Caveat Lector

Lina Chern
Aug 10 · 25 min read
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(Image: Harlan Ellison. Wikimedia Commons/Pip R. Lagenta.)

Lina Chern discusses the high expectations of Harlan Ellison, separating art from artist, & how a brush with celebrity changed her relationship to writing.

Frankie Muniz almost ran me over with his car. I stepped aside and watched his black coupe glide past me and disappear around the corner. It was 2001, and I had just seen him on TV the night before, getting up to crazy shenanigans on his seven-time Emmy-nominated sitcom.

I switched my bag of groceries to my other hand and edged down the hill. There were no sidewalks at the Oakwood Apartments, only empty lanes winding through identical sand-colored apartment blocks. When I walked into our apartment, my husband was watching TV and eating Triscuits out of the box.

“I just almost got run over by Malcolm-in-the-Middle,” I told him and tossed the grocery bag on the kitchen counter.

“He’s old enough to drive?” Brian said.

“Yep. He had a gang of teenage girls in the car with him.” I unloaded the bag: a loaf of white sandwich bread, a tub of cottage cheese, a candy bar, and a golden energy drink labeled entirely in Chinese. Nothing that couldn’t have waited for our weekly trip to the Von’s in Burbank. I had just felt like taking a walk, and there was nowhere to go but the onsite convenience store.

“His brother lives here, too,” Brian said. He came over to stack the groceries in the pantry. “The little guy. Dewey. I’ve seen him at the store, ogling the candy bars.” He took the tub of cottage cheese back to the couch with him.

We’d been sent to Los Angeles to write for the TV version of a computer game we had worked on back home in Chicago. We thought we’d hit the jackpot: an all-expenses-paid vacation with other work friends, earning Hollywood bucks doing what we were already doing. The only catch was that our company had folded, and this Hollywood licensing deal was its last hurrah. We had no jobs to go back to when the four-month gig was over.

I checked the blinking message light on the answering machine. “Anything good for Denise today?”

“She owes payments on a car,” Brian said, dipping a Triscuit in the cottage cheese. “Or maybe someone wants to give her a free car — I don’t know.”

Denise was the unit’s previous renter. She had either lived there much longer, or with a lot more gusto than we did. We got at least two phone calls for her every day from loan officers, dog walkers, hair stylists, massage therapists, and — I liked to imagine — men she’d loved and left. Traces of her life hovered over us like postcards sent back to some celestial waiting room from a reincarnated soul. When her callers managed to get me on the phone, they always asked me to pass on their messages in person. I could never get through to them that I didn’t actually know Denise, that we were separate links in a chain of freelancers, child stars, and other industry hopefuls stuck at the Oakwood because we hadn’t “made it” in Hollywood yet. The callers hung up long before I got that far. Whatever. I’d have plenty of time to explain when they called again the next day.

“I think the last message is for you,” Brian said. “Some guy.”

“Some guy,” I said, forwarding through the messages for Denise. “I don’t know any guy.” I hit play on the last message and squeezed the cap on the drink to open it.

A man’s authoritative voice filled the room. “Lina,” it said. “Harlan Ellison here.”

I froze with my fingers clamped on the bottle. The voice on the machine went on to say that it was nice to get my note in the mail, that of course he remembered me, and that he’d love to meet while I was in town. He rattled off a phone number and hung up.

I stood still, listening to the buzzing dial tone. The bottle cap was digging welts into my fingers, so I put the bottle back on the counter. Then I picked it up again.

“Wow,” Brian said, mouth full of Triscuit. “That was your writer friend, huh?”

“That was my writer friend,” I repeated, giving the bottle cap a savage twist. It sprang loose and showered the counter, the floor, and me with energy drink.

I first encountered Harlan Ellison when the Science Fiction Book Club mailed Deathbird Stories to my dad in the hopes that he would forget to mail it back before they billed him. The cover was suspiciously devoid of the tangle of sci-fi iconography I was used to — shiny robots, sleek rockets, tentacled aliens. In the introductory pages I read this warning:

Caveat Lector

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, can be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

H.E. [1]

Wow, I thought, the balls on this guy. Even for a kid, this proclamation was tough to take at face value.

