It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.
I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.
Harlan Ellison has died.
I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.
“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”
In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.
The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.
I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.
In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.
A Chance Encounter
In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.
I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.
A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)
I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.
“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”
Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.
Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”
Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.
Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”
This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.
I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”
A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”
There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.
“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”
There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.
We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”
“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”
And he was gone.
I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.
Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.
Rest in Peace
I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.
I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.
And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.
I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.
Fifty thousand words in thirty days. A challenge to be sure. I hit 50,000 words on Day Twenty but continued for the rest of the month to complete a rough draft of the novel. That meant going back and filling in scenes I’d only made notes about and adding some back story to flesh out the characters.
Then, after thinking this was so far out of the cannon I’d established for these characters, I went back and bookended it with an opening scene and closing scene (let’s not call them prologues and epilogues) so that it could drop into the cannon I’d created.
The final word count: 73,956 words. (I always was an over-achiever.) The fun part will be in the editing to see if I add to that or cut mercilessly.
I got so much support from several online writer groups: Shenandoah Valley Wrimos (great in-person and online write-ins!), SWAG Writers, and NaNoWriMo Divas.
Of course, the rough draft only has a working title, A Future Stretching into Infinity, (yes, different from the one in the photo; I’ll make the change) and it’s yet to be determined if I can write romance. (Beta readers are going to let me know in January.) Overall, once again, I had great fun, with the writing, with the interaction with other writers, with the concept of plunking butt in chair before the computer and writing every single day.
Not to mention NaNoWriMo gives me a fresh, rough draft of a project to work on in the new year.
Am I glad it’s over? Yes.
Am I sad it’s over? Yes.
Will I do it again next year? Of course!
And a little P.S. here. For people who wonder why we do this or what comes of the drabble we write for those thirty days: We edit, we revise, and, on occasion, we start all over again and rewrite. What could possibly come of that, you ask? Consider this: I have two manuscripts, which began as NaNoWriMo rough drafts (one three years ago, one four years ago), now with a publisher, who is reviewing them. Look for some news (positive, I hope) on Wednesday afternoon.
Whenever I had to plan an event at work, e.g., a three-day training session for a few thousand supervisors and managers, I always treated it as if these were people coming to my house. The food and accommodations had to be top-notch, the content of the training well worth coming for, and the opportunities for networking plentiful.
Needless to say, for me that meant weeks of obsessing over the minutia, loss of sleep, and constant fretting that it wouldn’t be good enough. Back then, I had a staff and usually a contractor working on the event. All I had to say was, “I want this,” and it happened. Boy, was I spoiled.
Last year, when I accepted the nomination to be the first vice president of the Virginia Writers Club, I knew one of my duties would be to plan and execute the annual one-day symposium, Navigating Your Writing Life. I’d attended three of those events, I’d put on symposia for thousands (see above), so this should be easy-peasy.
It should have been.
I took on the role of 1st VEEP in early November last year and started cogitating on the kind of symposium I wanted to put on. My vision was big, huge; then, by the end of December I was sick with the flu. As in hospitalized twice and down for the count for a solid two months, woozy and confused for another couple of weeks, and lacking energy to do much of anything through the middle of March.
Two and a half months of key planning time gone by the wayside. I was already way behind the power curve, but when I had a dozen volunteers sign up to be on the symposium planning committee, I felt much better about the loss of time. This was going to be the best symposium ever!
Because we were so spread around the Commonwealth, I opted to use telephone conferencing to hash over most of the details. Before every telcon, I’d email an agenda, a list of tasks from the previous telcon, and an update on accomplishments–pretty standard stuff for me. The government paid for a lot of good management training for me, and why not put it to use?
Long story short, by the third telcon, the committee had dwindled from a dozen to three, including myself.
In the ensuing months, I’ve reflected on this. A lot. Obsessively. I’ve been seeking some fault in my behavior that made people drop out. (I’m the child of an alcoholic; others like me will understand that in addition to trying to make everything right, we’re also right up front to take the blame for anything.)
I’m an organized, focused person who has high expectations of myself, first, and people who work with me. Work being the operative word. It’s very, very, very, very different with volunteers. Though I stuck to my guiding management principle, which is basically do unto others, etc., it doesn’t always work with volunteers. Likely I forgot that people have lives and obligations and not the same level of enthusiasm and drive (i.e., obsession) I have when given a task to accomplish.
What this meant was three of us, and a fourth who came in toward the end, had to do everything: contact and manage presenters (and OMG, writers are such divas, self included), arrange catering, put together a schedule, design and have printed a conference booklet, do name tags, do tent cards, do… You get the picture. It’s a lot of work for a one-day conference, and we got it done.
