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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

A Man With a Code

By Steven Pressfield
Published: July 20, 2016

 

Call this post “Dudeology #3,” as we continue our exploration of The Big Lebowski, with an eye specifically to the writing of first drafts.

A Dude with a Code

A Dude with a Code

We were talking in a couple of previous posts about the preparatory questions a writer asks himself or herself before the first word of a first draft goes onto paper. For me, the first two are:

  1. “What genre am I writing in?”
  2. “What’s the story’s spine, i.e. its ‘narrative highway’ from Act One through Act Two to Act Three?”

The third question for me is, “What’s the theme? What is my story about?

Which brings us back to the Dude.

I have no idea what Lebowski’s creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, would say their theme is. My own take may be wildly different from theirs. But here’s my shot:

 

Never underestimate a man with a code.

 

The Dude, though it might not seem like it on first viewing, is a man with a code. A code of honor. In that, he’s just like Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade or Jake Gittes (since Lebowski’s genre-DNA is, way more than fifty percent, that of a Private Eye Story.)

Here’s Raymond Chandler on the subject from The Simple Art of Murder (1944):

 

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”

 

I know The Big Lebowski is hysterically funny, and the Dude is one of the outstanding comic creations of the past couple of decades. But comedies, more even than more “serious” fare, must be seated in solid dramatic soil.

Consider the Dude’s character as a man with a code.

The Dude is kind. He’s capable of empathy for others (his demented landlord, the kidnapped Bunny, Maude the troubled daughter, even the Big Lebowski himself). He believes in justice. Someone stole his carpet; he wants it returned intact. (“It tied the whole room together, man!”) He lost the money entrusted to him; he feels an obligation to get it back. Despite his buddy John Goodman’s non-stop provocations to act unscrupulously (“A toe? I can get you a toe, Dude!”), the Dude remains honorable and relentless. He’s on the case. And his code is what sees him through to the end.

Even the Dude’s past, like Bogie’s in Casablanca, is replete with hints to his integrity.

 

DUDE

I was one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The first draft … not the compromised second. Remember the Seattle Seven? That was me.

 

Okay. How does this help you and me as we embark on the first draft of our new novel/screenplay/videogame/whatever?

  1. If we know our theme, we know our hero. The hero, remember, embodies the theme.
  2. If we know our theme, we know our villain. The villain personifies the counter-theme.
  3. If we know our theme, we know (roughly) our climax. In the climax, recall, hero and villain clash over the issue of the theme.

Consider, on this subject, our hero’s name.

“The Dude” is not just Jeffrey Lebowski’s moniker, it’s his identity as the filmmakers intend it. “Dude” is the generic term for a male in a certain American culture. We greet friends with “Hey, dude!” “Dude” is the equivalent of “guy” or “man.”

In other words, the Dude is Everyman.

He’s you or me.

Which brings us back to the idea of a Man With A Code.

In many ways, this conception is the pre-eminent theme in American books and movies. The archetypal American hero from George Washington to Davy Crockett to Atticus Finch is a man with a code.

Pick a hero in any Western.

In any cop story or detective story.

Even in a gangster saga (perhaps most of all in a gangster saga.)

They will always be men (or women) with a code.

Isn’t this idea, in fact, the central identity (or self-identity) of the United States? Isn’t that how we see ourselves, as individuals and as a nation?

Yeah, we may be fat and lazy. We may pursue our creature comforts a little too zealously. We may be shallow, we may be ill-informed; we may have our priorities all screwed up.

But down deep we believe in right and wrong and if you push us far enough, we’ll actually act on these beliefs.

That’s the Dude.

That’s our hero.

That’s us.

The Coen brothers played this idea back to us in a zany, stoned (“Look out, man! There’s a beverage here!”) vodka-Kahlua-and-cream way. But the underlying theme was dead serious and the story was as red-white-and-blue as Bogie and Bacall and as American as apple pie.

 


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The Legend of Bagger Vance

Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense.
—Sports Illustrated
Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker.
—The Los Angeles Times
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback

In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete—a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.

[This first passage is from the book's very beginning.]

A NOTE TO THE READER

In May of 1931 an exhibition match was held over 36 holes between the two greatest golfers of their day, Walter Hagen and Robert Tyre "Bobby" Jones, Jr. The match was the second and last between the two immortals (Hagen shelled Jones, 12 and 11 over 72 holes, at the first in Sarasota, Florida in 1926.) This second match was held at what was, at the time, the most costly and ambitious golf layout ever built in America, the Links at Krewe Island, Georgia.