At that time, a short story needed only one thing to be good in my book — a killer surprise ending. (The charming town was an illusory trap set by MURDEROUS MARTIANS! The supernova that blew up the nice aliens was THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM!) I got those stories. They set up puzzles with predictable rules, and every time I cracked one, I gave myself a mental gold star for being a good reader and a smart person.

Deathbird Stories sent my whole teetering system crashing down. These were grownup stories: chock full of bad words, lurid violence, weird sex, and endless pontificating on the human condition. They rarely delivered the coveted, reassuring surprise ending, and when they did, it was beside the point. In one of my favorites, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” a broke gambler hits an eerie lucky streak after romancing the ghost of a dead Las Vegas glamour girl. Years later, what sticks with me most is not the surprise ending (SHE WAS PLAYING HIM ALL ALONG!), but the grim dazzle of the story’s Las Vegas and its train-wreck stare at the mechanics of hitting rock bottom — things that excited me, even though (and maybe because) I didn’t fully understand them.

I plowed through Ellison’s backlist, rooting through libraries and used book stores for paperbacks with eye-popping, psychedelic covers. Even more than the stories, I loved the introductions Ellison wrote to them — wild nonfiction that evoked a literary badass, equal parts scholar and street thug. This guy, when he was a kid, actually ran away from home and joined a carnival. Later he got expelled from college for punching a professor, joined a street gang so he could write about it, and took on Frank Sinatra in a verbal shoving match.

I started to worry that I was leading the wrong kind of life. I lived in the suburbs, had never been in an argument (much less a fight), and found the idea of hitting the road in search of inspiration vaguely terrifying. On top of that, Ellison’s irrepressible flood of creativity seemed superhuman to me. He wrote wherever he could plop down his manual typewriter, blissfully tuning out the world and whipping up complete stories on the spot. He was constantly late for flights, appointments, and publicity appearances because he was too busy writing. (I was never late for anything, and the possibility of missing a scheduled event gave me the shakes.) He passed up the chance to eat, party, and even get laid whenever the stories hammered to get out — which they seemed to do all the time. (I routinely filled journals with manic first-person scribbling, but when I tried to write something “real,” I was lucky to end up with a few pages of stilted prose.) My future as a writer was looking grim.

I decided to write Ellison a letter, which I hand-wrote as neatly as possible on spiral notebook paper and sent off with the raggedy edges still attached. Ten days later, a sleek gray envelope with a California return address appeared in the mailbox. I ran to my bedroom and tore it open. Inside were three pages of expensive-looking stationery covered in bumpy typescript.

One of the concomitants of working at one’s craft for more than thirty-five years, and thereby achieving some small measure of success enameled with public attention (variously called “fame” or “celebrity” or “notoriety” or “infamy”), … [2]

I blinked and started again from the top, fighting through several dense, flashy paragraphs that said, basically, “I get a lot of mail.” Great, I thought. A form letter.

Oh, but then!

Perhaps five per cent [of mail I receive] … comes under the heading of exceptional, for one reason or another.

Your letter of 6 December is one of those.

So. Because you are clearly an exceptional person, you compel serious reply and adult respect. That’s what charisma and smarts can do for you in this life, kiddo. But then, even at age thirteen you obviously understand that already. [3]

At this point, I stopped reading and looked around for undulating walls, talking spiders, or any other indication that I were having a fantastic and completely improbable dream. Then I went back to the letter and read, dumbstruck, as Ellison worked his way through my questions. I don’t remember word for word what I asked him, but I remember with stinging accuracy what I really wanted to know.

1. I don’t always understand your stories. Am I missing something? (Am I stupid?)

Well, that shouldn’t dismay you. It makes perfectly good sense to me. You are, after all, thirteen and not fifty-three, which is what I am. There are a lot of elements of the human condition that simply don’t occur to one your age, that become important to one my age. … And then, don’t forget, I’ve been studying and reading for a lot longer than you, so I’ve been tantalized by obscure historical and sociological minutiae that you can’t (just yet) be expected to know exist.

So when something I’ve written perplexes you, don’t fret. … The stories that seem unclear now … well, go back to them in three years and I’ll bet they won’t confuse you at all. And you’ll wonder why you thought it was insoluble. [4]

2. I heard you weren’t always a writer. When did you decide to become one? (Is it okay if you don’t write every second of your life? Or maybe even like, not at all when it gets really hard? And also if sometimes you have to go to school and do other stuff?)

