One of the best things an aspiring writer can do to become a better writer is read good books. Let’s face it. That is simply a gift for me. I can sit down and read a good book (or even a not so good one, for that matter, because I will learn from that as well) and not feel guilty about ignoring the laundry that has piled up or put off going to the grocery store one more day even though we have only two tablespoons of milk and one slice of bread left. It’s work. It’s my job. It’s a way I can fulfill my potential as a writer.
So recently, after all the brouhaha about the new True Grit movie, I decided to read the book. I never had. I liked the original John Wayne movie. I always thought it was a good story with great characters, but I never got around to reading the book. I heard part of an interview with the Coen brothers who made the new film. They talked about how taken they were with the language in the book and tried very hard to respect that. I was anxious to know what they were talking about.
Let me start by saying, True Grit is a magnificent book. Great characters; a well-crafted, compelling story; but most of all, extraordinary dialogue– unlike any other you will read in modern literature. And that, perhaps, is the point. A great story often tells itself through dialogue. The story is set at the turn of the century (the last one) and folks talked differently then – much more formally. At first, the dialogue was disconcerting. It was rather like walking next to someone who was wearing new corduroy pants. There was a sound in the background that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but something was “there.” The dialogue alone is a good enough reason to read this book, but there is so much more. It’s a very “writerly” book, without being too much so.
Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, the protagonist, wants to be a writer. There is a passage in the book that may have been placed there to remind writers not to fall too much in love with their own words, a danger to all writers.
“I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial and it is not an official transcript but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article that I titled, You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead, dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge.
But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long and ‘discursive.’ Nothing is too long or too short either if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a ‘graphic’ writing style combined with education aims.” (The bolding is mine.)
This just cracked me up! First, you’ve got to love that title. I’ll bet if I dug deep enough into my box of old writings, I could find something that sounds like that. I know I still feel like screaming, “Nothing is too long if it’s a good story!” Notice, I didn’t say too short. No one has ever accused me of writing too short. As I have often said, I have trouble making a grocery list in under a thousand words.
But I digress. Back to the story. Mattie is a character who, in some ways, should be a role-model for all girls. She is single minded, focused, purposeful, and lets nothing get in her way. That said, she takes ridiculous risks, and if I had a kid like her (whoops, maybe I do!) I would lie awake nights. Rooster Cogburn is the man we would all want as a friend. He will keep his promises, no matter what. He does have true grit and, like this good book, never disappoints.
I’ve heard the new movie is terrific. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will. Our daughter, Maggie, an actor/director/psychologist/writer/singer/songwriter and all-around bright woman (see her fascinating blog at http://wandernest.wordpress.com/), says the girl who plays Mattie is outrageously good, and if she says so, it must be true. Anything with the under-rated Jeff Bridges is always worth the time.
In a sense, True Grit is a love story. Not the kind of romantic love that phrase usually implies, but the deep and abiding love that grows out of a mutual respect between these two friends. At times it was a slow and easy journey. At other times it was so intense, I forgot to breathe for pages and pages. It is a powerful story and well worth your time to read. I’m so glad I took the time. Thank you, Charles Portis, wherever you are, for such a lovely read. It was out of print, but will be re-released the end of May, but like the new movie, you can pre-order a copy now. Or if you happen to have a Kindle, you can buy the e-book without waiting. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find it at your library. I’m glad it’s being re-released, and I will buy a copy and read it again. Good books find ways to get into the hands of a new generation of readers.