Become a Plumber
This is an excerpt from my book, The Color of Your Dreams, which I wrote to help people who have always wanted to write and publish.
The story seems outrageous, but it’s true.
DISCLAIMER: This excerpt contains language that some may find offensive. It’s not intended for younger readers, nor anyone who abhors salty words.
Twenty-something years ago famed writer Harlan Ellison spoke at the University of Denver. A fan of his work, I snagged a ticket, grabbed my worn copy of Shatterday, one of his short story collections, and headed to the auditorium.
Ellison spoke for almost two hours, a presentation packed with insight and valuable information on the business of writing. He regaled the crowd with anecdotes spanning his thirty-odd years of crafting stories.
I, along with everyone else, chuckled at his frequent rants regarding the people who had wronged him over the years. I think we all knew of his reputation for being, shall we say, a bit petulant and more than a little abrasive, but he was on fire that evening.
Imagine my surprise when I soon found myself on the receiving end of his fury.
At the conclusion of his talk, Harlan Ellison sat down to sign books and a huge throng of admirers gathered about. He was personable and chatty as he signed, obviously in a pretty good mood. For him. Until it was my turn at the table.
I was thirty years old, a closet writer, and longed to be published. Here before me was a legend, one who’d inspired me to get serious and to work harder. I was nervous, wondering what to say to this word god. I didn’t want to sound like a fool, but I also didn’t want to waste this one opportunity to connect with him.
He looked up at me, pen poised, awaiting instructions for the inscription, and I blurted out, “Would you please write a word of encouragement for an aspiring writer?”
I can’t even describe the look of disgust that broke across his face. He sat back and slammed his pen down on the table. With more than two dozen people crowded around, watching and listening, he stabbed a stubby finger toward my face and went off. Paraphrased, it went along the lines of:
“You wanna be a writer! Everybody wants to be a writer! Everyone who reads a book suddenly thinks they can be a writer! It’s bullshit! If I had a dime for every moron who told me they wanna be a writer. Millions of ‘em! You listen to me, son, if you have any fucking brains at all you’ll give up this bullshit idea and become—I don’t know, a plumber. You know how much money plumbers make? ‘I wanna be a writer.’ Jesus, another one. I can’t believe it.”
He must’ve lectured me for another thirty seconds, spittle shooting from his mouth. All the people standing near the table went completely still and quiet, like a room of Medusa’s victims, afraid he’d next direct his ire upon them.
But no. I was the sole target of Mr. Ellison’s rage.
The tongue-lashing completed, he picked up his pen, opened my copy of Shatterday to the title page, and fulfilled my request for a word of encouragement. He scribbled:
“A word of encouragement: Become a plumber. Harlan Ellison.”
This is a true story. I still have the book on my bookshelf, in a place of honor.
Let’s talk about inspiration here, okay? I have to believe that nine out of ten people would’ve sulked out of that auditorium, gone home, and thrown away every half-finished story they had lying around. Then maybe gone to a bar.
But I laughed. I sincerely thanked him for his time, for his advice, and for his signature. Then I went home, worked late into the night, and banged out at least fifteen-hundred words on a short story. It took me a few years, but eventually I signed a six-book deal with Tor/Forge, and became the published author I’d dreamed of becoming.
Here’s the thing: Harlan Ellison was probably right.
For many people. Just not for me.
There are millions of frustrated authors, and that means millions of kind souls who won’t ever taste the champagne upon signing a book deal. But I never once took his attack personally, and I never once second-guessed my own internal fire.
The way I look at it, Harlan Ellison was just sitting there, waiting for some poor sap to dare ask him for either advice or a pep talk. He was ready, locked and loaded, and I just happened to be the foil. His rant was, in my mind, a shotgun blast, intended for the thirty or more people within earshot. No, it wasn’t aimed at me personally.
It was meant for everybody else. For all the people who say they want to write, but don’t really want to put in the work.
Harlan Ellison never had any intention of inspiring me. He wanted to do the opposite, to save me from a life of hardship if I wasn’t truly invested in writing. You could say he did me a favor. Because, really, if I couldn’t handle the derision from one cranky old shithead, how would I fare when the entire world responded to my art? As someone told me, it was almost like a test. And I passed.
Are you invested? Are you inspired by the writers who move you? Can a cranky old son of a bitch at a writing conference knock you from that path?
Or will every roadblock, every detour, every misstep only fuel your desire that much more? Inspiration is spirit, my friend. I think we’re influenced by spirit, not by some cheesy-ass motivational talk.
Recognize what inspires you. More importantly, do everything you can to be an inspiration to others, not through speeches but through your dedication. When others ask you for advice, be giving. Don’t be a Harlan.
There’s a fun postscript to this story. Not long ago I published a collection of bizarre short fiction I’d hoarded for years. Some of the pieces even dated back to around the time of my encounter with the grump.
When it came time to publish those stories, I chose a new pen name. To honor my landmark moment in the crosshairs of Harlan Ellison, you can find that collection of tales under the name Harlan Plumber.
Hey, he only suggested I become one. He didn’t say how.