… I didn’t decide to become a writer, I just always was one. Some people are born athletes or dancers or musicians, and they have no real choice in the matter: life and destiny and instinct direct the choices, and you just sorta go along with it because it makes sense and makes you happy.

So you heard wrong if/when you heard I wasn’t always a writer. … I trained myself to be a bricklayer and a truck driver and all sorts of other odd work, just to keep myself eating … but I always wrote. For myself at first, then for school publications, and then for fan magazines, and then as a professional. But no matter what I was doing to keep body and soul together, I was writing. That’s because I was, and am, a writer. That’s how I identify myself. [5]

3. I read that you were a “well-known fan.” What does that mean? (I’m not even an adult yet, and I’m already supposed to be famous?)

… I was a “well-known fan” because I was publishing a very good, very professional fanzine, an amateur publication called Dimensions. When I was doing the magazine, in the early ’50s, it was rather influential in the genre. And I, like you, was a bright and outgoing kid, who charmed and spoke up and had a sense of being part of the world. I knew there were great things in store for me, if I worked hard, and that brought me to the attention of lifelong friends like Isaac Asimov, in just the way you’ve come to my attention. [6]

He wrapped it up with:

But what a pleasure it was to meet you! Bright, friendly, inquisitive and charming. … The world will not know it for a while yet, but it is in better than average shape because it’s got you in it. What a sensational grownup you’ll make! [7]

Holy shit. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected something so thorough, supportive, and kind. I was thrilled, but a part of me was also terrified. God himself had come down off the mountain to bless my writing ambitions. Now I actually had to make good on them, and I had no idea how. I thought because I’d been born with a little talent, I was supposed to be good already, and the way I read Ellison’s letter only reinforced that misconception.

What he was saying was: You are the real deal. Work hard, be patient, and you’ll get there.

What I read was: You are the real deal. Don’t fuck it up.

My office at Tribune Studios was freezing. I blew into my hands and stared out the window at the 85-degree parking lot. I had only brought one sweatshirt to L.A. with me, and today I forgot it at our apartment.

I turned back to my computer screen, squeezing my hands to get some blood into them. The show’s contestants had to guess a phrase based on a combination of clues, and my job was to write these phrase-and-clue question sets. Actually, today my job was to rewrite all the sets I wrote last week. The network had told us not to make the clues too saucy, so they could hedge bets on the demographics, but then they did focus-group testing and everybody said the clues were boring, so now we had to make the clues saucy.

Cal, one of the production assistants, walked down the hallway outside my office. Looking after the Chicago people was part of his job, and he did it with a simmering animosity that perplexed me until he let slip that he wanted to be a writer, too. He was a tall, stocky guy with small, round eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. Probably a few years out of college, probably originally from the Midwest, just like me. I generally avoided him as much as possible.

“Hey, Cal.” I stood up and stepped out into the hall. “Can you come in here for a second, please?”

Cal stopped and turned toward me. “Oh my God, am I being fired?”

“No, I was just going to show you — ”

“Kidding,” he said, walking into my office. “I know you can’t fire me. Because you’re not my boss.” The people in the office were hyper-aware of their places in the production hierarchy. They didn’t just expect to be dumped on, they welcomed it as an investment in their own future right to dump on someone else.

I blinked. “Okay. I just wanted to show you, it’s really cold in here. Don’t you think so?”

Cal took a look around the room, taking in my shabby purse, my homemade lunch in its plastic grocery bag, and the empty Styrofoam coffee cup with the chewed-up plastic stirrer sitting next to my mousepad. “This is where the magic happens, huh?” he said.

I shifted from one foot to the other. “So, I was wondering if maybe someone could turn down the A/C for this part of the office.”

“Yeah, I wish we could,” Cal said, “but the A/C is actually controlled in Atlanta.”

“Atlanta,” I repeated.

“I know, it’s crazy.” He put up his hands in a what can you do gesture. “It’s some remote thing on a timer, and we don’t have the access codes here or something.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” I said. “It’s not that bad. It’s just, I forgot my sweatshirt today.”

“You know what?” Cal tapped a finger on his chin. “Let me talk to some people, figure out what we can do for you.” His constant code-switching between crisp teenage hostility and oily customer service speak made my head spin.

