The Hack and the Muse
3 min read

The Hack and the Muse

It’s good to be a hacker, but it’s bad to be a hack. Those are the connotations of the words where I come from — where “where I come from” means everything from “Syracuse” to “my engineer dad” to “my nine-year relationship with a programmer who had a complicated but basically positive relationship with hacking, and a complicated but basically negative relationship with me, though I think this was a matter of simple incompatibiliy, and I wish him well.” Today I’ve been prodding with my tongue at hacker and hack, trying to figure out why they taste different.

It’s unclear, but probable, that the two words share an etymology (I know it’s a hack move to lead an essay with an etymological note; let’s say I’m doing a thing). “Hack,” as in “hack writer,” comes from “hackney,” suggesting repetitive work for hire. In other words, you’re driving a cab, and not because the Muse demanded it. “Hacker” likely comes from the same concept (albeit with a positive spin: “a person who enjoys doing repetitive programming work”). It might also be about hacking through a system’s defenses, though that meaning of the word seems to have come later.

Despite their shared root, “hacker” implies skill and ingenuity, while “hack” remains an unqualified insult. Like a lot of insults, it’s got a unique, gnarly mouthfeel. There’s a catch in the throat on the K, very like “fuck” — but unlike “fuck,” the word doesn’t even have the dignity of focus, aim, or weight. “Fuck” comes from pursed lips, a cold thin stream of air, while “hack” pours from the whole hot mouth at once, like sound from a cheap Bluetooth speaker. And like a cheap Bluetooth speaker, it implies a plastic, disconnected quality, a brand name sprayed across the grille.

I’m not here to reclaim the word “hack,” because that’s hacky, by which I mean too tidy and cheap. But I do want to think about those early programmers who apparently heard the word “hack” and thought, “oh, wow, a hack! Someone who loves repetitive work! That sounds terrific! I want to be that!” — which is the opposite of how writers had always used the term. “Hack” positions hard work as the opposite of inspiration. “Hacker” positions hard work and inspiration as the same thing.

Etoine Keming — the hero of a book I wrote in 2013, which I am now using as the seed of a more mature and interesting book — is a hack, in the sense that he’s a jobbing portrait painter who resents the idea of the inspired artist. (I gleefully named him for two phrases suggesting technician’s error, etaoin shrdlu and bad kerning.) At the time, I was pretty sure that wasn’t a good thing to be, but I chose him as the hero nonetheless, and imbued him with the cranky transmasc spirit I hadn’t yet recognized in myself. Much later, this decision helped me to transtion, and also to realize that I think Etoine is right. The man does excellent work for hire. He’s a painting-builder who’s here to solve problems, to labor, to job. He’s interested in success, but not in prestige. In the artistic and intellectual professions, prestige is the ten-spot under the table that we get when we work hard for nothing.

To think “I need to approach my plot and characters as a puzzle, a series of questions to answer and problems to solve”; to think “I’m an artisan”; to think “when I finish this book, I’m going to get that bread” — all this used to be anathema to me, and yet now that I’ve changed my mind, I find that the quality of my work is the same. The style’s the same. The literary merit is the same. The main difference is that I write faster, and I have more fun. If anything, I’ve become more experimental and more character-focused since coming to this pass, since when I think of a scene as a way of advancing my position on the chessboard, rather than a song I have to write to evoke the muse, it frees up a good deal of energy to add flourishes to my play.

The muse leans over the inspired artist and whispers in their ear, and doesn’t get any credit for what she does. The muse and the hack work in the same shop, side by side, as collaborators, and they’re paid for their labor. Solidarity, not division, for the artist and the muse!