Dalton Trumbo: Physical Writing Process
Updated: Jun 24, 2018
Writing in the Bathtub & the Duality of Screenwriter-Novelist
Dalton Trumbo liked to write while he was in the bathtub. I wouldn’t say that he wrote while he was taking a bath because it was less about the bath and more about the idea that being there in the water was a comfortable place for him to sit and write all night. And at first I was thinking, maybe that’s not so odd—but the water mixing in with his papers and ink—and apparently he would have his typewriter in there with him sometimes too. It just all seems like it wouldn’t mix well! I would be paranoid of getting water on any of these things. But apparently it worked for him, and it’s considered a very iconic part of his writing process, as verified by this photograph of the statue depicting him in his hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado.
You’ll notice in these photos, he keeps scissors and tape at hand. That’s because the other part of his physical writing process was cutting up pages and taping them together as he revised. Once he figured out the revision, he’d tape the cut out pieces all together on one page so he knew that was the new, final version of the page to be typed up.
The trailer for the 2015 movie Trumbo
Trumbo is best known as the man who broke the Hollywood blacklist. When he was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he stood up for his belief in the first amendment and was uncooperative, which led to him being sent to jail for a year on the charge of contempt of Congress along with the rest of the Hollywood Ten. There is some debate over the precise nature of Trumbo’s communism, but the fact is that the Hollywood Ten believed the first amendment should protect them from having to answer to congress about their political beliefs, and they hoped to bring the case before the Supreme Court (it didn’t work out for them because two liberal justices died, so they were stuck going to jail). During the time of the blacklist, when any suspected communists couldn’t work in Hollywood, Trumbo continued to write scripts by having writer-friends allow him to use their names as fronts, and sometimes using pseudonyms—the pseudonym Robert Rich famously being awarded an Oscar for The Brave One, which became part of Trumbo’s campaign to tear down the blacklist, leading to him being credited for his movies once more and eventually, the eradication of the whole blacklist.
Trumbo wasn’t only a writer of movies though, he was also a novelist and fiction writer. I had never heard of Trumbo before, but my mom mentioned to me that she saw the 2015 movie about him and thought I would like it, especially because it was about a writer. I didn’t see it at the time, but I remembered that conversation later when I was with my wife at a dollar store. I always look at the book aisle while she’s shopping, even though for years I never bought a book there. However, on this occasion, a book cover depicting Bryan Cranston in front of a typewriter drew my attention, and I realized this was the nonfiction book that the movie was based on, so I got it for a dollar, not knowing if I’d even read it. But I picked it up recently and became fascinated by the whole thing. There was a duality to Trumbo’s identity as a writer. On the one hand, he had his fiction, which he sometimes considered “real” writing and at times thought would be the better path to take—his true art form. Opposed to this was his writing of film scripts, which was associated with money and not being true art. It is clear that Bruce Cook—who wrote the biography and held extensive interviews with Trumbo and his friends, family, and associates—definitely agrees with this assessment and writes with lament about Trumbo’s unfinished novels. During the year he spent in prison, Trumbo began a novel that he intended as the first in a cycle of historical novels. Bruce Cook writes of Trumbo’s optimism on the first novel, “And with these feelings came again the recurrent yearning to be a novelist, what he still thought of as a real writer.” Trumbo wrote 150 pages of the novel, and in a letter to his wife he wrote, “More and more I realize that when I emerge from this place I must at last make the choice of whether I want to live at the rate of $25,000 a year as we always have, or whether I want truly to become a writer. I think it would be better for all of us if the latter course were taken, although it would entail certain sacrifices.” Trumbo never finished that novel. Movie industry executive Arthur Krim said: “Dalton is able to write anything. He has great facility. People might criticize him even for that, but I find it very good. There is only one other writer I have known in my long experience who had a similar facility, and this was, of course, Ben Hecht. I did seven scripts with him. But with both of them, too, I have the feeling that if pictures had not used the talent of these people, then they would have become greater writers. They got used to a higher life style, and they were spoiled for higher ambitions as writers. In pictures, you know, a writer can never be as important as he is in writing novels and plays, and so on. I’m thinking of them in this, what they could have done. On the other hand, we film people should be grateful that such talents will write for us.” Albert Maltz, who was also a playwright, fiction writer and screenwriter who was jailed alongside Trumbo as part of the Hollywood Ten said: “I mentioned [Trumbo’s] Pacific novel already, of course. It was quite interesting, as I recall. I read one or two chapters. I don’t remember its content, but I made some suggestions. But that whole story points to an aspect of Trumbo’s character that I find really disturbing. I remember we were in his study talking about this Pacific novel of his. It was around 1946, and it was in that house on Beverly Drive. He had an enormous board up on a stand, white cardboard, and he explained to me that this Pacific novel was just one of a whole cycle he intended to write. He had a genealogical tree covering them worked out on this chart, showing where each one fitted in and what period and action it covered and all. It was a very ambitious project. But of course he never wrote them. Never wrote any of them… He had had a piece published in the Nation, and it was very good, very incisive, acidly witty. I said to him, ‘Dalton, why don’t you so arrange your life that you write more pieces like this?’ He shrugged and said nothing more about it. There is no question that Trumbo had talent for much greater literary work than the film work that he produced. The reason he never did what he could have done was this obsession of his with making money and living in a grand manner… It kept him writing, and writing, and writing, though. Why do writers write, after all? I know all about Balzac’s desire for money, Stendhal’s wish to woo women, and whatever it was that drove Victor Hugo. Flaubert didn’t produce what Hugo did, but what he did write was infinitely more important. So it may be foolish for me to say this about Trumbo, perhaps. He is what he is. He must have some reason for doing what he did, for using his talent the way he did. Though it’s a mystery to me.” When Bruce Cook reflects on Trumbo’s life, he writes: “Trumbo was a complex man, one whose impulses and attitudes were frequently, perhaps constantly, in conflict. He had a novel under way for years, begun in 1960, set aside, rewritten but never abandoned… Many people have remarked that Trumbo should have written more novels; none, I’m sure, wished it more profoundly than he did. Not that he was ashamed of the screenwriting he had done. He loved films, loved working in the medium, and was surprisingly good at it. Yet in the end, perhaps particularly in the end, as he took stock of what he had done, Trumbo may well have wished that he had a solid pile of books that he could claim as indisputably his. Film is flimsy stuff, essentially of the moment; that is its glory and his shame. He joked about this, always a sign with him that it was something he took seriously.” There’s a trope about artists needing to make sacrifices for their art, but it seems to be at play in this duality with Trumbo as a writer. It is understandable that people wish Trumbo had focused more on his fiction, since the few novels he did write early in his career received critical acclaim. Trumbo’s most famous novel is the antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, which won a National Book Award. Much, much later in his life, in response to the Vietnam War, Trumbo decided to make the novel into a movie, the only film he directed. Even though it won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, it was not particularly successful. Wikipedia offers the sardonic note that “the film became far better known when it was incorporated in the video of Metallica's song 'One'” I do enjoy how many Metallica songs are based on literature.
Metallica's music video for "One" uses clips from Trumbo's film version of Johnny Got His Gun.
---Other Entries in this Series--- The Physical Writing Process: Octavia Butler - Inspiring Oneself
See also: The American Writers Museum ---------------------------------------------------------- Joseph Patrick Pascale - How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You (Accurate Accounts of Office Work: Book 1), a comic literary novel coming from Waldorf Publishing in September 2018.