“Great,” I said, moving back to my desk. “Thanks, Cal.”

“You can’t churn out those hee-larious questions if your fingers are frozen, right?” Cal said.

“Right,” I said.

“LARRR!” He rolled his eyes back and pantomimed typing on a keyboard with frozen-stiff arms.

I laughed a little, hoping to God he would leave.

“Wow,” he said. “Nice pity-laugh. Okay, I’m leaving. Off to do your bidding, master. Is that better?” He started to walk away. “Totally kidding. But yeah, bring your sweatshirt tomorrow. I love seeing that sweatshirt every single day.”

I sat down at my desk, rubbed my hands, and looked over the sheet of rewrites. I knew I would probably be rewriting them again next week. Hang in there, Cal, I thought. Someday all this will be yours.

At lunchtime, Brian was busy, so I took my lunch out to the parking lot by myself, hoping to thaw out. I sat down on a concrete barrier at the head of an empty parking space. It was freshly painted to reflect the recent replacement of the show’s technical director. Any show decision, no matter how quick, reckless, or temporary, was immediately cemented in parking spaces, nameplates, and standing lunch orders by an army of PA’s. It was the most well-organized collective insanity I had ever seen.

I opened the small notebook I always carried with me for jotting down ideas. The science-fiction stories I wrote when I was a kid turned more “literary” when I went to college and enrolled in a creative-writing program. Then the stories turned into poems because I thought poems would be easier to write (they weren’t), and after I started working, they turned into scribbles in a notebook that served more as a source of guilt than as a writing tool. I still filled a separate journal with non-artistic accounts of my days, but that didn’t count. Whenever I tried to write something for an audience, the flood dried up.

Every day we drove the rented car to the studio, I wrote. And stopped. The notebook was full of similar phrases — isolated glimpses of an immensity I could feel but was unable to put into words. Pink and yellow rooftops speeding past the 101. Stacks of overpasses like concrete spiderwebs over the highway. Foreign language: down the hill, into the valley, over the canyons.

I wanted to write about how out of place I felt in this bright, lonely city, doing glamorous busywork I was lucky to have but that nevertheless depressed me. About how I couldn’t stay here but didn’t want to go home, where I would just get another job I could use as an excuse not to write. The truth was that despite all the writing classes, seminars, and workshops I had under my belt, writing was still a mystery to me.

I dug in my pocket for the scrap of paper with Harlan Ellison’s phone number on it. I’d been taking it to work with me every morning and bringing it back home every evening, unused. I didn’t even know why I wrote to him when we came to town. I hadn’t reread his work in years, and if I ever talked about him, it was as a footnote in a jokey story about my childhood obsession with weird fiction. When I did happen to glance over his work, it seemed juvenile to me, overdramatic … yet still exciting. It felt, for better or for worse, unrestrained.

What would I tell him, anyway? My question rewrites were SOLID this week! No shame in Hollywood grunt-work — Ellison himself had done plenty in his day. Of course, he would then channel all his boredom and rage into page-turning Man vs. System sagas. I did a quick mental inventory of my literary accomplishments: a few magazine credits here and there, a few contest wins and prize nominations. Big deal. No river of creativity was pounding through my life, pushing everything else aside. The letters I had exchanged with Ellison long ago felt like a contract I was in danger of breaching.

I put the phone number back in my pocket, picked up the remains of my lunch, and went back into the studio.

There was a space heater on the floor of my office, with a note taped to it. You’re welcome, the note read. Do us all a favor and burn the sweatshirt.

One afternoon when I was in junior high, I answered the phone and almost choked on my after-school snack when Harlan Ellison greeted me on the other end. He was touring in support of a new short-story collection and wanted to invite me to his reading.

“Sure, that would be okay,” I said, trying not to reveal that I was sitting on the floor because my knees had buckled. “I’ll have to ask my parents.”

My parents were as cool with it as they could possibly be. Years later, my mom commended me on the guts it must have taken to reach out to “that writer idiot.” My dad was even less thrilled. The unsolicited copy of Deathbird Stories had failed to capture his interest, not to mention that Ellison was a “rotten California liberal.” But for my sake, they zipped it and drove me to Northwestern University for the reading.

