Un-Screwing the Writer
Thanks to our dear friend Jeff Sexton, who sent in this clip of sci-fi superstar Harlan Ellison cutting loose with one of his tastiest rants.
If you haven’t got three-and-a-half minutes, here are a few tidbits from Mr. E’s sulfuric screed:
“I don’t take a piss without getting paid for it.”
“I’m supposed to give a freebie to Warner Bros.? What, is Warner Bros. out on the sidewalk with an eyepatch and a tin cup?”
“It’s the amateurs who screw things up for the professionals by giving it away for free.”
“Pay me! Cross my palm with silver!”
“Are they any less the media whore than I? I think not. I sell my soul, but for the highest rate.”
Of course, Harlan Ellison is not a media whore. He’s a pro in the best sense of the word, who has delivered some of the choicest speculative fiction ever, on dozens of Star Trek episodes and his own shelf of novels, not to mention “the greatest sci-fi movie never made,” the adapted screenplay to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
Then what’s he so exercised about? He doesn’t like getting screwed (in this case by studios and producers trying to exploit his work for their own profit while stiffing him in the process.)
Most of us don’t have Harlan Ellison’s high-end problem. Most artists and entrepreneurs are giving it away—and grateful to be able to do even that. But we’re all getting screwed and we’re all in the same boat.
What’s worse, we boarded that vessel of our free will. We’re crewing, we’re swabbing the decks—and, even though we know it, we’re still fighting like mad just to stay aboard.
The problem is that we as artists and entrepreneurs don’t control the means of production or distribution. If we want our work to get “out there,” we have to make a deal—with a bank, a movie studio, a record label, a publishing house. Art and commerce inevitably clash, and we know who comes out on the short end of that.
Here’s what I think. You and I (and anyone else who wants to un-screw themselves) need to acquire two critical skills.
First, we need the faculty to assess our work objectively. When we have that, we’re free. No one can bully us, no one can intimidate us, no one can low-rate our material. We need the capacity to self-evaluate, self-validate and self-reinforce. Harlan Ellison has that. He knows when his stuff has chops, and he won’t back down to anyone who tells him it doesn’t.
That certainty can’t be faked. Is our work ready for prime time? If it isn’t, what do we need to do to get it there? Once it is there, we need to know that, unshakably. We need to ascend beyond our own petty Resistance, our own negative self-judgment and self-sabotage, our own “I’m not worthy” mind-set.
Second, we need to know how to fight for our work. This is the only way writers, artists and entrepreneurs can keep themselves from getting screwed by more powerful marketplace forces. Maybe this means becoming a hyphenate: a writer-producer, writer-performer, writer-publisher. Maybe it means acquiring an independent funding source. Maybe it means mastering the arcane arts of new media and social media. Maybe it simply means going to bat for our own material and selling the hell out of it.
This is no longer Writing/Music/Filmmaking 101. This is 501. This is Olympic level, pro level mastery. Do I possess it? I wish I did. But we can all take a lesson from Harlan Ellison’s tell-it-like-it-is pugnaciousness. He’s not just a writer or an artist; he’s a champion for his own material, for his children. He knows their worth and he won’t let anybody give them anything less.
You have convinced me, Mr. Ellison. I thank you, and I’m gonna pay you. So, if you’re out there somewhere, send an address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The check will be in the mail.