What Freedom Means to Me: ‘The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline’

What Freedom Means

Another treasure that has come out of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is yet another wonderful book called The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline. I would say that my visit to that excellent museum in Cody, Wyoming was equivalent to discovering a massive chunk of gold and igniting a gold rush in California or South Dakota. It was a rich experience that has produced treasures that kept on giving. I saw many very wonderful things in America during 2021, but so far, my visit to that Center of the West and the books I found there have been life-changing, given the state of the world we are all experiencing. I went there looking for answers, and I found plenty. And within that book about Ned Buntline, which was an alias for the real person E. Z. C. Judson, was a passage that I thought was particularly potent. You see, Ned Buntline was at his time one of the most prolific writers in America, in the world for that matter. He influenced people like Mark Twain and later would give birth to the Republic serials, the movie career of John Wayne, create Buffalo Bill, and essentially launch modern entertainment as we know it now. But I found a passage particularly relevant to me which said by Judson, “I found that to make a living I must write trash for the masses, for he endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.” I have never read a more accurate statement. 

Obviously, I write a tremendous amount of material. I always have, and it is the most frequent question I get asked. “Why do you do it,” they say. Well, I would say I do it because I love it. And also cherish my freedom to such an extent that I do not want other people involved in my doing it. When you sell writing, you bring others into the process, and I have found that I hate giving up those freedoms. In my early years, I wrote in newspapers and online periodicals, such as American Thinker and such things. I had frequent contact with Wilshire Blvd. agents in Hollywood as I was in the mode to sell screenplays to get into the movie business. I didn’t think that I was very attached to those bodies of work, but I discovered that I wouldn’t say I liked to work within the confines of editors who all had a liberal slant compared to my positions. I remember sitting in an office with an agent who wanted to represent me and listening to them tell me that I needed to tone down the violence of an award-winning screenplay that I had called The Lost Cannibals of Cahokia because it would turn people off. I thought that was nonsense, and later that year, Kill Bill came out, which was along the same lines as what I was writing, and it was very successful. It wasn’t the violence that the agent had a problem with. Instead, it was just their way of sticking their nose into my work and shaping it into something they could relate to, which happens all the time.

I’ve written books, short stories and been in contact with just about every publishing house that exists, and they all left the same bad taste in my mouth. I learned over time that the only way to write for a living was to do as Ned Buntline did, to listen to the editorial critics and focus on the masses. But to me, that felt cheap, and it made me not love the writing process. So I decided to make a living in different ways; I had many other talents, after all. Did I really need to sell my writing? Of course not, life is what you make it, and if you love what you do and don’t really care who sees it, then there is a certain freedom to it that has much more value. In these modern times where newspapers are irrelevant, there are plenty of options for the self-publisher who can write for themselves, and if a critical few enjoy the work, good for them. So that is how I came to write so much in the way that I do. That is also why there aren’t more writers out there unveiling the truth about things, because they always have editors who reel them in from the touchy stuff, like talking about Covid, election fraud, or whatever company policy the publisher has. To be free in life, you have to function without the restrictions of other people’s opinions.   They may not like what you are doing; you may find that you write for only that critical, vital few. But it’s better work, it’s more important because of its authenticity, and it feels better as a person to produce it. 

I thought this was all particularly important, at least to me, in defining freedom. We talk about it all the time. But when we say it, what do we want freedom from? In a free market system, we should all be free within reason to pursue our own way in life without some centralized government pointing us in the direction of their deficiencies. And just because you are free, there is no promise that people will like what you do. But with Ned Buntline, would he have traded authenticity for all his fame and fortune? In life, he was a crazy person with all kinds of deficiencies, many of which I would attribute to a genius that had to be snuffed out to write material for those masses to make a living. The contrast in that life was too much for him, and he lived a reckless and uninhibited, sometimes lawless life. We often see it in such people who know better than to live the confines of a life controlled by others. They turn to the bottle or reckless relationships with other people and find themselves damaged as people as a result all too often. That is the cost of a lack of freedom in people’s lives. Everyone has to figure out what freedom means to them. For me, it’s being able to do what I love without other people sticking their noses into the process. Writing is not a collaborative process where movie making is. I prefer to write what I want, let people think what they want, and do whatever happens as a result.

Meanwhile, I’m on to the next dozen topics, which is how it is with me. And I love it that way. Freedom for me is not being stuck in the mud of other people’s lives, especially the government. And I love it so much that I prefer not to sell my work to the masses but to produce it for myself and share it with whomever. But never to be stuck or shaped by the opinions of others. And in that way, I am one of the freest people on earth, and I will continue that way. So when we talk about freedom, we have to define what that is for ourselves. When I am asked why I write so much, that passage in The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline says it all. And it says much more about the freedoms we all expect as Americans when we point at a government and call it tyranny. 

Rich Hoffman

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