"Good Future:" How Ayn Rand Contributed To Mine
By Erika Holzer
Copyright 2001 by Erika Holzer. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
It was the fall of 1966 well before my husband and I got to know Ayn Rand personally. I'd been attending various lectures on Objectivism, the best part for me being Ms. Rand's participation in the question and answer period. Although I had left my job with a Madison Avenue labor law firm and was practicing law full-time with my husband, I began toying with the idea of trying my hand at fiction a result, no doubt, of some of Ms. Rand's insightful and provocative remarks on the subject of writing. At the time, I had no particular ambition to delve into heavy-duty fiction, such as novels. I was thinking more along the lines of a short story or maybe a screenplay.
It must have been something said during one of those Q and A's that steered me in the direction of doing "practice pieces." The idea was to pick a scene in your mind, give it a purpose, and well, practice. A brief paragraph here, a few pages there nothing too strenuous. Once I started down this intriguing road, I couldn't stop; I was having too much fun. Years later, I realized that the fun came in large part from a complete lack of pressure. Not only was I not out to prove anything, but I felt free to strike out in any direction that pleased or interested me with no fear of being judged too severely along the way. I think, subconsciously, I was operating on the premise that since these tentative little forays into fiction didn't purport to be finished work, how harsh could any critic be with the results?
As it turned out, my practice pieces, however tentative or glib, were destined for greater things. One night when an Objectivist friend was over for dinner and I mentioned what I was up to, he pressed me to let him read what I'd written. "Why not?" I countered . . . a bit too casually, experiencing a faint "clong" this writer's equivalent of stage-fright. Happily, my friend was enthusiastic, giving me some nice feedback even as I silently reminded myself to keep his lavish compliments in perspective; after all, his field was philosophy, not fiction.
What I had not anticipated was a generous proposal on his part. Would I allow him to show my work to Ayn Rand, with whom he was on a first-name basis? Would I?! Naturally, I put him through a minor interrogation about where this was going, what it might lead to. My friend was optimistic. He thought Ms. Rand would be sufficiently taken with my practice pieces to want to discuss them with me.
He was right. After a reasonable lapse of time, my friend called to tell me I'd been invited to Ms. Rand's apartment. Major clong! especially when I learned that my friend had not been invited. This little session was to be one on one.
I had provided Ms. Rand with copies of a dozen pieces, having retained the originals. These I brought with me on the evening in question, my purpose being to take marginal notes. I still have those penciled notes, still look at them with a bemused smile as I recall my state of high excitement tempered with awe. It's a wonder that my handwriting was decipherable! As it was, my notes were sparse, so riveted was I by Ms. Rand's analysis. I did have the good sense at some point to sponge off Ms. Rand, scribbling away like a madwoman on the piece of three-hole lined paper she gave me, acutely aware that I was on borrowed time and silently cursing my lack of foresight in not having brought a tape recorder. The thought of missing a word was almost painful.
The piece which meant the most to me two double-spaced pages, seven paragraphs I called "the draft scene," and it was this that Ms. Rand liked best. I have reproduced it here exactly as written.
Purpose of scene: To convey the tension and suspense in the air as the U.S. Supreme Court convenes for a re-hearing of oral argument on the question: is the Draft unconstitutional?
He had timed it perfectly. The crowds outside the courtroom were quieted down and cordoned off, so that one could cut through without interference; the press was in the reserved section in the first three rows; all the rest of the seats were filled by those who had spent a lonely vigil the night before, sitting on the courthouse steps. The Solicitor General, resplendent in morning coat and striped pants, stood to the right of the Bench, nervously fingering his watch fob.
He took her arm and guided her firmly past the swaying mass of hostile, arm-waving figures that came alive and surged forward at their approach held back only with great effort by the combined strength of two rows of uniformed resistance: the usual Courthouse guards, reinforced by District policemen. They were halfway to the door when a flashbulb exploded in his face; he stopped, momentarily stunned. The man who had broken through was hurriedly escorted behind the ropes, and they walked on.
He felt it as soon as they entered . . . a peculiar mixture of awe and resentment that had never been there before. He knew he should have expected it; in courtroom after courtroom, as they had wearily worked their way up to the Supreme Court, appealing every step of the way from evasive half-truths and self-righteously delivered non-sequiturs, the crowd had been small, smug and slightly amused, with the air of watching a nondescript side-show.
But not today.
Today he looked into faces that averted his glance; faces that dissolved into fear, slithered into malice, or exploded into panic as if they had believed until now that he would not show up; as if they had finally faced the fact that he might win. His eyes moved to the window where pickets marched resolutely past, their lips eerily mouthing a monotonous chant that could no more break through the barrier of soundproofed walls than he had been able to pierce the soundproofed minds of the opposition.
