William Nicholson - Screenwriter, playwright and novelist > Supplementary > Article written for The Daily Telegraph by William Nicholson at the time of publication
Article written for The Daily Telegraph by William Nicholson at the time of publication
It began with a picture in my head, and a puzzle to which I didn’t know the answer. I saw a shadowy reading room with a long table down the centre, and shelves of books covering the walls on either side. A young man, who was perhaps myself when young, was sitting at one end of the table. Before me on the table lay a hand-gun. At the far end sat a second man, slumped forward, dead. I had no idea where I was, or who he was, but it seemed to me that I had shot and killed him. Why?
The scene seemed to belong in a film, but I knew at once that I wouldn’t write it as a film. It would be a book. More, it would be the kind of book I myself am so strongly drawn towards as a reader: the life journey. I don’t know how else to describe this category, but it has fascinated me ever since my late teenage discovery of John Fowles’s The Magus, Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. As I’ve grown older I’ve sought out life-journey experiments, Thoreau’s Walden, Kerouac’s On the Road; and so found my way to the great life-journey novels, like The Brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace. These are books that plunge unashamed into the muddy waters of meaning, and flounder their way, sometimes ridiculously, towards Big Answers. I love books that make me cry out, ‘But I’ve asked that too! I’ve felt that too!’ In my play about C.S.Lewis, Shadowlands, I gave Lewis the line, ‘We read to know we’re not alone.’ That has been my own experience. It’s through books that people I’ve never met have reached out to me, saying, ‘This is what matters most to me. Does it matter to you too?’ This feeds something very different to the appetite for entertainment. It feeds, I suppose, the hunger for meaning.
Why not take the medicine neat? Why not read the great religious texts? The great philosophers? Why not write my new book as amateur philosophy? The answer is that we life-journey addicts don’t want to be dumped so unceremoniously at our destination. We want to follow a twisting road. We want to know not just where our guide has got to, but how, and with what difficulties along the way. We want to take that journey step by step, comparing our own fears and longings with our guide’s as we go. We don’t want a sermon. We want a story.
My dark room, my dead man, my bewildered killer, were the beginning of a story. And for me story-telling has become far more than a pastime, or even a profession. It’s my way of making sense of life.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think the hunger for stories is deep in all of us, not as escapism, but as the construction of meaning. After all, our actual experience shows us every day that accidents happen, justice fails, good people suffer, nothing ever gets fully explained. So we take the same elements and rearrange them into stories that have shape and meaning, and this gives a profound satisfaction; or at least, it does if we believe it. Because we know how difficult life is, any resolution, any meaning, has to be earned and paid for. Stories that cheat by delivering unearned happy endings fail us intellectually and emotionally. Well-constructed stories carry profound truths.
I used to be a poor story-teller. I’ve improved. For this I have Hollywood to thank. My years of screen-writing, or rather of ‘development’, as they call it, have taught me lessons that did not come my way studying English Literature at Cambridge. I too have developed. So now, contemplating this picture in my head – the dark library, the gun, the dead man – I knew that what I wanted to do was tell a story with the compelling drive of a good movie, but with the complexity and lasting resonance of a good book.
I was embarked on writing a thriller about the meaning of life.
Many years ago I attended a three-day seminar given by Robert McKee on the craft of structuring stories for the screen. What I remember most vividly was one of his opening lines: ‘If you call yourself an author, you’d better have authority.’ It’s a sobering reminder. Why should anyone give you their all-too-brief leisure time if you don’t give them in return something rare, precious, worth the effort? So if my impulse now was to write a book that asked the question ‘What really matters?’, I had better have an answer.
For the purposes of my book, I asked myself three questions: what did I value most in life? What did I mean by the well-lived life? What made me happy?
These questions are not new to me. When I was nineteen years old and living in college, I constructed a Happiness Machine. This was a simple wooden frame in the shape of a cube, six foot to a side, with white sheets pinned to the frame to form walls and ceiling and floor. Inside hung four coloured electric bulbs. The seeker of happiness sat in the box draped in yet another white sheet, while music played and the coloured lights came on and off: red to blue, to green, to yellow. The theory was that the subject’s perceptions would become bemused by the ever-changing all-embracing colours, and his sense of his own body would begin after a while to blur into the undifferentiated space. Then the ego would dissolve to nothing, leaving only pure being. Needless to say, the Happiness Machine drove everyone who tried it mad, and they had to be let out, jibbering. But the underlying principle was not entirely foolish: that one condition of happiness is escape from the vain, fearful, anxious, ever-dissatisfied scrutiny of the self.
But that’s no more than the clearing away of an obstacle. What does it take to feel positive happiness? I’ve often pondered what I call to myself the Prison Window Paradox. I imagine I’m in prison, serving a life sentence. Out of my prison window I can see the branch of a tree. The buds that grow in spring, the bright leaves of summer, the falling leaves of autumn. I look at the leaves and I say to myself, If only I could leave this prison cell and walk in the park and see the trees again, I’d want nothing more. That would be enough. That would be more than enough, it would be heaven on earth. Then I stop imagining. I walk out of the door. There’s the whole wide beautiful world, waiting for me. Why don’t I feel it’s enough? Must I go to prison first, to learn to appreciate what’s already there? I’m a grown person: can’t I pull off this trick, this realignment of perception, all by my myself?
It seems not. It seems I become aware of what I love and value only when it’s threatened, or gone by. I can look back at it and recognise it. But to be in it – to accept it within its own moment – to say, This is it! This is enough! – that I can’t do. I need the prison cell first.
This is where the making of stories plays its part. It’s not necessary to go to prison to get some small glimmer of what it must feel like. Using empathy and imagination, through the power of a good story, we can touch the fringes of some of these necessary experiences. Horror stories let us discover how we deal with danger and fear. Love stories let us practice facing up to choosing and being chosen, to longing and rejection. The stories don’t have to offer total solutions. They’re just samples. You can try before you buy.
So I decided to make my story be itself the pursuit of my questions. It took me very little thought to discover who the man with the gun had killed, and why. But I wanted the journey to that inevitable ending to be a celebration of everything I valued, however mundane. Our deepest truths aren’t novelties waiting to be found in faraway places, but form slowly within us as we grow, and wait patiently to be noticed and granted respect for the first time.
So I began to construct my thriller. A man on the run, a mysterious pursuer; moments of danger, moments of revelation; and in due course the requirement, even the duty, that I lay my cards on the table, and deliver some answers to my own questions. In the end there were several answers. Here’s one, a paragraph composed by one of my principal characters:
‘If you ask me, What then is the nature of the well-lived life?, I must paint you a picture. In a warm room a group of old friends sit round a table. They have eaten an excellent meal, and now, as they finish their wine, they push back their chairs and stretch out their legs and the conversation flows. Their subject is, perhaps, What is the nature of the well-lived life?’
Talking round a table with friends. Not much of a goal for a life. Unless, that is, you’ve been on the terrifying journey I inflict on my hero, by the end of which everything looks different. I, of course, haven’t been on that journey. My life has never been threatened, I’ve never suffered the loss of all my familiar landmarks. But in imagination, in a story, I’ve tried to feel what it’s like, and to learn what values endure, and to grant them new respect. My book reaches out to unknown readers, asking, ‘Have you felt this too? This is what matters most to me. Does it matter to you too?’
I write to know I’m not alone.