Saints, Devils, and the Power of Work

On the day after Christmas, my husband, my mother, and I went to a nearby theater for a matinee of La La Land. On Christmas Eve we’d attended a live performance of the musical Finding Neverland, the story behind the story of Peter Pan. So a movie musical homage to Hollywood seemed like the perfect capper to our holiday entertainment. Plus, we were craving popcorn. Alas, it was not to be. Everyone, it seems, had the same idea. The movie was sold out all day long. Undaunted, we decided to relax at home and find a movie on Netflix or Amazon. My husband volunteered to make popcorn. He has many talents, but making a perfect batch of stovetop popcorn is one of his most endearing abilities.

We considered and rejected a number of movies before settling on Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. It was a movie about Hollywood, after all, though not the shiny tribute we’d set out to see. Instead, Trumbo exposes a particularly dark era. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. Cranston was as good as he always is, which is excellent. Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper was terrifying, a perfect example of how dangerous self-righteous people can be. David James Elliott showed how John Wayne could be an American icon while ultimately being the worst sort of American.

(Sidenote: My father, who passed away this year, was an enormous admirer of John Wayne’s movies when he was a child and a young man. He even skipped school once to see John Wayne film a scene in the small Mississippi town where he lived as a boy. As we watched the movie, my mother said my father had eventually learned a bit about Wayne’s politics and lost respect for the man. Sometimes it doesn’t serve us to know too much about our heroes.)

A day later, I’m still thinking about Trumbo. It’s a dark mark in our recent history and I suspect most of us thought it would never happen again, but the incoming administration has already begun compiling lists. They’ve asked for lists of people who have worked on certain projects and talked about instituting bans on people with particular religious beliefs. It is the same dangerous practice that ultimately led to writers being jailed for expressing unpopular opinions. We are foolish and naive if we believe it can’t happen again. But it wasn’t the actions of the people behind the blacklist that really stuck with me after seeing the movie; it was Trumbo’s work ethic.

When accepting the Laurel Award from the Writers Guild in 1970, Trumbo said, “Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to.”

Trumbo’s nature, needs, convictions, and circumstances compelled him to work. Even when no studio would hire him, he found a way to work. He sold his screenplays, including Roman Holiday, under a series of aliases and with the help of sympathetic friends. He churned out A-level scripts for B-movie studios. He had to work twice as hard for a fraction of the money and none of the accolades, but he kept right on working. Of course, he had a family to feed and his nearly year-long stint in jail plus the legal fees had drained his accounts. He had to work, and the action of working sustained him. Another sort of man might have been compelled to quit. Plenty of other men revealed their true nature when they named names and sent former friends to jail. Cowards became more cowardly. Honorable people acted with honor.

The same thing happens whenever we are faced with hard times. Some people crumble under pressure, others become ever more resilient. I suspect we’ll face some character tests over the coming years. When white supremacists feel emboldened to show their faces on the evening news and powerful people seem driven by petty revenge fantasies, we’ll have to decide whether to be silent or whether to speak up. It seems easy to say we’ll speak up, but will we? If the consequences of speaking up mean going to jail or losing our jobs, will we? If the consequences mean losing our lives, will we? Will I?

I hope so.

And I hope I can take a cue from Trumbo’s tremendous commitment to his work. I do find work sustaining. Even when things are hard or chaotic or sad, I sit down most days and I write. For years I wrote with no promise of publication. Before my first book was published and during the months after it was published, I spent many days working on the next book even though many writers warned me it would be impossible to focus. It was hard; it wasn’t impossible. I wrote while my father was dying. I wrote in the aftermath of an election that I found devastating. I have every reason to believe I will continue to write no matter what happens.

I hope that my commitment to work is one measure of my character, but I also hope it isn’t the only measure. I have not been particularly politically outspoken on my personal Facebook page, though I speak my mind here and on various other platforms. I was challenged this year about my reticence to use my personal page for political posts and I had to think about whether I was being a coward. The truth is, I don’t believe Facebook has much value for political speech. It’s an echo chamber and not a platform. The level of discourse is ugly and no one ever changes his mind. So I’ll probably continue posting pictures of my animals and liking photos of other people’s children in 2017. But on this page and on some other social media sites, I will continue to speak up and speak out even when the consequences might be unpleasant. I never want to be silenced by fear.

Finally, just because it is so good, here’s another excerpt from Trumbo’s speech in 1970:

There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides.

When you who are in your forties or younger look back with curiosity on that dark time, as I think occasionally you should, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us – right, left, or center – emerged from that long nightmare without sin.

I think these are good words for the end of a hard year. As we enter a New Year, my hope for all the sinners is that we somehow find our best selves in hard times and that we let our work sustain us.

Tiffany Quay Tyson
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Tiffany Quay Tyson