Finding magic in a bookstore window

The first I heard about Harlan Ellison was from my Dad when he gave me a used copy of Dangerous Visions from Jerry Cooper’s First Amendment bookstore near the drive-in off Highway 50 in Union Park.

I was a teenager at the time and a Star Trek fanatic, but didn’t yet realize that Ellison authored the original script for the best original series episode (fight me) “City on the Edge of Forever.”

What Dad told me about Ellison, the thing that stuck with me – even to this day – was this gimmick of sitting in a bookstore window with a typewriter and just churning out short fiction based on prompts from the crowd outside.

In a 1981 NBC interview, Ellison explained why he liked to write in public: “Well, when I write a story, I get into a story and the world that I’m creating is more real than the world around me. I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job of work like being a plumber or an electrician.”

Harlan Ellison died on June 27, the day before OtherSpace turned 20. And, really, thinking back, it’s difficult to imagine OtherSpace coming to pass without Ellison’s influence and inspiration. Another of his anthologies, Partners in Wonder, captured collaborations between Ellison and other speculative fiction writers. And what is OtherSpace if not a speculative fiction collaboration, done in real-time, now in a browser-based bookstore window?

Ellison also got his fingerprints all over Babylon 5, the TV series that persuaded me to follow a story arc format as I developed OtherSpace back in 1998.

So here we are, 20 years later, on the shoulders of another fallen giant (who likely would bristle at the idea). We’re trying to keep the OtherSpace story going while opening new windows into some of our other favorite imaginary realms. At the same time, I sometimes feel rudderless with my solo creative efforts. It’s easy to blame it on the demands of work and parenthood, which are legitimate and necessary distractions. But the truth is: Sometimes I just need prompting. It’s how I got started in creative writing in elementary school, after all, asking friends to give me a few words to weave together into a story that (hopefully) made some kind of sense.

Ellison’s passing reminds me that I won’t live forever. Ellison’s life reminds me that I’ve got a decent option for borrowed inspiration.

Now the JointheSaga Slack community includes a channel (#bookstorewindow) where, using prompts provided (I hope!) by readers like you, I’ll generate stories in real-time as my schedule permits. I’m optimistic it’ll be like warming up an engine in a car that’s been kept in the garage all winter, getting ready for spring.


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