I don't write many fan letters, which is a little odd, because I am a natural fanboy. I suppose it's because I spent so much time being ashamed of my enthusiasms and vaguely embarrassed about all the things I loved so much.
But a couple of years ago, I decided, the hell with that, and I wanted to tell some people how much their work meant to me.
So I wrote Harlan Ellison a letter.
Dear Mr. Ellison,
I was re-reading your collected essays in An Edge In My Voice, and even though you said not to, I wanted to drop you a line.
I was in college in Idaho when I first read The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. This was pre-Internet, just barely. (I was born one day and 37 years after you.) I stumbled along then, trying to figure out how to be a writer.
And your work gave me direction. Before I got my first job at a weekly paper, I read Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed during breaks at my desk as a substitute teacher. I found out that someone could be a writer and proud of it, and actually make a decent buck at it, and still say what he wanted to say. It was something of a revelation to me then. And it’s still an inspiration to me now.
I’m a published author now. My fifth book will be out from William Morrow early next year. I’ve also written screenplays and newspaper articles and I’m currently struggling through a pilot script, despite all your warnings about getting involved in TV. It’s nothing compared to your output. I’m still in awe of that.
But I would not be here now without what I learned by reading you. I didn’t have an MFA program. I had the University of Harlan Ellison. I am not sure how how well I’ve applied my lessons, but I keep coming back for reminders.
So thank you for teaching me by example. You made a big difference in my life, and I owe you for it. Thank you.
I never heard back from him. I never really expected to. He was always more busy writing books and screenplays and comics and short stories, and he'd recently suffered a stroke, which is probably why I felt some urgency about sending him the letter.
He lasted two more years, and wrote more books, and continued to inspire and enrage. I was not, unlike some of my friends, lucky enough to meet him in person. My friend Steve, who interviewed him several times, told me that he still expects to pick up the phone and hear Ellison yelling at him about the quotes he used.
But he meant a lot to me. And I owe him, even though we were never in the same room.
I picked up that copy of An Edge In My Voice again very early this morning when I could not sleep. I found this line, which I had marked:
"We live in a time in which cowardice is garbed in moral outrage.”
Despite his flaws, you can never say that Ellison was silent in the face of injustice. He used his talent to expose the lies he saw and reminded people what real outrage sounds like.
He reminds me that I need to be more courageous. To say what I mean. To write more, and write bravely, and fill the page. Just like he did.
We've all got stories to tell, and only so many days to write them.