One afternoon, when I was supposed to be writing but was instead doing my shuffling-aimlessly-from-room-to-room-in-bathrobe-and-slippers routine, I remembered something that got my heart pounding. It was the interview I’d read the night before, where Terry Southern (he of Easy Rider, Dr. Strangelove and The Cincinnati Kid fame) described screenwriters as “completely incompetent in any other form of writing, and, of course, disastrous in their own.” Rushing headlong to the john, I frantically drew a bath, determined to soak in my own filth until the terror passed. Soon enough, my chest stopped heaving and my mind stopped spinning—but even so, the feeling lingered. Could it be? Was it true? I had to know.
I heaved my girth from the water, taking most of it with me, and padded to the mirror. Yes, all the telltale signs were there, staring me in the face. I was absolutely sure of it, in fact. And in the next instant, before I could stop them, three little words erupted like a mid-meal belch: “I’m a hack.”
I couldn’t believe it, but yes, there… I’d said it. Now that it was out, I knew I could never take it back. Oddly enough, for some reason, it didn’t feel so bad. In fact, it was something of a relief. I felt like a dentist who, after years of being mistaken for a real doctor and keeping his mouth shut about it, finally stood up and announced to the world: “I’m a dentist, okay?! That’s right, a dentist! And proud of it!”
Just to be sure I wasn’t making this up as another excuse not to write, I ran down a quick checklist of known hack trademarks:
1) I have dedicated my entire life to finding ways to avoid real work. [check]
2) I am articulate but, when stuck for a word or proper phrase, “and shit” is liberally employed. [check]
3) Writing something that I feel “passionate” about seems foreign and utterly ludicrous. [check]
4) If someone’s willing to pay me to write, I’m convinced I’ve somehow “gotten one over” on them. [check]
Okay. That clinched it. Finally, I recognized myself for what I was. So what now? The choices were pretty obvious: Either I embrace the new me or join in the delusional free-fall that is Hollywood.
Hmm. Tough one. I thought maybe it would help make up my mind if I tried this whole hack thing on for size. A little test-run so to speak, one which would soon enough lead me to the following conclusion: Hacks get no respect in this town, particularly ones who are open about it.
This would become abundantly clear at a dinner party the following weekend. When the inevitable “What do you do for a living?” query came up, I shrugged and, with nary an iota of irony answered: ‘Oh, I’m a writer. A screenwriter, actually. You know, a hack.’
Immediately, the stares flew fast and furious. I ducked into the kitchen, past the cruel recriminations of my peers mumbling something about “self-respect.” I couldn’t blame them. It was standard denial-speak for those in an industry where the gloriously derivative and riotously self-indulgent are rewarded, where rampant pandering passes for ambition, where copycats wind up on the dais instead of in the courtroom.
I drained the last of my drink and, armed with this shiny new understanding of myself, exited the kitchen. Trying to avert a lynching (and with the hope of having some “insider magic” rub off on me), my wife grabbed my arm and led me over to our backward-baseball-cap-wearing host, a fellow scribe who’d just sold his first big pitch. I instantly pegged him for someone whose dogged pursuit of success leaves guys like me in the dust. Even so, I managed a smile, extended my hand and said: “Fooled ‘em, huh? Good for you, pal. How much you take ‘em for?” Said scribe glanced at the offending limb, then offered a glib response in the man-child argot of his generation. I took the hint and, once again, made for the safety of the kitchen.
Downing a fresh one, the little voice in my head took up where my colleagues had left off: “What the hell is wrong with you? Have you no shame? What about your legacy? What do you hope to leave behind, you know, for posterity and shit?” Then one final thought breached the primordial clearinghouse that is my mind: “Hey, you wanna wind up like that guy Ed Wood, or something?”
Huh. That really hit home. I considered the possibility and—get this—immediately cheered up. That’s right, the thought that I might someday be heralded as the worst writer of my time seemed like an inviting alternative to the obscurity I was accustomed to. After all, the byways of Hollywood are littered with the corpses of nobodies. Why not stand out from the pack? ‘Gee,’ I thought, ‘this whole hack thing ain’t half bad after all.’
So there you have it. I’ve come clean. Now it’s your turn. But wait, you probably think you’re different, right? That you’re making some kind of “contribution” or whatever. Fair enough. Tell you what, let’s find out once and for all, shall we?
Here, take this little test…
If your agent calls with an assignment, say, to adapt a comic book or something equally challenging, what’s the first thing out of your mouth?
a) Who’s the author?
b) When can I read the material?
c) When do I see a check?
If you answered ‘c,’ congratulations. You’re among friends. But hey, don’t sweat it. Remember, this is our calling, our mission—to band together and hold our heads high. One day we will, and no one will ever forgive us for it. And that’ll be just fine.