Writing and the Functional Hero

by Mark Levy

In the book, “Which Lie Did I Tell?,” William Goldman writes about his younger days as an awful writer. He was so bad, in fact, that in college he was one of three editors of the school literary magazine, and even then he couldn’t get a single story into his own magazine.

Things changed when he read a short story collection by “Rich Man, Poor Man” author, Irwin Shaw. Goldman thought Shaw’s tales were among the best he’d ever read. More importantly, they were told with such ease that Goldman said to himself: “I could do that.”

Shaw’s writing helped make Goldman into a professional writer. Years later, Goldman would write the novels and screenplays for “The Princess Bride,” “Marathon Man,” and “Magic,” as well as the screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men.”

Heroes come in different styles. We have heroes who do near-impossible things, like win a batting title, forge a peace agreement, or walk on the moon.

Then we have another type of hero: one whose works seem wondrous but doable. They give us a model to follow. Call them functional heroes. Irwin Shaw provided a functional hero for William Goldman.

When I have to write something ambitious, I often call on one of my functional heroes for assistance. I read their work over and over, so I can dope out their methodologies and pick up their cadences.

For the first edition of “Accidental Genius,” my hero and role-model was Nicholson Baker. In particular, I idolized the self-conscious, self-deprecating honesty he showed in his book about John Updike, “U & I,” and tried to introduce that into my work. For the second edition of “Accidental Genius,” I called upon the aforementioned Goldman to serve as my muse. His long chatty sentences and focus on story inspired me to loosen up as I told my tales about liberating the mind through freestyle writing.

The funny thing about my use of Baker and Goldman as guides? Neither edition of “Accidental Genius” sounds anything like the work of those two gentlemen. It was enough for me, though, to hear them as I wrote.

How about you? Who are some of your functional heroes? Who are your muses?

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