Two Secrets for Young Writers from Harlan Ellison

To young writers I give only two secrets that really exist...all the other hints of Rosetta Stones are jiggery-pokery. The two secrets are these:

     First, the most important book you can ever read, not only to prepare you as a writer, but to prepare you for life, is not the Bible or some handbook on syntax. It is the complete canon of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

     The Holmes mysteries are nailed to the fixed point of logic and rational observation. They teach that ratiocination, and a denial of paralogia, go straight to the heart of Pasteur’s admonition that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The more you know, the more unflinchingly you deny casual beliefs and Accepted Wisdom when it flies in the face of reality, the more carefully you observe the world and its people around you, the better chance you have of writing something meaningful and well-crafted.

     From Doyle’s stories an awakened intelligence can learn a system of rational behavior coupled with an ability to bring the process of deductive logic to bear on even the smallest measure of day-to-day existence. It works in life, and it works in art. We call it the writer’s eye. And that, melded to talent and composure, is what one can find in the work of every fine writer.

     The second secret, what they never tell you, is that yes, anyone can become a writer. Merely consider any novel by Judith Krantz and you’ll know it’s true. The trick is not to become a writer, it is to stay a writer. Day after day, year after year, book after book. And for that, you must keep working, even when it seems beyond you. In the words-to-live-by of Thomas Carlyle, “Produce!  Produce!  Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou has in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might.  Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

     All that, and learn the accurate meaning of “viable,” do not pronounce it noo-kew-ler, understand the difference between “in a moment” and “momentarily,” and don’t say “hopefully” when you mean “it is to be hoped” or “one hopes.” Because, for one last quotation, as Molly Haskell has written: “language: the one tool that enables us to grasp hold of our lives and transcend our fate by understanding it.”

HARLAN ELLISON