Ellison on Crafting Short Stories

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NBC Today Show
Jack Perkins
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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In a stunt designed to break the stereotype of the secluded writer, author Harlan Ellison sits in the window of a 5th Avenue bookstore, and, using a beginning written by NBC's Tom Brokaw, writes a short story from it in only 5 hours.



"Ellison on Crafting Short Stories ." Jack Perkins, correspondent. NBC Today Show. NBCUniversal Media. 24 Apr. 1981. NBC Learn. Web. 11 January 2020.


Perkins, J. (Reporter). (1981, April 24). Ellison on Crafting Short Stories . [Television series episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=34831


"Ellison on Crafting Short Stories " NBC Today Show, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 04/24/1981. Accessed Sat Jan 11 2020 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=34831


Ellison on The Craft of Writing Short Stories


People are always asking author Harlan Ellison where he comes up with the ideas for his incredible short stories. Well, when it comes to his latest story there is no doubt, it came from one Tom Brokaw. At the close of our program yesterday, Tom held up this envelope containing a piece of paper and the words on it said, “August afternoon a person walking along a rocky beach in Maine picks up a pair of broken sunglasses.”

What happened next was a literary stunt that few others could have pulled off. At 9:45, Harlan Ellison climbed into a window of a Fifth Avenue bookstore, read Tom’s words for the first time as the crowds looked on, and then began to write. And he wrote.  And he wrote until finally five hours later, “The Night of Black Glass” was completed.

That’s some feat. I thought working in a newsroom with a lot of typewriters and writing a 20 second story was tough. How did you feel during all that? How could you concentrate?

HARLAN ELLISON (Writer):  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 and electrician.

SAVITCH:  So I’ve always heard you apply part of your anatomy to the seat and you apply your hands to the keys and concentrate. I think there’s more to it than that. I think talent probably figures into it somewhere.

ELLISON:  Well talent probably has a small yeah…

SAVITCH:  Tell me, what did you do with the idea in Tom’s lead. Summary of the story.

ELLISON:  Well as I understand it yesterday he said the opening line was going to be, “it was the best of times, the worst of times.”

SAVITCH:  Or “once upon a time.”

ELLISON:  Yeah, and I was going to try for, “Call me Ishmael,” but I figure that wasn’t going to work. It was both a good and a bad beginning for me because it was too general, it didn’t give me anything specific. I mean if he said, “a ghost galleon sails into modern day San Francisco harbor, then I would have a beginning. So he gave me Maine, which I had been to only once in my life and that was in the dead of winter and I had never been to the rocky coast so I had to get a guidebook on Maine from B. Dalton and I had to use that. And then I had to – I was 5 pages into it before I knew what it was about.

SAVITCH:  And what was it about? I read it but say what it was about.

ELLISON:  Well basically what it’s about is the concept of the guilt of the survivor. People who do manage to live on after everyone else around them has gone to their doom. And about a man who feels no guilt for having survived.

SAVITCH:  Vietnam.

ELLISON:  Vietnam.

SAVITCH:  And his troops are killed and he survives and he meets them and sits down and doesn’t feel guilty about being a survivor, and you end it by saying ‘so how’s he going to pay for his life if he isn’t going to pay with guilt?’ Is it necessary always to pay with guilt?

ELLISON:  I think it’s necessary to pay with some kind of coin of emotion that costs. And too many people, I think, go through their lives without realizing there must be some payment of some kind, either in good deeds or in anguish or in responsibility to the rest of the world. And this was a man who had no linkage to the rest of the world. All through the story he keeps denying. A little girl sits down next to him he won’t even talk to her.

SAVITCH:  Is this the first time that you have written anything of this nature under less than ideal conditions?

ELLISON:  No as a matter of fact I’ve done this a number of times. I’ve done it in London in a bookstore window. I did it in Los Angeles in a bookstore there. I did 6 stories in 6 days sitting in the bookstore window to help promote the bookstore. I find that the stories, some of them, about seven of them have won awards. So there’s no real difference from the stories I write quietly in my office at home, or in a window. It doesn’t bother me.

SAVITCH:  So its partially a publicity gimmick and partially because you want to show people that you don’t have to sit on a mountaintop in quiet and solitude and think and then write.

ELLISON:  Its also like George Willett climbing the World Trade Towers, I like doing it because it’s hard to do and it’s always nice to do something that seems impossible and difficult just to prove you can do it.

SAVITCH:  What is your definition of good literature? Does good literature have to be a classic or can there be good literature in children’s works or newspapers or daily newscasts? What is good literature?

ELLISON:  Good literature very simply is that which uplifts an enriches in some way, that which gives you an insight into the human condition so that you understand that we all live in the same skin and we are all heir to the same fears and joys and that makes you want to be a part of the human race. That’s good literature to me.

SAVITCH:  On a scale of 1 to 10.


SAVITCH:  With the Brokaw lead and “The Night of Black Glass,” how does this rate under the in the window less than ideal circumstance?

ELLISON:  I think it’s about a 6.7.

SAVTICH:  6.7 okay, now rate for me Brokaw’s lead in as a good possibility for coming up with a story.

ELLISON:  Oh, God he’ll only get cranky if I do that.

SAVITCH:  Oh it’s that bad was it?

ELLISON: No it’s not bad it’s not bad. It’s okay.

SAVTICH:  It was okay.

ELLISON:  Norman Mailer might have given me something better, but Brokaw did okay he was all right.

SAVITCH:  Well he doesn’t do a bad job here either. Thank you very much Mr. Ellison we appreciate you being here this morning.

ELLISON: Thank you.