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25 SEPTEMBER, 2013

William Faulkner on Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life

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“The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”

When The Paris Review launched in 1953, it revolutionized the art of the interview. Over the decades that followed, the revered publication offered unprecedented glimpses of literary history’s greatest minds, which yielded such timeless gems as E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer and the daily routines of famous authors. But among the Paris Review’s most radical interviews was one with William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), conducted exactly four decades after his days as a Jazz Age artist and nearly thirty years after he penned his little-known children’s book, published in the spring of 1956. Found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Malcolm Cowley on the four stages of writing — and also available online in the Paris Review archive, the wide-ranging interview explores with curmudgeonly conviction everything from the secret of great writing to the purpose of art to the meaning of life.

Faulkner begins with a case against the artist’s individual ego, citing the controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship and arguing instead that art transcends the artist:

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.

When asked whether there’s any formula for being a good novelist — a timely question in our age of endless appetite for the odd habits and practical advice of famous authors, as if replicating those would somehow effect genius — Faulkner shoots back a crankily argued case for work ethic and creative doggedness, taking Zadie Smith’s contention that a writer should be resigned “to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied” to an extreme:

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

When the interviewer inquires about the best environment for a writer — something to which E. B. White famously replied that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — Faulkner illustrates his point with a personal anecdote that outshines even his typical penchant for being a provocateur:

Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

When the interviewer follows up on the mention of economic freedom, asking whether it’s essential for the writer, Faulkner shoots back with his characteristic absolutism, adding to history’s most memorable definitions of art:

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are.

Drawing by young William Faulkner. Click image for more.

Despite the questionable comment on gender, Faulkner adds a poignant meditation on the false deity of prestige and how chasing commercial success warps a writer’s gift:

Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

Faulkner furthers his point about integrity vs. success in addressing whether working in the movies can help or hurt a writer:

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

When asked about the role of technique, Faulkner scoffs and offers some advice for aspiring authors, later echoed in Neil Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on making mistakes, calling for a curious blend of humility and arrogance:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

Illustration from William Faulkner's 'The Wishing Tree.' Click image for more.

Reflecting on whether writing should be based on personal experience, Faulkner offers his trifecta of literary essentials, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s model of the four people every writer should be:

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination — any two of which, at times any one of which — can supply the lack of the others.

He shares his secret to writing a great story:

A story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

Most poignant of all, however, is Faulkner’s meditation on the meaning of life:

Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move — which is ambition, power, pleasure. What time a man can devote to morality, he must take by force from the motion of which he is a part. He is compelled to make choices between good and evil sooner or later, because moral conscience demands that from him in order that he can live with himself tomorrow. His moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream. … The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

Complement with the curious and controversial story of Faulkner’s only children’s book and treat yourself to the irresistible boxed set of the best Paris Review interviews, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Anaïs Nin on Writing, the Future of the Novel, and How Keeping a Diary Enhances Creativity: Wisdom from a Rare 1947 Chapbook

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“It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately.”

In December of 1946, Anaïs Nin was invited to give a lecture on writing at Dartmouth, which received an overwhelming response. The following summer, after receiving countless requests, Nin adapted the talk in chapbook titled On Writing, which she printed at her own Gremor Press — the small publishing house Nin founded in 1942 out of disillusionment with mainstream publishing, which led her to teach herself letterpress and self-publish a handful of elegant manually typeset books with gorgeous engravings by her husband.

On Writing, in which Nin considers the future of the novel and reflects on what keeping her famous diaries since the age of eleven taught her about writing, was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. Only a few are known to survive. I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of them — here is its gist, for our shared enrichment.

Nin, with insight at once incredibly timely and subtly heartbreaking in our age of mass-produced commercial fiction coexisting with bold independent experimentation with the form, begins by considering the evolving role of the modern novelist:

In the presence of a collective neurosis it is all the more essential for the novelist not to share with the neurotic this paralyzing fear of nature which has been the cause of so much sterility in life and in the writing of today.

[…]

While we refuse to organize the confusions within us we will never have an objective understanding of what is happening outside.

We will not be able to relate to it, to choose sides, to evaluate historically, and consequently we will be incapacitated for action.

Today a novelist’s preoccupation with inner psychological distortions does not stem from a morbid love of illness but from a knowledge that this is the theme of our new reality.

[…]

Like the modern physicist the novelist of today should face the fact that this new psychological reality can be explored and dealt with only under the conditions of tremendously high atmospheric pressures, temperatures and speed, as well as in terms of new time-space dimensions for which the old containers represented by the traditional forms and conventions of the novel are completely inadequate and inappropriate.

That is why James Joyce shattered the old form of the novel and let his writing erupt in a veritable flow of associations.

Most novels today are inadequate because they reflect not our experience, but people’s fear of experience. They portray all the evasions.

