Danger and Delight Grow on One Stalk:
The Day I Met Harlan Ellison

by Julia Duncan

Anybody can become a writer, but the trick is to stay a writer.
- Harlan Ellison

If you are never scared, embarrassed, or hurt, it means you never take chances.
- Julia Soul

In January 1998, I applied to a writer's workshop called Odyssey - six summer weeks in the New Hampshire hills - no kids/house/job/car/money distractions, just writing science fiction and fantasy. And being critiqued by, among others, the authors James Morrow (Only Begotten Daughter) and John Crowley (Little, Big).

Friends and teachers had been urging me to try such a workshop for years, but I never considered it feasible. There were the kids/house/job/car/money issues to worry about, plus the genre stories I write lean toward the literary and experimental, while workshops of the Odyssey type are heavy on mechanics and producing popular fiction. I never would have applied to Odyssey had it not been for one man: Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison is best known for his thousands of stories in the above-mentioned genres, and he's written a ton of good stuff in other genres. Most of his writing goes elegantly for your throat. He's won a bootful of prizes, the admiration, envy, and venom of his peers, and a reputation that's larger than larger than life. As a teacher, he is known - among those interested in such things - to be somewhat unrestrained. Quite a few years ago, for example, he took a student's manuscript outside and set it on fire.

A fellow applicant to Odyssey asked a mutual friend - bestselling science-fiction author and teacher Roger MacBride Allen - what he thought it would be like to study with Harlan. "Fine," he answered. "Unless Harlan decides he doesn't like you. That would be bad."

I had read Harlan's essay in which he admits to telling an elderly man, face to face in a roomful of people, that his fiction was "unredeemable amateurish bullshit" and would never ever get any better.

I knew the story about the man - now an extremely successful writer - who cold-called Harlan and asked why he couldn't sell his work. Harlan said, without having read a word of it, "Because it's crap."

So when I saw his name on the flyer for Odyssey, I knew I had to go.

A few months before, an editor had encouraged me to apply to grad school if that was what I wanted to do, and he cautioned me to study with someone whose writing I love. Tough advice: most of the authors I loved are dead or don't teach or are otherwise inaccessible (see kids/house/job/etc. issues above). But also sound advice, I thought: deep admiration for the work of the teacher(s) can only enhance the experience. I have made it a point to read at least one work by every writing teacher I've worked with, and I've found that it is not always true that the more or less I like a writer's work, the more or less value they offer me as a teacher. Still, sound advice if you plan on sinking a lump of cash and years of effort into a graduate degree program.

No easy solution existed for me, no obtainable revered guide. So I had been moaning and groaning to pals and editors at a convention, frustrated over the writing problem, when boom - Harlan Ellison, teaching for the first time in ten years, in godforsaken Manchester, New Hampshire, for a week in the middle of the six-week workshop.

I admired the hell out of Harlan's fiction. Some of his stories have stuck with me for going on thirty years. I also agreed with him on a lot of issues he has addressed in his caustic, uninhibited nonfiction - which implied that I would agree with his critiquing as well. That seemed to qualify him as someone I loved. My opportunity was at hand. The idea scared the shit out of me.

I also knew Harlan Ellison to be an honest man. I do not mean to promise that he will always tell you the truth. But he will always tell you exactly what he thinks and feels - that kind of an honest man. Even if it hurts you, even if it flays you, even if he loves you, he will tell you his flat-out, no-holds-barred, ugly-if-it-is truth.

I knew that if I went to New Hampshire and this brilliant and honest writer told me my work was crap, I would believe him. That scared me. And, again, I knew I had to know. I told my critiquing group that Harlan, at worst, would be the writing patch - as fellow student Steven Prete put it, Prose-zac. If Harlan could convince me I had no talent and should stop wasting time writing, I would have time to clean my house and play with my car. My friends and colleagues challenged me, and I admitted it was a joke. I'm a constitutional writer; that is, even if Harlan flushed my manuscripts down a toilet, I wouldn't be able to stop writing, to hell with the house and the car. My obligation would not die, just my hope - what little of that there was in my writing life at the time. Some days, if Prose-zac existed, I would have popped it like M&Ms.

Earlier in the day that I first saw the flyer for Odyssey, I sat in on a panel discussion nominally about the "courage to create." Two well-known authors and a prize-winning editor, three men whose work I respect, agreed that it takes less courage to create than it does to seek publication. An artist has to keep trying in the face of rejection, struggling to improve while bearing the pain involved. "Writing is a crucible," Dan Simmons said, "and you just have to go through it." Continuing to write and submit stories in the face of constant "no" is much harder than not doing it, and it takes nerve to stick it out. Creating is the easier part.

I wondered, later, how much hotter the crucible could get. Most of my frustration of the moment came from the seeming impossibility of seeing a novel in print. To have worked hard, to be convinced of at least some talent, to have - after producing half a million words of fiction - finally written a book I felt passionate about, without more than a glimmer of success, was bad enough. Did I really want to leave my family five hundred miles behind for six weeks just to be screamed at by a raving genius who, odds would seem to have it, would make confetti out of my stories? Did I have that much courage?

