Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Trumbo, A Writer’s Writer


One of the more unattractive threads in the human fabric is fear. It drives us to retreat, fight, and yield to forces greater than ourselves. When demagogues use human fear to garner devotion, fear becomes a monster threatening our own security. So it was when fear gripped 17th century Salem.

Taught to dread an invisible, malevolent force, Puritans often attributed unusual, aberrant behaviors to the devil’s work. They had no insight into mental illness, addiction, or developmental disabilities; these were deemed evil and those affected put away or punished.

Arthur Miller told us about the times in his play, The Crucible. Miller relied upon historical documents to recreate the fear that gripped Salem and caused the death by hanging or pressing (with stones) of many citizens. The first to die were those on the margins of society--the poor, the different, the defiant.

Miller also used Salem to tell the tale of America in the grip of another fear--a fear of communism in the highest offices of U. S. government. Anyone casually associated with the Communist party, those committed to the party as a political choice, and those not at all connected to the party were equally likely to suffer economic downturns after being blacklisted or the cost of a legal defense when summoned to appear before the U. S. House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Just as young girls cried witch in the 1700s to escape punishment for misdeeds, grown men and women in the 1950s cried communist to be treated favorably by those sitting in judgment. Everyone in both eras was encouraged to narc on friends and strangers in order to save himself.

One man refused. His name was Dalton Trumbo, and he was a writer who had earned acclaim and continued to do so even while blacklisted--except he didn’t earn that acclaim under his own name. He wrote under other names because writing is all he knew to do; writing was the only way he knew to support his wife and three children.

Driven to write and apparently preferring to do so while soaking in a bath, smoking one cigarette after another, Trumbo proved to have a spine of steel. He knew what was right, and he knew what he could live with and what he could not. He didn’t break, retreat, or yield to forces that wanted him to name others. Instead, he organized several to stand together, and he strove to do the work he loved even while under a cloud. His is a story for writers.

If you are compelled to write, then you might be a writer. If you are compelled to read, then you might be a writer. If you are compelled to tell stories and speak in the words of other times and regions, then you might be a writer.

Reading Challenge:

Read Trumbo, a 2015 film about Dalton Trumbo with Bryan Cranston starring. You might also appreciate meeting the man through his screenplays. These include Five Came Back (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944), The Brave One (1956), and Spartacus (1960).

Writing Challenge:

After watching several films penned by Dalton Trumbo, try to match his wit and dialogue in a scene of your own.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.