As they walked down the aisle and through the gate to the counsel table, he caught sight of a few familiar faces, turned eagerly, breathlessly, in his direction. He barely had time to exchange a glance, like a warm handshake, for the Court Clerk was on his feet, banging his gavil for attention. A hush fell over the crowd; a solemn voice intoned: "All rise." The concealed door in the wood paneling behind the Bench burst open with a muffled crack.
The nine black-robed men filed into the room and silently took their places.
I had told Ms. Rand as a sort of preface to the piece that I and my husband, whose specialty was constitutional law, were, in fact, already engaged in challenging the constitutionality of the draft. This led to a sort of literary preface of her own. "The idea of doing this practice piece from a real-life situation where you expect pain losing in the courts but project winning and happiness as a possibility, is a great psychological device, an excellent idea," she enthused. "People more often do the reverse. They are afraid to project the positive in such a situation, afraid of the painful."
She then got down to specifics. In my first paragraph, she liked very much my use of "lonely vigil" rather than just saying that people had spent the night waiting for the proceedings to begin.
She noted that each of my seven paragraphs conveyed a single theme, all from the lawyer's point of view. I had managed to get into these paragraphs a load of exposition without burdening my narrative, she told me.
Calling a line in my second paragraph about "two rows of uniformed resistance," excellent, she explained why. "It gives the reader a good visual image just as the lawyer protagonist would be aware of it." I broke in at this point and asked tentatively, "Then you don't think this sentence five lines is too long?" "No, it's fine," she reassured me. "Your meaning is clear." Gilding the lily, she told me I had "very good foreshortening" throughout the piece, having grasped how to insert a great deal of meaning in very few words.
Her positive reaction to my third paragraph stunned me. "Good opening line," she said. "And the sentence about the lawyer working his way wearily up the appellate ladder very good. It not only indicates legal procedure but also underscores the hard work involved a projection of the struggle. And your description of 'half truths' and 'non sequiturs' is an excellent sum-up of the legal mechanism not too much and not too technical. Just what's called for here. Your description of the crowd 'small, smug and slightly amused' now that's a good combination of adjectives. When writers use adjectives, they must always be careful a careful selection whenever you choose to use them especially in a string like this. The idea is to be non-repetitive and you did that well. There's no repetition."
After praise like that, I didn't even cringe when she nailed me in Paragraph Four. Faces that "slithered" into malice? That "exploded" into panic? "Make your metaphors real, Erika. 'Dissolving' into fear works, but 'slithering' into malice is stretching it a bit it's more furtiveness that you're getting at here. 'Exploding' into panic is unreal much too violent. Picture a face being blown apart." I got the point. (Nor would I ever forget it! More than once I've put my metaphors to the mirror test.)
But even the "faces" sentence wasn't a total loss. The second part "as if they had believed . . . he would not show up; as if they had finally faced the fact that he might win" was, Ms. Rand pointed out, "an excellent identification of the enormous evasion involved in expecting the appellate lawyer not to show up for his important hearing," immediately followed by my identifying what these spectators are evading: that they cannot permit themselves to think he might win his case. What was good about this particular formulation, she told me, was that I "made the reader do all the concluding."
As for those resolute pickets outside the courthouse, this was "good exposition" and my use of the word "eerily" in regard to their monotonous chanting was very authentic. "This is just how it would feel seeing the moving lips but hearing no sound. And the rest of the sentence the use of 'soundproofed' twice is very effective. You got a lot in here," she said approvingly.
Next-to-last paragraph: Despite my embarrassing misspelling of the word "gavel" (this, from a lawyer!), she merely pointed it out before zeroing in on two formulations "a glance, like a warm handshake" and "the concealed door . . . behind the Bench burst open with a muffled crack," characterizing them as "eloquent."
"I like your last paragraph," she told me. "Good tension. If you had gone on from here, you'd have had to start a new paragraph. You wouldn't want to alter the drama of this sentence."
It was time to leave. I could have stayed forever.
After thanking her, I got in one last question about the overall pacing of the piece. "Very good pacing, very appropriate, in view of whose perspective it was in the lawyer's. A shorter, faster pace would not have been as effective and it would have detracted from your overall purpose: to convey tension. Your whole draft scene does exactly that."
We shook hands at the door. "Good premises," she said, warmth in her smile. She didn't say "congratulations" but that was there too, along with the warmth.
She might just as well have added, "Good future" because, based on the time she had generously bestowed on a total greenhorn, she had made a major contribution to mine.
Erika Holzer is a novelist and retired attorney. For a time during the 1960s, she and her husband, attorney and constitutional scholar Henry Mark Holzer, were Ayn Rand's friends and legal representatives. They discovered, obtained, and helped Rand restore the Italian-made film version of her novel, We the Living. Mrs. Holzer is author of the Cold War novel Double Crossing, and of the crime thriller Eye for an Eye, which was made into a 1996 film starring Sally Field and Kiefer Sutherland. You can learn about her work and also order her novels online at her Web site, www.ErikaHolzer.com.