Tag Archives: Harlan Ellison

I Had a Writing Block Once. It Was the Worst 20 Minutes of My Life

Isaac Asimov? Robert Silverberg? Andrew J. Offutt? Harlan Ellison? David Gerrold? David Langford? Frederik Pohl? Anonymous Fan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg were both famously prolific. Apparently, one of them delivered the following quip:

I had a writing block once. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.

Alternatively, the remark may have been crafted by a fan in this form:

He had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.
She had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of her life.

Would you please explore the provenance of this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence of this humorous schema known to QI appeared in the influential 1972 collection of short stories titled “Again, Dangerous Visions” compiled and edited by Harlan Ellison. The author Andrew J. Offutt in the introduction to his tale stated that he had suffered a period during which his writing abilities had faltered. In the following excerpt Offutt employed his distinctive style using a lowercase “i”. Emphasis added by QI: 1

“Last summer, June 1970, i experienced my first Block, that ancient writer’s devil i’d heard about. Stupid; it was MY fault.

After an elaborate multi-paragraph description of his difficulties Offutt finally presented the punch line. The term “liefer” is in the original text:

“i fought, i kept sitting down and trying to type, i snarled, cursed, cussed, obscenitized. Kept on fingering keys, (i use three fingers, one of which is on my left hand. It gets sorest.) i kept on. Come on, damn you!

“i PREVAILED! It had been awful. It had lasted 45 minutes, and now i know what a block is. i’d liefer forget, and i will never ever stop at a stopping point again!

“i can’t see that a block ever need be longer, assuming one has any control over himself at all.

Harlan Ellison’s response to Offutt asserted that prominent science fiction authors such as Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley had endured blocks that had lasted for years. Ellison also wrote that the witticism about an evanescent impediment was already being told within SF fandom: 2

There are fans who jest about me and Silverberg “blocking”—for half an hour. But one day will come, smartass; one frightening, mouth-drying day when nothing comes. And then you’ll know what it is to suffer the torments of a hell you can’t even name.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124 and 125, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Two Most Common Elements in the Universe Are Hydrogen and Stupidity

Harlan Ellison? Frank Zappa? Anonymous?

zappa02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quotation that expresses the following idea:

Hydrogen and stupidity are the two most abundant materials in the universe

This notion can be expressed in many different ways. One version has been credited to the SF writer Harlan Ellison, and another version has been ascribed to the musician Frank Zappa. Would you please examine the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: This saying is highly mutable and difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1985 volume “An Edge in My Voice” by Harlan Ellison which primarily consisted of a set of columns written between 1980 and 1984. Ellison also updated the content by adding introductory remarks for each column under the section title “Interim Memo”. The following passage was from one of these supplementary introductions. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At a lecture I gave in Grand Forks, North Dakota in March of this year, someone asked me how do we finally knock the fools and obscurantists and believers in craziness out of the box once and for all. I told the woman that we can’t. Apart from hydrogen, the most common thing in the universe is stupidity.

In July 1986 a syndicated puzzle feature called “Celebrity Cipher” was printed in multiple newspapers. The solution to the cipher was a statement labeled “Zappa’s Canon”, i.e., it was a saying credited to Frank Zappa: 2 3

PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “There are two things on earth that are universal: hydrogen and stupidity.” — Zappa’s Canon.

In February 1987 a column about books in “Omni” magazine printed a quotation credited to Ellison: 4

Harlan Ellison: These would-be censors are monsters. And they will always be with us because the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1985, An Edge in My Voice by Harlan Ellison, (Collection of columns that originally appeared in Future Life, the L.A. Weekly and The Comics Journal), Installment 8: Interim Memo, (Introduction written for the book to a column that appeared in April 1981), Published by The Donning Company, Norfolk, Virginia. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1986 July 15, Cumberland Evening Times, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1986 July 15, The Journal-Register, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Medina, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1987 February, Omni magazine, Books: The Real Fahrenheit 451 by Marion Long, Quote Page 22, Omni Publications International, New York. (Verified with scans)