William Goldman meets Somerset Maugham

In answering a question put to him during an English Lit class, Maugham is said to have made the following now well-known observation:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

In the realm of screenwriting, and in a documentary titled Tales from the Script, William Goldman makes this point (I’m quoting from notes taken while watching the DVD):

We have no idea what we’re doing. If we knew exactly how to create a great film each time, we’d be doing it.”

This is where a little light went off for me, when these two thoughts bumped up against each other. The world around us, our perceptions of it, and the language we use to communicate them are continually, constantly, always changing. We try to nail things down with our binary-think ways, our categories and stereotypes and narratives, but this—in my opinion, anyway—is an illusory sense of coherence.

So maybe one of the reasons we can’t formulate and repeatably create great films and novels is they are moments in time built from and reflecting the daily flood of experience. Each of us captures our own constellations of moments and data points, each of us responds a little differently to what we read and encounter, and every day we’re a little further away from experiences collected last week, last month, last year. On separate days, the same person can react differently to the same thing, depending on an assortment of causes and circumstances.

Are we not told, as writers, to keep submitting our work, because it might land on the desk of multiple agents and editors before someone reads it at the right time on the right day and decides it should find its way into publication? (Of course, we are most likely also refining and revising between submissions.)

So go ahead and dive in. Write that crazy impossible tale. Maybe a rule or two will be broken or reconfigured in the process, but get the story down. It’s your story. No one else can tell it the way you will. Sometimes a new sort of narrative has to be created in order to tell the tale you have in mind. The guideposts for it won’t all be laid out because no one’s done it—yet.

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