I writhed about for a time, twisting the question in my mind, but the truth is that I knew I had to go two seconds after I saw his name. "Once in a lifetime" ran through my head, followed by "be careful what you wish for."

"Once in a lifetime" won. I applied, got in, and rearranged the lives of my family to go encounter Harlan Ellison.

I had been having chest pain - it turned out to be acid reflux, and it had been developing for about ten weeks. I ignored it until it got pretty bad. I didn't think it was my heart, but it was getting worse by the day, after three weeks away from home, and hurt like hell. Nothing I did improved the situation at all, except for not eating very much. Intermittently, my chest burned at the slightest exertion - walking at a normal pace up a gentle slope or climbing a flight of stairs.

The day Harlan arrived, a walk from the dorm to the classroom about an hour after lunch had set off the pain, and for the first time, it did not subside with rest. I sat in the back of the room, on one of several upholstered chairs, and tried to breathe through the pain, a technique that had been working well. The coordinator of the program, editor/writer Jeanne Cavelos, was team proofreading galleys of her most recent book; I had come to help, but I couldn't even speak. After fifteen minutes or so, the burning finally eased and I sat still, worn out and afraid to move.

Unexpectedly early, Harlan walked in, and he did not disappoint. To an audience of half a dozen students and Jeanne, he played. He toured our classroom, reading out loud and arguing against or for the various writing quotes our teacher had placed around the walls. Harlan is physically a small man, at 5'4", but with the energy of a tribe of children. He can talk for hours; you'll laugh and cry and ask for more. He knows everything, and although he'll wander miles off a subject, he always returns to pick up the thread and weave the entire spellbinding tale. I sat, contented to observe this overheated legend in the flesh. When I laughed, my chest hurt.

He walked all the way around the room and ended up at the front where he'd entered. He said something to Jeanne about receiving and reading the advance bunch of stories we had sent him, then he looked at all the students in the room. "Who's Duncan?"

He pointed right at me. "Who are you?" he said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Duncan."

"I knew it," Harlan said. Harlan fuckin' Ellison, manuscript torcher, came stalking toward me. "I knew you were Duncan."

I thought perhaps he was going to bite me, but he took my head in his hands, kissed it, and said, "You are a writer."

The week wasn't all kisses. I learned important lessons about my writing, and about honesty, and about authenticity. Harlan yelled at me some, about stupid shit in my manuscripts, and we talked about subjects from Kafka and Norwegian goat cheese to football and heart surgery. Here's part of what I wrote shortly after the experience of watching Harlan critique: ". . . Harsh lessons, hurled epithets, repeated threats. Yelling. Tears. Pain. And a great deal of laughter and warmth and truth. My suspicions proved correct: The man does not enjoy ripping into people's work when he knows it hurts. He honors his own beliefs, and he does so for the writing, for what matters, for art. He teaches as he creates, and as he lives, honestly, unblinkingly, and passionately. He risks all."

I fell a little in love with Harlan, and with his wife, Susan, too, because they were so concerned about me when I was so far away from home and afraid. After they fussed at me, I had an EKG - all was well - and received a prescription for an anti-reflux drug, but the doctor didn't really take me seriously. My own tolerance for pain worked against me - I wasn't even warned that the pills would take several days to be effective.

Two days later, the pain knocked me over, someone thought I was having a heart attack, and I ended up in an ambulance. The paramedics treated me as though I was a cardiac patient, but by the time we arrived at the hospital, the pain was gone and the doctor treated me like an idiot. The first thing she said to me was, "I think there's been some sort of misunderstanding." I later discovered this is not uncommon with acid reflux; symptoms often recede with oxygen and nitro, and frequent among prescriptions are mind-body techniques such as yoga.

"Learn to relax," the doctor wrote on my discharge slip. I told my classmates later that if I fell down the stairs and broke my femur, they were to drive me to a Boston hospital.

I still have no idea whether the reflux was coincidental with the anxiety or a side effect. I had been meditating regularly. I hate to fly, but I had flown to New Hampshire without a twinge in my chest. The pain did not diminish after John Crowley and Jim Morrow and Harlan told me I could write, but only after the correct medication was finally prescribed, weeks later.

I'm still dealing with the chest pain - and still writing without the slightest sign of commercial success - but I have a certain measure of acceptance these days. Whatever else happened in the crucible of Odyssey, I made a friend, an honest, intelligent, articulate man who said to me, "You have talent and need only fortitude."

A charmer who propositioned me across a crowded lunch table in front of his wife. "Hey, Duncan, you fool around?"

A legend who managed, without even trying, to sweep me along in his tide of myth.

Several weeks following my encounter with Harlan, a stranger at the World Science Fiction convention in Baltimore asked me if it was true that Harlan gave an Odyssey student a heart attack. I was distressed until I realized that people love these stories about him.

The entire experience proved worth the pain in a single moment, when Harlan said this about me: "Even when she writes badly, she writes well." I want to get good enough, and brave enough, to stick that on a book jacket some day.

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Julia Duncan is maintained by a strong sense of self - worth.
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