Sunday, January 13, 2019

Harlan Ellison Ruined My life

On June 28, 2018 we lost one of the true giants of speculative fiction, Harlan Ellison. What follows here is an essay that I have long been attempting to write — even before Harlan’s passing.

* * * *

I started writing professionally in 1981 (for the comicbook publication, Amazing Heroes); in ’83 I met the publisher of Video Gaming Illustrated, and he hired me to first write reviews for the publication, and later to become part of the editorial staff.

At some point between those two events (late ’82 or early ’83) I happened to have met Harlan. It was at a comicbook convention in New York City. Harlan was on the floor of the con expounding on something or other to a gaggle of thoroughly entranced fans. These fans were completely taken with the fact that someone as legendary as Harlan was talking to them (after all, he had written City on the Edge of Forever — for STTOS — as well as edited the two Dangerous Visions)

These kids (ha, “kids” they were probably my age or younger) were all “Mr. Ellison…” “Mr. Ellison…” and Harlan was thrilled with the attention and happy to indulge them. Being all of 27 or 28 and having published a couple of articles, as well as working as an assistant editor for Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal, I was totally full of myself and so I walked right up to Harlan and addressed him.

“Harlan,” I said (somehow thinking myself on par with him). “My name is Bob Sodaro, and I just want you to know that you saved my life.”

“Of course I did.” He responded. “How?”

“You wrote [In Dangerous Visions] that a writer writes, and that if he can’t write, he should go out and work with his hands ‘til he can write, and then come back and show everyone that he can. Well I’m currently working with my hands at Remington Arms, and, like you, I also write for Gary (Groth; publisher of TCJ). What you said, (“A writer writes”) was so important to me that I wrote it down and taped it to my typewriter to remind myself.”

It was at this point that Harlan smiled and said, “That’s great, someday, when you get to my place you can have taped to your typewriter what I have tapped to mine.”

And all of a sudden — like the kids he was entertaining a moment ago — I too am a fan, and eager to know what this great bit of wisdom that Ellison has tapped to his typewriter.

“What?” I breathlessly asked.

“I’m a writer and I don’t have to take shit from anyone.”

It was at that very moment (even though I didn’t realize it for years to come) that Harlan Ellison ruined my life.

You see, what I heard was that — as a writer — I too didn’t have to take shit from anyone.

To be sure, I did, in fact, go home, type that line up, and tape it to my typewriter. And for years (and years) that followed, I totally bought into the mantra that I was a writer and didn’t have to take shit from anyone.

As I aged and maneuvered through the rest of my life, in the back of my head, whenever I was getting static from those around me, I remembered Harlan’s words, and conducted myself accordingly. Needless to say, the mere arrogance of living life like that most assuredly got me into (and perhaps even out of) numerous incidents.

Now I realize that I have not (and perhaps never will) achieve the mastery of Ellison, but I still believe that what he told me applies to not only me, but to all writers, as in an interview I read (in TCJ of all places) with Bill Gaines — the former publisher of EC Comics, and then publisher of Mad Magazine — stated that  writers were everything, and without writers we’d have…roller derby.

Further, I recalled something that Robert A. Heinlein (one of my favorite authors) said, that a writer writes, and gets his writing published. Over the years, I’ve written numerous ad spots, thousands of articles, contributed to dozens of books, and penned a number of short stories, as well as a play or two.

As a postscript to the above, I did once get the opportunity to interview Harlan, for Amazing Heroes (#44 April 1984) where we discussed his upcoming story in Daredevil #208, entitled The Deadliest Night in My Life, which was illustrated by David Mazzuchelli. A story which has been hailed as “One of the Best Daredevil Stories Ever [written]”

So, again, while I’m freely willing to admit that I’m not (and probably never will be) “Harlan Ellison Great” for better or worse, I am a writer, and I do believe that I have a way with words.