Thursday, September 30, 2010

Love: William Goldman

I've been spending a lot of time lately revising my thesis for the first round of workshop (which I hope somewhat explains my absence). In the days since I sent it to be printed, then, I've been thinking about the next thing I'm responsible for in workshop, which is to choose a book for the class to read that has somehow influenced or impacted my writing. The idea is to give ourselves a head start on our thesis introductions, which have to discuss our evolution and our influences in some way. There's a sense, too, in which the books chosen so far have been a sort of codex for the work of the student who chose it--often it's the premises and ideas of the books that we end up reading as the influence, in part because naturally people's work has departed in style, language, tone, etc. from the author they once emulated or felt inspired by. So Mike, for instance, chose Breakfast of Champions, and while the style and arrangement really brought little to bear on Mike's book, the ideas surrounding writing and "main character syndrome" were still present in Mike's approach to characterization, which is, overall, a pretty important key to appreciating his style. So we were able to read it as a playbook, in a sense, rather than a full-fledged model.

But now I have to choose a book, and it's hard. Really hard. And in part, the problem is that I have written, basically, an adventure book about psychics. So I feel like I have to give people a way to understand how I came to write about that, and why one would want to, as well as a "playbook" for how I approach writing in general. To my thinking, it should be a book that really matters to me, as opposed to one I have enjoyed or admired just once. Which makes me feel like I haven't read enough, or like I haven't read rightly who I've read (should I have read twice?), because there's only one book that comes to mind.

The only book I truly love is The Princess Bride by William Goldman.

Everyone knows what The Princess Bride is, but few in my experience, especially in the MFA, have any clue who William Goldman is. It's kind of hard to explain to them. William Goldman started out writing great books that fit pretty nicely into mainstream literary fiction, and seem (retroactively) to have been very popular, judging in part by their re-release as super-cheap paperbacks later in his career, and in part by the accompanying reviews. Reviewers tended to compare his characters to Holden Caulfield, making him the Salinger of his generation, an author gifted with the insight to depict life accurately, with characters whose rough edges were always rubbing up against each other. At some point, though, he made a hard break with those books and started writing thrillers (if you fear dentists, it's probably his Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man that you're thinking of) as well as screenplays, many based on his books (including Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but many others not--I think even now he is hired to punch up scripts that aren't working yet.

Naturally, he wrote the screenplay for The Princess Bride too, and though his is one of the very first credits--"Based on the book by William Goldman"--it seems to me that very few people who admit to loving the movie have seized on that credit the way that I did. There's more? I thought. I could have this story, but for longer? I checked it out at the library and never checked it back in until about two and a half years later, when someone else finally came calling for it. I left them a note in the pages telling them to take care of it and that I hoped they would enjoy it as much as I did. I kept a piece of that book with me--literally--the laminated corner of the cover, which had fallen off in my long stint as caretaker. There is still, mounted to the walls of my childhood bedroom, a reproduction I drew of the cover--my cover, the one I think of as the right one 15 years and two anniversary editions later.

What I think had happened to me was this: What I had found, at age 9, in the movie and the book was not a wonderful story, though it is a wonderful story. I had found a wonderful writer. This was not what I had been into reading for, previously--I liked series and classics and the kind of junky stuff that's always being made to be crack for kids. Youngenings of Robin Hood, stories about beloved dogs, and the like. And there wasn't a sequel to The Princess Bride--only a promised three-page reunion scene, which is "excised" from the book with the reason that S. Morgenstern didn't write it (and which I mailed in for, receiving in response a very funny form letter that felt very disappointing at the time). So it took me five or six years to try out his other books, which looked so dark and so not my thing by comparison. But they were good too. Because he was a good writer. I read Brothers (the sequel to Marathon Man) four times, even though at 16 I think a lot of the sex and violence in it warped me just a little. In just the past two years I've found Boys & Girls Together and Temple of Gold--entries from his earlier, literary period. William Goldman's is not a story of the classically trained artist who abandons traditional forms for more satisfying and risque work. Both of these, too, are really good. I think he wanted to write them. And then, after a while, he didn't want to write them anymore. And it was okay.

He taught me, I think that writing and making art for people is never about deserving it, about reaching the point of "good enough." It's about doing what you have to do. It's about Wesley finding a way to rescue Buttercup--screw his limitations. (Being recently dead is a big limitation!) It's about Inigo finding the six-fingered man, not about being good enough to beat him. For years he's been good enough (though it helps the story that he doubts, that he's beaten by the man in black). It's about him finding the strength to keep up the search.

So if you have to write an adventure novel about psychics even though you don't believe in psychics, at all, and you've never written an adventure novel...

What was my goal? Why did I think this was worthwhile? How does this reflect my training, my learning? What did I hope to accomplish through these characters?

I don't know. I loved them. I wanted them to exist.

And what's hard for me to explain to an MFA crowd is exactly how William Goldman is the key to me loving things, including writing, and to me thinking much of anything about books instead of just devouring them with a mindless hunger. He made me think of books as moral things, and the writer's act as a moral act. In The Princess Bride, he takes upon himself the responsibility of telling a good story, yes, but also the responsibility of telling a story that doesn't go all right, where, as the line goes, "Life isn't fair. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." We don't get what we deserve. We get what we get. So it's all up to us, and it's not all up to us. This advice is freeing, and it's also a charge. You have to care to get everything you want, but you don't have to get everything you want in order to care.

As a writer, William Goldman's lesson to me has been that you should care and care and care about what you do, realizing that the world owes you nothing for doing it--not publication, not praise, not love. You may, at any time, have your chances and assurances ripped away, and under that misfortune, you'll have to do what you can with what you can rebuild. William Goldman's characters are the best in the world at what they do--the most beautiful, the most handsome, the best hunter, the finest swordsman, and even they have no guarantees against this kind of loss. But as it turns out, you can do a lot in the face of it. You can keep going. 

Characters like these are important. Stories like these are important to tell.

I guess that's what I was shooting for.

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