“The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” – Harlan Ellison
American writer Harlan Ellison is the subject of Erik Nelson’s 2008 documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth. Ellison is the renowned and prolific author of over 1700 works of fiction, short stories, essays, criticism and screenplays. His friend Robin Williams describes him as “a skin graft on a leper”, Neil Gaiman describes him as “one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century”, and Harlan describes himself as “a hard pill to swallow”. All these things are true but he’s also a smart, funny, erudite and ethical man who I fell in love with over the course of the film.
Harlan grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He gets visibly emotional looking at old video footage of his younger self, aged ten years old, with his parents. He vividly remembers what it was like to be small for his age, an victimised outcast, and believes this is the source of his legendary anger – the perfect revenge in Harlan’s eyes is to be razor smart and cut someone dead with a remark. His formative experiences so influenced him that he often used the names of his childhood bullies in his stories.
He often ran away from home and had a series of odd jobs throughout his teen years until, aged twenty one, he moved to New York City to become a writer. He published many short stories in the science fiction genre and had success, including a good review from Dorothy Parker for his short story collection Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation. In 1962 Harlan moved to LA (where he still lives) and continued to write fiction while also forging a career writing screenplays and scripts for TV.
Spending time with Harlan (even if it is just in the form of a documentary) is like getting electro shock therapy. His energy, abrasiveness and passion fairly crackles through the screen, he speaks in a rapid fire way with power and intensity. He talks about atheism, the universe, writing, art, love, and television amongst many other subjects in the documentary, and on every topic he has a considered opinion.
Ellison’s irascible temper is legendary and can be epitomised by this rant on paying the writer – a rant every writer can empathise with. It’s completely well reasoned, almost without profanity, but still so vitriolic that you’d hate to be on the receiving end of it. He admits that everything makes him angry but rhetorically posits if we think he’s happy getting up and being that angry all day.
Even if you haven’t read Ellison’s work this is a fascinating film and worth watching – an insight into a brilliant man who is an inspiration for many writers.
(Another reason I like Harlan? [He’d laugh at me for this.] He is a Gemini and his birthday is two days after mine. He will be 78 this year.)