to that particular chamber of loss.
But he was an example of how high one could rise, even from humble beginnings. His dedication to the life he led was there for anyone to see, warts and all. And, in that fearlessness, he took on a greater aspect. More than simply a good man, he was willing, on a daily basis, to uphold the weight of his own human nature, carry it across his back as Atlas bore his own load. But, it was Harlan’s load and he didn’t apologize for it. And he bore the brunt of it. He didn’t try to force others to shoulder his weight and he didn’t throw a happy face sheet over it and claim it never hurt, never bent his back, never forced him to his knees and made him weary beyond telling.
That’s when it struck me. Throughout my childhood, via teachers, via church pastors, via my godparents, via random adults, I’d been taught to present myself to the world around me, to live and act and react only in certain ways, based entirely on who I appeared to be. I was expected to realize a stereotypical station and adhere to it. However dehumanizing this might be to anyone, it can be a spiritual death-knell to someone of less-than-advantageous origin.
Every day, Harlan demonstrated that being honest with oneself is the first step to being human. Let nothing annul the truth of you. Stand up, stand alone, stand naked. But take that weight, grow strong and be the person you should be. The person you need to be, despite all the chivvying, cozening, pain and fear the world has to offer.
My father, in his own, silent way, had shown me the same thing.
And then, it finally came. In a torrent, in a flood. And I’ve let the words tumble forth in the manner they have chosen. I hope that there is worth to be found in their assemblage.
I never wanted to meet and converse with Harlan from the standpoint of a fan. I wanted him to know just how seriously I regarded this deepwater existence we all know so well. I’ve always felt that more personal success in my own life might have lent more legitimacy to my position but…que sera sera…
Despite that, my every meeting with him was a delight. He was urbane, witty, non-stop and surprisingly gracious to my mumbling attempts at conversational engagement. A true gentleman — a true living legend — in every sense of the expression.
“Like a wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we were, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
I never got to be one of his inner circle of friends. Our orbits just didn’t intersect on that level. But he was my hero. He embodied all the best qualities that I’ve ever wanted to see in myself and others. He was that beacon, that weathered mariner standing atop an oceanic stanchion, beckoning to all others who were willing to fight, to give it all they had, to saner waters. He showed us all that courage matters, loyalty matters, fortitude matters, intelligence matters.
But, most of all, he showed us, in ways too numerous to list, that humanity matters. I would suppose, if he’d wanted to leave any thought behind, it might be that we should recognize the greatness in us all, and should foster our potential. Take the grander view and take care of each other. Whatever your potential, rise to it with grace, with dignity, with mule-headed stubbornness, if you have to, but rise!
At the moment, we’re all we’ve got. And the only way we’re going to know what lies beyond this moment, is if we’re around to see it pass.
Thank you, Harlan, for the good, the bad and everything in between. Most of all, thank you for being you.
We couldn’t have gotten here without you.
“For a brief time, I was here; and, for a brief time, I mattered.”
Harlan J. Ellison 1934 – 2018