Everyone Knows his Work. Few Know his Name.
I’m going to print a single word. An adjective, if you’re curious.
And when you read this lone word, you’ll know exactly who my favorite author of all time is.
Well, you might not know his name, but you’ll instantly recognize his work. Guaranteed.
If you’re over the age of 30, it’s a slam dunk. And since no one under the age of 30 reads my stuff, I’m fine with the prediction.
Wanna bet? Make it interesting? Bring it on. Name your prize.
Email me with your demands if you don’t have the foggiest idea what I’m talking about when I say this word. I’m good for it.
Me? I’m not even going to ask for an ante. It’s not a fair bet.
Ready for the word?
Ok, here it is.
wait for it...
Do I even have to give you a moment to think? Or copy and paste the word into Google if you actually are under 30?
Of course, I don’t. Because everyone knows I’m referring to The Princess Bride.
Now, for double points...who’s the author?
This one’s a bit tougher.
I’ll give you a hint. The Princess Bride isn’t the only movie he’s written that you’ve probably seen.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Marathon Man.
Don’t sweat it and don’t go to Google or IMDB.com, either.
The name you’re looking for, who in my forties I’ve come to realize is my favorite author of all time, is...William Goldman.
Ahem, two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman. Bestselling novelist William Goldman. Playwright William Goldman.
The greatest author you’ve never heard of...William Goldman (1931-2018).
He’s famous for saying that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” Outside of Hollywood, few (save for film buffs) seem to know him.
I think he should be a household name. Here’s why:
If William Goldman only wrote the novel AND screenplay for The Princess Bride (which he did), his legacy should be cemented in the canon of 20th century American literature. Add the fact that he did the same for Marathon Man, and his case for immortal praise strengthens.
But there’s more to his body of work. A lot more.
How’s this for a career stat line?
30+ produced screenplays (two Academy Award winners).
9 nonfiction books.
Maybe it’s because he’s had such success as a screenwriter that his achievements as a writer have been largely overlooked.
Popular as his movies have been since the 1960s (Butch, Marathon Man, Princess Bride, The Stepford Wives, All the Presidents Men, Misery), timeless as his novels are (Boys and Girls Together was a bestseller in 1964. It would be today, too--without a single edit), it’s his nonfiction work that I keep by my bedside among a collection of sacred texts.
Two of Goldman’s works, in particular, should be required reading for anyone crazy enough to try and earn his living by putting words to paper:
Which Lie Did I Tell? (More Adventures in the Screen Trade) (2000)
Both were bestsellers (and widely available today). Both are ostensibly about screenwriting and the business of Hollywood from a screenwriter’s perspective.
To me, though, they’re about more. They’re handbooks for how to survive when you’re a creative professional living in a business-driven world.
I was in my 30s and well into a career of getting my ass kicked and soul crushed in the advertising game when I discovered Goldman’s sacred duo of books on writing. To this day, I swear I’m in those pages with him.
Here’s a writer who’s had the kind of success most of us only fantasize about when we’re alone and practicing our interviews with Terry Gross. Goldman, however, spends all his time telling us not about the hits...but the misses--the false starts, the oh-so-closes, the flops...the failures.
Can I get an amen for relatability?
Even when he tells us about the highlights of his writing career, he keeps the story on the pain and misery.
Butch earned him his first Academy Award. The screenplay took eight years to research. Eight years!
A question for the under 30 crowd (if there are any out there who’ve braved reading this far): have you ever done anything for eight years?
It’s not just the kids who rebel against time investment. I’ve heard grown colleagues lament (corporate-speak for bitch) about how they spent three whole weeks writing a project only to have it die an unceremonious death at the hands of a spineless executive.
All the President’s Men, according to Goldman was the hardest and worst experience of his writing life. It won him the Oscar that year for best adapted screenplay.
Even when he’s discussing Misery, Goldman can’t keep from relating his own personal misery.
His favorite scene in the Stephen King-adapted film--the reason he took the job, the scene he was sure would make the movie--was re-written without his approval. Does he bitch about his soul being crushed by a bunch of gutless producers with their greedy eyes on the bottom line at the expense of art?
Hardly. He admits he’d over-written the scene and toning it down was exactly what the picture needed.
The scene in which Kathy Bates breaks James Caan’s legs with a sledgehammer originally called for her to chop his legs off with an ax. Revised and toned down, the scene did, in fact, prove to be the movie’s most memorable and probably solidified Bates for the supporting actress Oscar.
“If we had gone the way I wanted it,” Goldman says, “It would have been too much. The audience would have hated Annie and, in time, hated us.
“I was wrong,” the tow-time Oscar winner summarizes.
Except he doesn’t. He never talks down to his readers. He’s never pretentious or condescending. He never shows off with lofty prose, either. You’re in the trenches with him. Two soldiers sharing stories over a smoke in between shellackings.
Guys who’ve been around the block love to tell guys who haven’t about their trip. Goldman does that, but he frequently uses one word that takes the focus from him and shifts it to the reader.
In one breath, he issues a calling, inviting you to join the cause of bringing stories to life because “God knows we can use you.”
In another, he gives it to you straight, divulging the inevitable misery that comes with choosing the writing life.
“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.”
William Goldman. Earthbound storyteller and relater of pain.
I’ll take it. Every word.
Because a writer’s “life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
Fred Smith was born in the '70s, wore long socks and short shorts in the '80s, played drums in bands in the '90s, and became a husband (to the greatest woman on the planet) and a father in the 2000s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site.
Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.
Fred Smith's latest book of short stories, The Closet, is now available on Amazon HERE.
William Goldman's body of work is also on Amazon.