But things can and did slip through the cracks. At 1030 on the morning before the conference, I realized no one had done an evaluation form. No big deal, you say. Really big deal because feedback is crucial. I ginned one up in about a half-hour, stopped by Staples on my way to the hotel, and, voila!, evaluation forms. (I’ve yet to read the completed ones. I’m waiting for a good time to have my image of success dashed.)
And it all went off perfectly! I had seen or anticipated so many opportunities for failure, but the buzz around the venue was good and positive, people stopped me on their way out the door to tell me how much they’d learned, I’m getting emails and Facebook posts that make my heart swell with pride, and, oh joy, I get to do this again next year!
(Psst! I can’t wait.)
At least nobody found out about the snake who decided navigating its writing life was something it needed to attend, albeit briefly.
(Note to self: Next year, assign someone to snake duty.)
Let’s face it, writers are masochists on some level. We create and submit our work, knowing the likelihood of its being accepted is minimal, but we keep doing it. The actual writing is the pleasure; the inevitable line of rejections before an acceptance comes along is the humiliation we endure for those fleeting moments of vindication.
And then we do it all over again.
Rejection is never easy, whether it’s by a potential lover or friend or an agent or editor. I’ve heard so many writer friends–not to mention myself–say, “I just sent a story to [insert name of literary magazine here]. I know I have a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least I’m submitting.”
Why, oh, why do we do that?
Because when you get the acceptance email or you check Submittable and see the “accepted” note, it’s the greatest feeling in the world–for a millisecond it’s better than seeing your children the first time, better than orgasm, better even than a paycheck. It’s affirmation, you see, that you really are a writer; you aren’t just a hack throwing words on the screen, and all your suffering is worth it.
A writer friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that writing her novel required more concentration, more focus, more work than anything she’d ever done. I responded that was what made it so painfully fun. Yes, at times writing is like constantly putting your tongue on a sore tooth, but when the pain goes away–ah, bliss. It’s why when I encounter a non-writer who says, “Oh, well, it’s not real work. You just make things up,” I usually respond with a smile and suggest he or she should give it a try. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time.” Well, good, I’m glad, because you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.
Writing has brought me some of my biggest disappointments, but it has also brought me some of my biggest joys. For years, I’d seen my non-fiction in print, so when my first fiction story was accepted by eFiction Magazine a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d have much of a personal response. When the issue with my story showed up on my Kindle, I had the most visceral reaction I’d ever experienced–and I used to be a flight instructor, so I’ve had gut-wrenching moments. There’s nothing quite like seeing your words on a page with your by-line, knowing it’s a story which is the progeny of your imagination, that you “just made it up.” Not only did you make it up, but someone else liked it. Others will read it, and because there is an internet, your story will out there forever. How’s that for immortality?
Now, excuse me. I have to go humiliate myself for some perverse pleasure.
If you have a writer on your holiday gift list and haven’t a clue what to give him or her, let me help you out.
We love books, even ones besides our own. The path to being a good writer begins with being a good reader. Writers read books within their own genre, but if you’re like me, your tastes are eclectic–I’ll read almost anything, even if all I take away from a book is, “I don’t want to write like that.”
We love journals because when we’re without a computer, we need something besides a cocktail napkin to capture an inspiration. Smart phones with their built-in recorders go a long way, but there’s nothing better than a sweet little notebook you can carry in a pocket or your purse.
We love pens, too, and not just to write in those journals (or cocktail napkins). We’re always looking for just the right pen to use for book signings so we can make a statement. I’m partial to fountain pens myself (with cartridges, not ink bottles; I’m far too much of a klutz for them).
We love reviews of our work. Good ones, of course, and even bad ones–IF they’re constructive. The new trend in giving books you’ve never read a bad review hits a writer where it hurts. We’re all pretty sensitive creatures anyway, and we know better than anyone words do hurt. So, if you can’t give the gift of constructive criticism, cross me off your list.
We love it when our friends and family give us space to write, when they put aside their demands on our time and don’t make us feel guilty about taking the time we need to write. I recently told someone the sexiest thing my ex ever said to me was, “I know your writing is important to you, so I’ll just go row around the lake for a couple of hours.” That was a gift whose significance missed me at the time. Now, when I have different interests conflicting for my time, I wish others were as understanding that sometimes I need to retreat to my room, wherever that is, and write.
We love it as well when family and friends, even perfect strangers, give us fodder for our fiction. Some people don’t understand why writers live for the family get-togethers others dread. Easy. We know we’ll come away with a half-dozen new ideas for stories and/or snippets of killer dialogue. So, thanks. Really.
There you have it. Some great suggestions for the writer in your life. Oh, wait. I missed one. A great gift for a writer is to just say to them, “I’m proud of what you do.”