When we walked into the lecture hall, a small crowd was swarming around a salt-and-pepper-haired guy telling a story with his hands. He was crushing 1988: bright blue blazer, geometrically patterned tie, baggy pants, and tinted glasses. “Come in, come in!” he said when he saw us, like we were walking into his living room. He was a little guy, but seemed to take up more room than everyone else. He reminded me of the tiny space-bending neutron stars I had read about, that snatch everything around them into their orbit.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” he said, shaking my hand. Then he turned to my parents. “Great job on this one. You guys deserve a gold medal.” I could see the marquee of thoughts scrolling across my mom’s face: Not such an idiot, maybe. Still dresses like one.

Any points Ellison might have scored with my parents he immediately squandered when the reading began. I use the term “reading” loosely — it was really just an extended blast of the stream-of-consciousness vaudeville that was his native language. For over an hour, he kept up a breakneck patter of stories about disastrous TV appearances, battles with illiterate editors, and arguments with fans who belabored him with the same dumb questions over and over. He made a big show of keeping it clean for my sake (“Lina is thirteen, and her parents are going to stab me with an ice pick in the alley after this is over.”) but eventually gave up, to the audience’s general delight. “Just cover your ears, Lina,” he said.

He was a natural storyteller. No wonder he wrote so easily and so much, I thought: He couldn’t help it. There was a live feed between the raw material of his life and the slick adventures — written or oral — he broadcast to audiences. “Wait, wait,” he said at one point, breaking off and glancing around the room, “Do you guys already know this one? About the cop who stopped me for speeding and almost made me miss a flight because he was going on and on about how much he loved Deathbird Stories?” As if we had been there all along, watching his life roll past in full color and surround-sound. Which, in a sense, we had.

I was laughing along with everyone else, but with a sinking in my gut. I didn’t see how I could possibly achieve what I was seeing in front of me. Listening to Ellison made me feel like a poseur — the junior high insult of choice to lob at sad sacks trying to act cooler than they were.

Ellison ended the evening by reading a story from the new collection (“It’s amazing; you’re going to love it.”) and signing autographs. I picked up my copy of Deathbird Stories and got in line with the other fans.

“Gimme that,” he mock-growled, grabbing the book from me when it was my turn.

“So, I just finished reading All the Lies That Are My Life,” I said, trying to work in some extra conversation while I had the chance. The story is a melodramatic novella about the troubled relationships of a flashy, arrogant speculative fiction writer. It’s almost comically autobiographical. I wasn’t crazy about it (no cool supernatural stuff), but I chose not to share that with him. “Is it true what you said in the story?” I said. “Do you really want all your unfinished work to be burned after you die?”

Ellison continued writing without answering. I got the uncomfortable feeling that I was being silently demoted from good fan to bad fan. “Here’s the thing, kiddo,” he said, shutting the signed book and handing it back to me. “You want to be careful not to confuse the artist with the art.”

Not to confuse the artist with the art? I thought in the car on the way home, as usual coming up with a good response long after the conversation was over. But you go out of your way to do that! If you stick your whole life out there for people to look at, you can’t suddenly get all coy about it.

… Can you?

By November, the show was in production, and the sound stage on the ground floor turned into a jumble of blinding lights, serpentine equipment, and harried people saying mean things to each other in polite voices. Sometimes the writers were enlisted as stand-in contestants for show run-throughs, a job that consisted mostly of being poked with light meters and waiting for shots to be set up. It occurred to me that hiring bodies from the casting agency would have been cheaper than paying writers to sit around not writing, but by that time, production logic had set in. The fastest solution, no matter how wasteful or counterintuitive, was always the right one.

Days passed. I worked. I added pretty, useless line fragments to my notebook. I fielded calls for Denise. I watched holiday wreaths appear in sun-blasted store windows. I carried Harlan Ellison’s phone number around in my pocket.

One day I was rushing to finish a set of questions for an impromptu run-through. The studio was coming in to watch. They were pissed that we were behind schedule, plus they hated the host. There were rumors the show was going to get scrapped, and everyone was edgier than usual. I put my head down and worked.

“Knock knock,” Cal said, poking his head into my doorway from the hall. He was holding a half-eaten Nutri-Grain bar. “They need everybody in the conference room in five.”

“Right now?” I swiveled in my chair to face him. “I thought they wanted these questions by 11.”

“Yeah, I dunno.” Cal said. “They said everybody. Even the really important people.” He took a bite and moved back out into the hall. “Five minutes.”

