27 July 2018

Harlan Ellison Wrote in Public

Harlan Ellison Wrote in Public
by O'Neil De Noux

In public, in the window of a bookstore with customers milling around, clerks ringing up sales, passersby gawking at the man behind the typewriter and interrupting him with questions – Harlan Ellison wrote short stories. He did this in bookstores around the country, wrote over a hundred stories this way to demystify the writing process. He also did this to promote a book or a bookstore.

Harlan Ellison (in black vest) in Bookstar Bookstore, New Orleans, March 31, 1990

As author-editor-publisher Dean Wesley Smith recently posted, "Harlan called bullshit on the rewriting myth. And he not only called bullshit, he showed clearly, in public, another way."

I witnessed Harlan write a story when he came for the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival in 1990. Typically, a stranger was enlisted to provide an opening line and Harlan would sit behind his Remington typewriter and write the story, having someone tape the pages to the bookstore windows as he progressed.

On Saturday, March 31, 1990, New Orleans nightclub owner and exotic dancer Chris Owens presented Harlan the opening line for a story which Harlan took, sat down and wrote a 4,700 word story entitled "Jane Doe #112," The story of a man haunted by six wraiths, six sickly white faces, not ghosts but figures "as if made of isinglass."

Chris Owens and Harlan Ellison at Bookstar

I watched, took pictures, listened to people ask the writer questions as he wrote, a couple asking extra questions in a gleeful attempt at derailing Harlan, which did not work. I remember him sending me off through the bookstore to look up a fact he needed for the story.

Harlan Ellison and his Remington typewriter

I'm paraphrasing Harlan here. He explained he wrote this way to rebuke the belief writing is mystical, a special process reserved for the few who know the rules, know the secret handshake, wear the invisible super-secret decoder ring. He wanted to show a writer did not need an outline or writing in support groups, critiquing, did not even need re-writes.

Harlan Ellison writing "Jane Doe #112

Dean Wesley Smith is correct in his description of Harlan – "He was a performer, a carny, a man in need of a reason to write a story." As the publisher of Pulphouse Publishing, Dean and Harlan put together a three-volume project called ELLISON UNDER GLASS, to include all the stories Harlan wrote in pubic. Unfortunately, Pulphouse went out of business and the volumes were never published.

In 1990, I was awaiting the release of my second book, THE BIG KISS. For a writer like me who writes in spurts (some long spurts), a writer who re-writes and tweaks and fine-tunes each story and novel, I was amazed as Harlan's feat. I write like a sculptor chiseling a marble slab. Harlan wrote like a painter using delicate, lethal, awe-inspiring brush strokes.

4-year old Vincent De Noux thumbing through his autographed copy of the graphic novel

That's all for now.


  1. I don't know how Harlan E. could write like that, O'Neil. He must have had amazing powers of concentration. I could never study in libraries and I can't write in public places. Too many distractions. Plus, like you, I like to hone and hone and hone. To each his/her own I guess.

  2. I quite envy you for getting to see Ellison at work. But I am convinced that there is no one "proper" way to write. His method would certainly intrigue the public, though.

  3. This is always amazed me, and I think other writers of his generation who cut their teeth writing for the pulps or "midcentury erotica" like Lawrence Block and Don Westlake were capable of this, but those of us who learned with a backspace key may have trouble replicating it. You have time to fully form the sentence in your brain as you punch away at a manual (I used one, in another age) that you often lose with an electronic machine. We self-edit.
    Just because Dean Wesley Smith doesn't like getting edited doesn't mean everyone can whip out a perfect first draft without ever reaching for the Wite-Out.

  4. Fascinating story, O'Neil. Wish I could've been there!!

    I too am one of those folks who have to edit and re-edit what I've written before it's ready for public consumption. I envy those who can do it right in a first draft.

  5. Great story. He was one of those super-prolific writers, like the late, great Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, etc., who couldn't stop writing. Me, I need caffeine.

  6. I don't know that I could ever write with people looking over my shoulder, but I have written stories when someone else provided the first line/lines. (My favorite is probably a confession that began with one character telling another, "I can't. I can't. I'd be too embarrassed." which is what a friend said when I asked her to give me an opening line. She thought she was begging off the challenge but actually provided a great opening.)

    And long ago I sold a few stories that were written first draft on the typewriter and then gone over once with a pen to correct typos. I've also sold several that were close to one pass on the computer.

    The dilemma with the discussion of rewriting/revising/re-editing is that we don't all mean the same thing when we use the terms. How much work do you need to do to a manuscript draft before it becomes a revision? And what about while the manuscript is being written?

  7. Thanks for the comment everyone.

  8. I seem to recall HE saying that some people were so offended by him doing it in public that it seemed like they were confusing writing with a different "doing it."

  9. I’ve never heard Dean Wesley Smith say he “[doesn’t] like getting edited” and I’ve never heard him say ANYONE can or could “whip out a perfect first draft without ever reaching for the Wite-Out.” Just sayin’.

  10. Dean Wesley Smith doesn't believe in editing, but in FIXING. There are always things that need fixed. I suggest you read his book Writing Into The Dark. He explains the techniques he uses and how he used White-out by the gallon back in the typewriter days. And the difference between fixing and rewriting.

    Harlan Ellison fit right in there with these ideas. Perfect? No. But what is?

    One last thing. You don't have to throw out your outline. That varies from person to another.

  11. We must understand that our lack of motivation thus far has little to do with our talent and abilities. Deep down we know that we can do it, heck, we're probably very good too, but our negative thoughts and feelings, our fear of failure, are holding us back, preventing us from seeing our work through to fruition. Do thoughts follow feelings or do feelings follow thoughts? This is the classic chicken and egg scenario. Either way, we have to find a way to control both. If, like I, you are not as yet relying on your writing to pay your bills, then half a page of writing a day is not something to look down your nose at. It is a means to an end. We are establishing a new writing habit. It will be a stepping stone towards the new, positive you.   Authors Unite


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>