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(Please indulge me for a moment this week; a publishing friend’s son was terribly injured in Afghanistan. It looks like he’ll pull through, but if you pray, please pray for this family – and all vet families.)
In the 1957 film, “The Sweet Smell of Success,” Burt Lancaster assumed the role of powerful/ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker. It was one of those career roles that Lancaster infused with whatever acting spirit he had. The menacing, malevolent, stiffly smiling Hunsecker still chills those of us who watch him.
In order to destroy the romance between his sister and a musician, Hunsecker uses the sleazy talents of publicist Sidney Falco (played so well by Tony Curtis). Falco is willing to jettison any ideals he ever had to win Hunsecker’s lethal approval.
By the way, the script was crafted (that wasn’t mere writing) by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. The level of their abilities is perhaps never seen today, especially in this age of failures like “Failure to Launch” and any Lifetime movie you’d care to name.
Among the great lines of dialogue in this memorable film: “Maybe I left my sense of humor in my other suit.”
Hunsecker was Darwinian, in the sense that he believed in Herbert Spencer’s dictum that “the survival of the fittest” justifies most cruelties in nature, especially among humans.
In fact, in the film, Falco uses the phrase “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
What does this have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually.
Hunsecker was aware of his ability with a pen, or typewriter. Using his communication skills verbally, he’d long ago learned that his clipped, almost-robotic responses to those unnerved poor souls in his presence gained him power. Celebrity. He liked people to fear him.
I thought of this recently after talking to a friend highly placed in the publishing world; he was talking about the ego involved in writing anything. His point is well-taken.
“The writing life – the drive to be published – is inherently ego-centric,” he said in his clipped, cool responses to my questions. He tapped a cigarette into a small plate as we sat at an outdoor café.
“Are you satisfied with where your own career has taken you?” I asked.
“I’ve succeeded in certain ways,” he said. “The money’s been good, really good. Of course I’m not desperate to get published in this economy. It makes a difference.”
“But when you wake up in the morning, do you detect the sweet smell of success?” I asked.
I wanted to know how his success had made him feel; you see, my friend is an investigative journalist who has written things that exposed sometimes-innocent people.
“You think I’m Hunsecker?” He smiled, and I thought how good he’d look in steel-rimmed glasses.
“I’m interested in who you think you are, after so many years ‘succeeding’ with writing,” I said. “You make a nice living and have some measure of notoriety.”
He smiled again as he tapped the now-dead cigarette. “Ah, but the notoriety is the thing, you see. It is the thing we strive for and hope to obtain, and once that task is finished …”
His unfinished sentence let me know that he isn’t totally comfortable with the power his pen has brought him.
My point in all this is, I talk to writers every day. Constantly. Phone, email, in person. My discussions range from those who are novices to … the Hunseckers.
Some are grounded, pleasant people. Some are probably unhinged. But all have one common denominator: Ego.
The ego required to be published causes all of us to either awaken early or stay up late (a few do both!) and make writing a priority. Writing takes us from other priorities, many of them worthwhile, even important.
Of course, most writers do what they do so they can eat, but I also suspect that the curse/blessing of writing ability has competent writers bound to what they do. A writer has to write.
The real question is, especially as the policy vampires in Washington work feverishly to destroy the economy and thus make people desperate to utilize whatever talents they have to make ends meet … is your writing noble? Does it elevate humanity in some way?
Or does it flow from your fingers in a clipped, robotic way, turning its head stiffly toward the shortest path to the sweet smell of success, no matter who it hurts, or no matter what noble priority you’ve jettisoned so that you can attend your own gala signing?
Measure very carefully the cost to what you’ve chosen to do with the abilities you have. If you don’t check those lowest human impulses, you will indeed eat a few dogs and live to fight another day. But one day the pack of dogs will come for you.