“Do you know what this is about?” I called after him. He popped back in and shot me a poisonous look. I was making his job difficult.

“The lawyer’s here,” he said. “About appearance of impropriety.”

“Again?” Last week an impeccably groomed woman in an expensive suit had hectored us like a roomful of problem children about avoiding contact with the contestants, so the show didn’t get sued. Although her message was simple, she repeated it with increasing hostility and condescension for half an hour. “Didn’t we already get that talk?” I said.

“Yeah, well, apparently people are still sneaking downstairs to raid craft services during the tapings.” He waved the half-eaten snack bar. “I mean, I get it. The snacks in the break room are shit. But still.”

He turned to leave again, but my astonished face must have stopped him.

“You know what, it’s cool,” he said. “Totally up to you if you, like, want to work in this town again.” He stuffed the rest of the bar in his mouth. “Or if you don’t, or whatever. Totally your call.” He went back into the hall, giving the wall a businesslike tap. “Five minutes.”

I sat in my chair, listening to him work his way down the hall with his message. Did he really just tell me I’d never work in this town again?

I got up and went out into the hall. People were heading toward the conference room, and I went to join them. Then I stopped and turned toward the exit, slipped down the stairwell, and out the door. Even in late fall, the air was full of the unearthly L.A. sunlight that makes the most featureless parking lot look beautiful and slightly fake, like a picture of itself. I sat down next to a manicured hedge.

Cal was right. If I didn’t like this job, I was welcome to step aside. An army of better writers was ready to whoosh into the tiny void I would leave. In a few weeks, first season production would wrap, and if the resounding critical silence greeting the first aired episodes was any indication, there would be no second season. So unless I wanted to make a sudden and drastic life change, I really wasn’t going to work in this town again. And yet, as annoyed as I was with the town and everything in it, I was also sad to leave. This was the first time in my life I could honestly call myself a writer.

I dug Harlan Ellison’s phone number out of my pocket. Fuck it, I thought. Now or never. I took out my cell phone and dialed, practicing greetings in my head. The number rang and rang.

“Hello?” a voice barked over the phone. It was the voice from the answering machine, but the tone was different. Never had I heard a single word layered more expertly with multiple meanings, all of them negative.

I stiffened and fought the urge to hang up, then took a breath and introduced myself. “I wrote you a letter,” I said lamely. “A few weeks ago.” The silence grew darker, if silence can do that. “We met years ago, in Chicago. When I was a kid. And now I’m in town, and I wrote you, and you said to call.” I sounded like I was explaining why the cookie jar was in pieces on the floor.

The voice emitted an exasperated grunt. Clearly, I had interrupted one of his legendary writing binges, when the whole world melted away and words flew magically onto the page … until some asshole fucked it up.

“Okay,” I croaked. “I’ll just call you some other time.” I hung up, knowing there would be no other time. It didn’t even occur to me to ask what a better time would be. All I could think about was getting off the phone.

By the time I walked, stiff-legged, back inside, the meeting with the lawyer was over. So at least the last ten minutes weren’t a complete loss. I sat down and slapped together some questions by 10:58, with two minutes to spare until the run-through.

At 11:02, Cal came around and told us the run-through was off.

That night I told Brian about the disastrous phone call over takeout Thai food that we ate standing up in the kitchen. There was no part of the incident that didn’t fill me with blazing embarrassment — from interrupting Ellison’s work, to reacting like a guilty child, to expecting anything more than a lukewarm welcome in the first place. I tried to joke it off by acting like the whole thing was a bad idea from the start.

Brian was skeptical. “He did ask you to call, right?” He speared a spring roll with his fork. “I mean, he left his phone number.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But he gets into these, like, writing trances.” I turned away and pretended to examine a container of chili sauce. “He writes about that all the time.”

“He could have let it go to voicemail,” Brian said.

“Voicemail! This guy doesn’t even use a word processor.”

Brian went back to his container of fried rice. “Well, I think he kind of put you in a shitty position.”

I didn’t say anything. This thought had occurred to me, also, but was summarily drowned in a sea of shame and, improbably, jealousy.

Shit, I couldn’t help thinking. I wish I could get so wrapped up in my writing that I had to be rude to anyone who interrupted me.

