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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Authentic Swing

By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 10, 2014

[Continuing our look back at The Legend of Bagger Vance, seeking writers' lessons and insights on the book's 20th anniversary. P.S. Don't forget this year's Black Irish Christmas Special, featuring the brand-new, leather-bound, signed and numbered (only 2500 available) anniversary edition of Bagger Vance.]

Matt Damon as Rannulph Junah in "The Legend of Bagger Vance." Behind him, left, is Michael Moncrief as the story's narrator, Hardy Greaves.

Sometimes a story—particularly fantasy, historical or sci-fi—needs a conceptual Premise. By that I mean a hypothetical truth that informs the drama the way, say, the airfoil-shaped wing informs the idea of an airplane.

The conceptual premise of The Legend of Bagger Vance is “the Authentic Swing.”

Premise is different from theme. It’s different from concept. It’s even different from “What if?”

Here are examples of premises in fiction and movies:

1. A certain ring contains the secret power of the universe. Whoever possesses the ring possesses that power.

2. In the future, technology exists that can detect crimes before they are committed. “PreCrime” is a division of police departments in this future.

3. In the future, creatures called “replicants” have been created, which are virtually identical to humans. Replicants, by the nature of their genesis, have no memories of childhood or of any past before they were created. Thus, to control them and to keep them emotionally stable, their manufacturer has implanted artificial memories, which the replicants believe to be real. When replicants discover this ruse and see through it, it is deeply distressing to them.

Sometimes non-fantasy/sci-fi stories have premises as well.

1. Love and hard work can overcome (or at least mitigate) certain psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder.

2. It is possible to recreate the past, specifically to recover a lost love, through force of will, abundant means, and an overpoweringly vivid reinvention of oneself and one’s world.

(These are the premises of Lord of the Rings, Minority Report, Blade Runner, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Great Gatsby.)

One curious thing about premises: they don’t have to be true. A premise is simply the supposition upon which the dramatic superstructure of the story is based. The reader/audience doesn’t have to buy into the truth of the premise in real life as long as he or she accepts it in the story. Nor do all the characters in the drama have to believe in the premise (though of course it’s better if they do). It’s enough for one character to believe the premise (Jay Gatsby, for example). The story can work, based on that alone.

But back to “the Authentic Swing.” What exactly is it and how does it fit into The Legend of Bagger Vance?
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The Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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