The current state of blogging on WordPress leaves a lot to be desired. In addition to the daily posting
spamming of inane writing prompts, there are all manner of “writers” who offer up writing advice… for a price. Spoiler Alert: there is nothing that these self-identified writing coaches can offer that hasn’t already been published elsewhere, for free.
A writer does not need permission to write, but a writer does need a reason to write. Every writer has different motivation: some are fond of myopic writing and often choose themselves for subject matter, while others are focused on the external world and write in order to affect change in the way people experience reality.
No matter what the reason for writing, we are always doing the same thing: making a record of the human condition at a specific point in time.
Oscar Wilde – Give a Man a Mask…
Oscar Wilde’s quote, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth,” was obviously made before the dawn of Internet trolling. Today, up to 5.6% of people use anonymity on the Internet to inadvertently display their “darker traits,” such as sadism, narcissism and high levels of psychopathy (AsapSCIENCE 2017).
In 2018, you can give someone a mask but it’s important to note that a small portion of the population will use that mask to lie and deceive; the rest of us will use that mask to tell the truth. In my previous blog article, “Trolling on the Internet: Sockpuppet Accounts Disrupt Conversation Online,” I pointed out the crux of the New Scientist article, “Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post,” is how:
“[Researchers] found that sock puppets contribute poorer quality content, writing shorter posts that are often downvoted or reported by other users. They post on more controversial topics, spend more time replying to other users and are more abusive. Worryingly, their posts are also more likely to be read and they are often central to their communities, generating a lot of activity” (Gent 2017).
This is the unfortunate state of public discourse over the Internet, but it doesn’t have to stay that way as pseudonyms could once again be co-opted by writers to tell the truth. The problem with writing has always been that some places (at certain points in time) can be hostile towards a writer who tries to tell the truth.
Today, journalists in certain parts of the world put their lives on the line to relay real stories to the public. But this blog post isn’t about today, it’s about the McCarthy-era and when Hollywood blacklisted a talented individual because of his political ideology.
What is a pseudonym? Who uses them?
A pseudonym (alias) is a name that a person or group can assume for a particular purpose, usually to protect personal identity by concealing it from criticism.
In the 2015 film Trumbo, Bryan Cranston portrays the rise, fall and rise of writer Dalton Trumbo. According to IMDB.com’s synopsis: “In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.”
The movie follows the ideological roller coaster that Trumbo rode during the last half of his life, as he tried to clear his name from the damage done to his reputation by the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunt.
Some real Shakespearian shit went down as Trumbo wrote under several pseudonyms and even won a couple of Oscars for his screenplays: Roman Holiday (1953), which was initially attributed to his friend, Ian McClellan Hunter; and, The Brave One (1956), which he penned under the nom de plume “Robert Rich.”
In the Los Angeles Times article, “How Dalton Trumbo and other blacklisted writers quietly racked up ‘50s Oscar wins,” writer Susan King talks about the history of how Trumbo came to use pseudonyms:
“But as one of the Hollywood Ten — a group of writers, producers and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into alleged communist influence in Hollywood, he’d been blacklisted from working at the major studios…Still, many of the blacklisted writers such as Trumbo, who died in 1976, found a way to earn a living by writing under a pseudonym or enlisting a front — someone who would publicly take the writing credit, such as Hunter, who would later himself be blacklisted” (King 2016).
Side Note: The idea of a “writing front” is something that Woody Allen parodied in his 1976 film, The Front. Here’s IMDB.com’s synopsis on The Front: “In 1953, a cashier poses as a writer for blacklisted talents to submit their work through, but the injustice around him pushes him to take a stand.”
But back to how the Hollywood Tens’ failure to cooperate with an ongoing investigation landed writers, like Trumbo, in prison. The jailing and subsequent blacklisting of Dalton Trumbo lit a fire under his ass the likes of which have yet to be seen again.
In the article, “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Dalton Trumbo,” writer Ethan Trex points out that:
“Even though Trumbo went to jail and found his way onto the Hollywood blacklist, he didn’t stop writing. On the contrary, he surreptitiously did some of his best work during the blacklist years. After getting out of jail, Trumbo decamped to Mexico and started cranking out scripts under a variety of pseudonyms,” (Trex 2009).
This is the kind of true grit and perseverance that any writer can draw inspiration from: even though Trumbo was down-and-out and swimming in legal fees, he still found the motivation to work towards clearing his name while taking advantage of anonymity to get paid for his work.