As expected, our game show staggered through a few months on the air and tanked. Brian and I went back to Chicago, got some jobs, had a couple of kids, and moved to the suburbs. We never worked in Hollywood again. Cal flickered past us late one night on a comedy show, working his God-given talent for snark. Immediate Internet stalking revealed that he had a writing credit on the show — one of many. Tribune Studios underwent a multi-million-dollar makeover that presumably included a functioning HVAC system. Frankie Muniz became a race-car driver.

A few months ago, I came across the writing notebook I’d kept in L.A. It was old, but still crisp and mostly empty; I had never revisited the fragments on the first few pages. I was about to shove the drawer closed when the next notebook in the pile caught my eye. This one, unlike the first, was fat and wrinkled from constant use. Every page was full. It was my daily journal from that time, where I let fly without trying to be clever and insightful. I opened it and started reading. When I looked up, it was half an hour later, and I was late for a doctor’s appointment.

Later that night, crouching outside my son’s bedroom to keep him from climbing out of bed and peeing on the floor, I leafed through the journal again, typing up selected passages on my iPad. Over the next few weeks I filled out the piece, adding and revising where needed. I wrote whenever I could: one-handed while stirring a pot of pasta; on my cellphone in line at the pharmacy drive-thru; dodging bun-headed preschoolers in the lobby of my daughter’s dance studio.

By the time I finished a complete draft of this essay, very little from the original journal was left. And yet, that journal and the kind of writing it represents is the key to my writing process. For years, I felt like an impostor because I didn’t get the addictive pleasure from writing that so many writers describe. The truth was, I did feel that pleasure — every time I wrote in my journal. I just figured it didn’t count because the results weren’t ready to fire off to The New Yorker. I was wrong — that pleasure counted in the most important way: it made me want to keep going.

Once I accepted that as a starting point, my relationship with writing got a lot more congenial. When I inevitably got stuck, I scribbled through my thoughts longhand until got unstuck. My tolerance for uncertainty and imperfection grew. I got more patient with revision. One by one, the handwritten messes in my notebooks turned into finished poems, stories, essays, and even a novel. Years after leaving Los Angeles and the precious but empty job title I had there, I finally started to feel like the real deal.

I never talked to Harlan Ellison again. The scrap of paper with his phone number on it went the way of all scraps of paper, though I still have the dingy autographed copy of Deathbird Stories. Ellison was right — his stories read differently to me now. All the Lies That Are My Life, the one that had so inconvenienced me by refusing to park squarely in the camp of fact or fiction, fascinates me now, because its sly dance around the facts of Ellison’s life zeroes in on the diceyness at the heart of the author-reader relationship. “This is fiction, not personal memoir,” Ellison writes in the introduction. “Try not to read too much one-on-one into the bits and pieces of this work.” [8]

I’ll do Ellison one better: If you’re looking for a window into the author’s life, personal memoir is an even worse bet than fiction. Both play the same shell game with the facts, but memoir is trickier because it pretends not to. I read Ellison’s essays as instruction manuals, but they were really just a different kind of fiction, riddled with creative omissions and filtered through the author’s imagination. Caveat lector, indeed.

Throw in your own filters as a reader and you’re piling caveat upon caveat. When I first read Ellison, I was a perfectionistic kid whose picture of writing was more like a crayon drawing. It took me years to learn that all writers face a mountain of hard work before they get to be any good, that one writer’s process works for one writer, that great experiences don’t guarantee great stories, and that personality and writing skill are not measured on the same set of axes. Also, that it’s unwise to confuse an artist with his art.

If only someone had warned me.

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LINA CHERN is the author of Sparkle Shot (Fahrenheit Press). Her work has appeared in The Marlboro Review, The Bellingham Review, Rhino, The Collagist, and Black Fox Literary Magazine. She won the 2017 Writer’s Block Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her essay “Get Over Yourself,” published in The Louisville Review.

Notes

  1. Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories (New York: Bluejay Books, 1983), p.xii.
  2. Harlan Ellison, Letter to the author, December 11, 1987, p.1.
  3. Ibid., p.1.
  4. Ibid., p.2.
  5. Ibid., pp.2–3.
  6. Ibid., p.3.
  7. Ibid., p.4.
  8. Harlan Ellison, Shatterday (New York: Berkeley Books, 1982) p.114.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

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