Much has been written about the rather odd events of that long day. We have Grantland Rice's dispatches to the New York Tribune, which were published at that time. The notes and diaries of O.B. Keeler devote several quite absorbing pages to the match. And of course the reports from the dozens of newspapers and sporting journals which covered the event.

One aspect of that day, however, has been largely overlooked, or rather treated as a footnote, an oddity or sideshow. I refer to the inclusion in the competition, at the insistence of the citizens of Savannah, of a local champion, who in fact held his own quite honorably with the two golfing titans.

I was fortunate enough to witness that match, aged ten, from the privileged and intimate vantage of assisting the local champion's caddie. I was present for many of the events leading up to the day, for the match itself, as well as certain previously unrecorded adventures in its aftermath.

For many years, it has been my intention to commit my memory of these events to paper. However, a long and crowded career as a physician, husband, and father of six has prevented me from finding the time I felt the effort deserved.

In candor, another factor has made me reluctant to make public these recollections. That is the rather fantastical aspect of a number of the events of that day. I was afraid that a true accounting would be misinterpreted or, worse, disbelieved. The facts, I feared, would either be discounted as the product of a ten-year-old's overactive imagination or, when perceived as the recollections of a man past seventy, be dismissed as burnished and embellished reminiscences whose truth has been lost over time in the telling and retelling.

The fact is, I have never told this story. Portions I have recounted to my wife in private; fragments have been imparted on specific occasion to my children. But I have never retold the story, to others or even to myself, in its entirety.

Until recently, that is. Attempting to counsel a troubled young friend, for whom I felt the tale might have significance, I passed an entire night, till sunrise, recounting the story verbally. It made such a profound impression on my young friend that I decided at last to try my hand at putting it down in written form.

This volume is that attempt.

I have chosen, for reasons which will become apparent, to tell the tale much as I recounted it that night. It is a story of a type of golfer, and a type of golf, which I fear has long since vanished from the scene. But I intend this record not merely as an exercise in reminiscence or nostalgia. For the events of that day had profound and far-reaching consequences on me and on others who participated, particularly the local champion referred to above.

His name was Rannulph Junah, and Bagger Vance was his caddie.

Hardison L. Greaves, M.D.
Savannah, Georgia
May, 1995

"The Legend of Bagger Vance is such an entertaining book on the surface you hardly realize you are being taught some of life's greatest truths. Pressfield has seamlessly brought together that rare combination of fun and enlightenment in a novel that seems destined to take its place alongside some of the great works in golf literature."
—Links Magazine
"The Legend of Bagger Vance is quite simply the best golf novel I have ever read, but it is so much more than that. We all know that the true game is played against one's inner self. Steven Pressfield has captured the essence of that battle better than any of his predecessors. I was utterly riveted by this work of art, and literally covered with goose bumps for many hours until I had finished it at a single sitting."
—Ben Wright, author of Good Bounces and Bad Lies and The Spirit of Golf
"Truly a delight. Even now when I play in professional tournaments I think of the positive effect Bagger Vance had on everyone associated with him. He will be with me for many years to come."
—Patty Sheehan, Solheim Cup captain and member of LPGA Hall of Fame
"Pure magic! I read it straight through in one sitting. It should be required reading for anyone who loves the game and has a sense of its history and mystery."
—Deane Beman, former Commissioner of the PGA Tour
"The Field of Dreams of golf . . . the only golf novel ever written that earns 'couldn't put it down' accolades. This is a book that will remain with readers for a while, and will certainly emerge every time they step on a golf course."
—Book Page
"Memorable . . . a page-turner . . . golf played a foot from Alice's looking glass, with mystical realms poised to engulf the reader at every turn . . . Bagger Vance is a success, climbing to an uplifting conclusion on a well-constructed scaffold of suspense."
—Sports Illustrated
"Good stuff . . . a philosophical fantasy imagined on a golf course, heavy with fog, storm, fireworks and howling winds of supernatural forces."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Golf and mysticism . . . a dazzler and a thought-provoker."
—The Los Angeles Times
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Gates of Fire
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The Authentic Swing
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Turning Pro
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Last of the Amazons
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