In one of my favorite writing scenes, Trumbo goes about cornering a new market for his talents. He lays out a plan to the King brothers about how he intends to publish his screenplays under a pseudonym for peanuts:
Trumbo (2015) – Writing for the King Brothers Scene:
Trumbo @ 0:27 “Alright, I’ll write you a movie for $1,200 then.”
Frank King @ 0:33 “And you don’t want your name on it?”
Trumbo @ 0:35 “No, you don’t want my name on it.”
Hymie King @ 0:37 “You got that right, especially if you’re still, um…ya know, up to stuff. Are ya?”
Trumbo @ 0:43 “Perpetually.”
Trumbo goes on to promise to deliver a 100-page screenplay in three days, which sets the tone for his work ethic in the rest of the film. A portrayal of Trumbo’s writing process begins at the 1:22-minute mark:
We see Trumbo arched over the typewriter, plugging away. Trumbo smokes a cigarette through a filter, and pauses for a moment to mix some booze into his coffee that he stirs in with his finger. As with any endurance writing session, Trumbo attempts to get more comfortable by taking away some of the pain that hits the lower back after the first couple of hours.
When all other attempts at mitigating the discomfort from his marathon writing session fail, Trumbo jumps into a hot bath to write by hand. He continues to write, smoke and drink from the bathtub, as it becomes increasingly obvious that his determination (and benzedrine addiction) will not let him rest.
The image of Trumbo working out of a bathtub has been immortalized with a statue in Grand Junction, Colorado. This “interesting work habit” of his was expanded upon further in the Mental Floss article, “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Dalton Trumbo,”:
“For starters, Trumbo liked to bang out his screenplays from the bathtub at night. Working from the tub isn’t so strange, but Trumbo often had company when he wrote: a parrot that Spartacus star Kirk Douglas had given the writer as a gift…Douglas later wrote of Trumbo in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son, ‘He worked at night, often in the bathtub, the typewriter in front of him on a tray, a cigarette in his mouth (he smoked six packs a day). On his shoulder perched a parrot I had given him, pecking Dalton’s ear while Dalton pecked at the keys’” (Trex 2009).
Trex goes on to tell one of Steve Martin’s anecdotes about having dated Trumbo’s daughter, Mitzi, and that Martin “later recalled how Trumbo smoked pot to curb his drinking and exercised by walking laps around his swimming pool while smoking a cigarette” (Trex 2009). If anything else, this just goes to show how important exercise is to the writing process.
After all of his late-nights, Trumbo still had to face the fact that it was easier (and more lucrative) for him to publish his work under a pseudonym. As a writer, I love this image of someone being so caught up in their writing that they’re willing to take it literally anywhere in order to continue working on it. That Dalton Trumbo was actively trying to impact social change, on top of being a successful artist, is something that we can all aspire to.
Pseudonyms have traditionally offered a certain amount of freedom and expression to those who use them. It’s important to remember that: some people will tell the truth whether you give them a mask or not, while others will hide behind a mask in order to lie and deceive. It takes all kinds, doesn’t it?
All Things Considered. “‘Trumbo’: A Blacklisted Writer, In His Own Words.” NPR.org: July 17, 2008. Website: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91576667
AsapSCIENCE. “The Science of Internet Trolls.” YouTube: January 16, 2016. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zxy_dScjsM
Electric Lit. “INFOGRAPHIC: A History of Pen Names.” ElectricLiterature.com: May 08, 2015. Website: https://electricliterature.com/infographic-a-history-of-pen-names-83d4415a1c14
Gent, Edd. “Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post.” New Scientist: April 06, 2017. Website: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2127107-sock-puppet-accounts-unmasked-by-the-way-they-write-and-post/
Movieclips. “Trumbo (2015) – Writing for the King Brothers Scene (3/10) | Movieclips.” YouTube: January 27, 2017. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwrWW26_JHY
King, Susan. “How Dalton Trumbo and other blacklisted writers quietly racked up ’50s Oscar wins.” Los Angeles Times: January 04, 2016. Website: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/la-en-oscar-archives-20160105-story.html
Trex, Ethan. “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Dalton Trumbo.” MentalFloss.com: October 16, 2009. Website: http://mentalfloss.com/article/23026/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-dalton-trumbo