I know some time has already passed since his death, but I still wanted to say a few things about him. I wasn’t a reader during my childhood, much to the despair of my mother. I didn’t think I liked reading very much, mostly because the literature I’d been exposed to was aimed at a simple sort of elementary education instead of pure storytelling. And that’s what I thought writing was for a long time. My only real experience of the written word was in the context of education and, therefore, I had no interest in it.
The few books I read by the time I got to high school that I did enjoy were still subsumed under the umbrella of school-related activities. Although interesting, I still had this lingering feeling that they were stilted and somewhat contrived. This feeling persisted until my sophomore year of high school. Until then, I thought I had my future decided for me, and that future had very few written words in it. But, one class in during that year changed everything. It was a creative writing class. That, coupled with another immensely interesting class called Best Sellers, which strived to explore what made best selling books as popular as they are, couldn’t have had a larger effect on me and my relationship with books.
Through these classes, I discovered a love for creative storytelling in all its forms. Fantasy and sci-fi rank high on my list of favorite genres. Part way through the semester, already full of reading Dan Brown and A Million Little Pieces, my dad and I had a long conversation about the joys of reading. I could tell, at the end of the talk that he was very excited for me and very quickly recommended a book for me, a book that would further push my expectations of what writing is and could be.
That book was I Have No Mouth And Must Scream. He had an old copy from years ago that he lent me, the pages dark from handling. From the very first page, I was so invested in those stories, I scarcely put it down until I’d read the whole thing. Though its page count isn’t substantial, the stories contained in this book lit a fire in me I didn’t know was there. I didn’t know someone could write stories like that: stories that could be so exciting and strange and exploratory and raw.
This one book helped start a literary journey through many many different types of storytelling. I bought as many of Harlan Ellison’s collections as I could find, as well as began searching for writers of his ilk. This soon led me to a plethora of other great writers, not all sci-fi or fantasy.
Harlan Ellison was far from a perfect person or a perfect writer. Same as everyone. What he has given me, though, is priceless. Thinking about his writing makes me want to write. Not to write like him, but to write better than him, however unquantifiable that is. Thinking back to I Have No Mouth, I am greeted by the same feeling time and time again, that of excitement for the written word and expressing thoughts in the form of story.
How Ellison seemed to let his stories tell themselves gave his writing a feverish tumultuousness that very much appealed to my teenage sensibilities and became the basis on which I would model my writing for several years afterwards. Letting a story grow into what it needs to be is a skill. Knowing how to cultivate that comes with practice and patience.
The writing of Harlan Ellison was one of the most important stepping-stones for my journey as a writer and lover of words.
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