How Harlan Ellison Influenced My Writing

Harlan Ellison in Boston
Photo by Pip R. Lagenta via Flickr

With Harlan Ellison's recent passing, I have to admit that...well, he's been on my mind a great deal. Not out of concern...just a group of unread ebooks on my phone. In fact, I was so bored recently that I found - and watched - the 2008 documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth to pass the time...

And now, I realize that Harlan Ellison's work has not only had a notable influence on my work but has also provided a great example of courageously expressing your values and opinions...even if it means facing criticism. In a time when "civility" is promoted as a community ideal, Ellison's I-don't-care attitude and blunt realism serve as both welcome examples and cautionary tales. Sometimes simultaneously.

Growing up, I knew about Harlan Ellison - after all, he wrote one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, as well as a really memorable Outer Limits episode. He even wrote the introductions to Pinnacle's first wave of Doctor Who paperbacks. I knew the name...but I didn't know the man or his other work.  But it wasn't until my first year of college - an abortive year at the University of Chicago - that I was formally introduced to his work by a woman I was quite...infatuated with.

That summer, I checked out The Essential Ellison from the West Lawn Branch of the Chicago Public Library...and read it cover to cover. That led to searches for well-worn paperbacks in thrift shops, with Ellison's work competing for my hard-earned dollars with Doc Savage paperbacks. Reading his work voraciously, I found myself not only enjoying his prose...but sought out other ephemera, like tracking down the episode he wrote for The Man From UNCLE or even catching adaptations of his work for The Twilight Zone such as  Shatterday or Paladin of the Lost Hour. 

I have always believed that great writing always looks easy to do...until you actually have to do it. Ellison's prose and essays had a sharp, incisive attitude. Yes, I heard all the storiesabout Ellison's difficult attitude (and to be honest, I share Harlan Ellison's predilection towards disruptive behavior and blunt honesty). And his later life was not without controversy...but there was something straightforwardly honest about the man.

West Lawn Branch - Chicago Public Library by Gordon Dymowski

Photo by Gordon Dymowski

Harlan Ellison called it as he saw it...and realized that he might be wrong. He stood his ground and spoke his truth. He also called for social change where it was needed, but more importantly, he actually lived his principles. (He often mentored new writers, including Octavia E. Butler). And one of my favorite Ellison quotes has not only served as a personal mantra but has greater resonance in our time of "civility" -

"We are not entitled to our opinions; we are entitled to our INFORMED opinions. Without research, without background, without understanding, it’s nothing. It’s just bibble-babble. It’s like a fart in a wind tunnel, folks."

It's that willingness to be honest, to see writing as much as an art as a craft, to see where the piece leads has not only influenced my blogging for Chicago Now but also my fiction writing  and "writer's commentaries" on my short stories and essays.  It's that total dedication to pure honesty and integrity in writing that has not only influenced me but has also helped me appreciate Harlan Ellison's work even more.  I could quote several other writers who claim that Harlan Ellison is one of the greatest writers who ever lived...but I would rather let you seek out his work and enjoy it for yourself.

Ironically, for a man who led such a tumultuous life, Harlan Ellison passed away peacefully in his sleep. Somehow, I wish he would have gone down fighting...but I won't complain.

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