Lessons for living from William Goldman’s lessons for writing

Obituaries are both the most inspiring and saddest of any newspaper. The expanse of a life, distilled to an adulatory headline, a few hundred words, two dates—date of birth and date of death—and, space permitting, maybe a picture.

I’ve seen life and executive coaches and inspirational speakers encourage us to cast our minds forwards 10, 20, 40 years and write our own eulogy, as a way of focusing our minds on the fact that since we’ll be dead soon, maybe we should get to doing the things we believe we’re supposed to do.

[Daniel Harkavy is one such executive coach. He says, “When we take the time to write our eulogies, it creates this magnetic pull power that draws us forward. Our priorities and our vision for where we want to be as leaders and how we’ll get there come into sharp focus. This clarity enables us to make the best decisions, get up out of our comfortable patterns, create new habits, and start moving us toward a better future.”]

I read a couple of obituaries of William Goldman over the past week. Goldman was the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All The President’s Men, and wrote 20 other screenplays and the same number of novels. He died last week at the age of 87.

In one obituary the author reflected on Goldman’s lessons on writing, and it made me think that all the best teaching is universally applicable. Goldman’s lessons for writing, therefore, can be easily moulded to apply to anything and everything. Lessons for living in a few words about the practice of writing.

In one of his career memoirs, Goldman wrote:

Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before.

And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right.

No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.

I think these words are also true for everything important in life. The discrepancy between the “diamond-bright ideas dancing in your brain” and the day-to-day “earthbound” reality is a real discrepancy, not an imagined one.

It’s how we deal with that on a daily basis that gets us through. Living each day and trying to do the right thing on that day, and keeping fingers crossed that doing the right thing enough times will either (a) safeguard us from the worst pitfalls, or, (b) when those pitfalls envelop us, as invariably they will at some point, give us the strength to accept what we must accept and overcome what we must overcome.

Asked once about the task of adapting Stephen King’s Misery into versions for film and theatre, Goldman said, “You cross your fingers and never stop. Praying is also good.”

Cross our fingers and never stop.

It might not be a Hemingway six-word short story, but it’s good enough for me, today.


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