Nin reiterates her conviction that emotionality is essential to creativity:

In order to take action full maturity in experience is required. Novels which contribute to our emotional atrophy only deepen our blindness.

And nothing that we do not discover emotionally will have the power to alter our vision.

The constant evasion of emotional experience has created an immaturity which turns all experience into traumatic shocks from which the human being derives no strength or development, but neurosis.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s faith in the creative benefits of keeping a diary, later famously articulated by Joan Didion as well, Nin reflects on her experience as a prolific diarist:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

The Diary dealing always with the immediate present, the warm, the near, being written at white heat, developed a love of the living moment, of the immediate emotional reaction to experience, which revealed the power of recreation to lie in the sensibilities rather than in memory or critical intellectual perception.

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

The Diary also taught her that the ideal of “objective” writing is an oppressive standard that only drains literature, which is inherently subjective, of its vitality:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

But her greatest insight from the Diary has less to do with writing and more to do with human nature:

It is in the moments of emotional crisis that human beings reveal themselves most accurately. … The heightened moments … are the moments of revelation. It is the moment when the real self rises to the surface, shatters its false roles, erupts and assumes reality and identity. The fiery moments of passionate experience are the moments of wholeness and totality of the personality.

Touching on the concept of the “fourth culture” and the ever-timely idea that science and philosophy need each other, Nin observes:

The new dimension in character and reality requires a fusion of two extremes which have been handled separately, on the one side by poets, and on the other by the so called realists.

Another learning from her diary experience captures the same idea Ray Bradbury articulated in arguing that ideation should flow uninhibited from the intuitive mind, and the intellect-as-editor should only come later. Nin considers the discipline this requires:

To achieve perfection in writing while retaining naturalness it was important to write a great deal, to write fluently, as the pianist practices the piano, rather than to correct constantly one page until it withers. To write continuously, to try over and over again to capture a certain mood, a certain experience. Intensive correcting may lead to monotony, to working on dead matter, whereas continuing to write and to write until perfection is achieved through repetition is a way to elude this monotony, to avoid performing an autopsy. Sheer playing of scales, practice, repetition — then by the time one is ready to write a story or a novel a great deal of natural distillation and softing has been accomplished.

Indeed, Nin considers the inner censor that so often stands in the way of this flow to be the gravest peril of writing, one that the diary taught her to bypass:

There is another great danger for the writer, perhaps the greatest one of all: his consciousness of the multiple taboos society has imposed on literature, and his inner censor. … It is surprising how well one writes if one thinks no one will read [the writing].

This honesty, this absence of posturing, is a most fecund source of material. The writer’s task is to overthrow the taboos rather than accept them.

In elaborating on this, Nin adds to history’s most profound definitions of art:

Naked truth is unbearable to most, and art is our most effective means of overcoming human resistance to truth. The writer has the same role as the surgeon and his handling of anaesthesia is as important as his skill with the knife.

Human beings, in their resistance to truth, erect fortresses and some of these fortresses can only be demolished by the dynamic power of the symbol, which reaches the emotions directly.

Reflecting on the power of ancient stories and fairy tales, Nin returns to the critical role of sensuality in art, once again asserting that emotion and logic coexist — but only if the artist or writer is able to fully inhabit his or her own emotionality, thus understanding its underlying patterns:

In the human unconscious itself there is an indigenous structure and if we are able to detect and grasp it we have the plot, the form and style of the novel of the future.

In this apparently chaotic world of the unconscious there is an inevitability as logical, as coherent, as final as any to be found in classical drama.

In this new dimension of character the form is created by the meaning, it is born of the theme. It is created very much as the earth itself is created, by a series of inner convulsions and eruptions, dictated by inner geological tensions.

It is an organic development.

Concluding with an example of her own creative process — an anecdote about how a sudden memory of a sight at a concert she had heard in Paris years earlier inspired a key section in her novel Ladders to Fire — Nin speaks to the importance of unconscious processing in how creativity works and remarks:

How creative the unconscious can be if one allows it to work spontaneously.

For more wisdom on the written word, see this omnibus of 50+ famous authors’ advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Complement with Nin’s timeless wisdom from her now-published diaries, including her reflections on the meaning of life, how inviting the unfamiliar helps us live more richly, Paris vs. New York, why emotional excess is essential to creativity, and how our objects define us

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18 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Samuel Johnson on Writing and Creative Doggedness

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“Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.”

English poet, essayist,literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (September 18, 1709–December 13, 1784) endures as one of the most influential figures in literary history. His Dictionary of the English Language, originally published in 1755, is celebrated as one of the highest achievements of Western scholarship. A brilliant man yet a confounding figure in his lifetime, his peculiar tics and quirky gestures were only posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome.

He was also a man of uncommon sagacity, which was collected a century after his death in the 1888 volume Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (public library; public domain). Here are some of Johnson’s most timeless insights on writing — a fine addition to this omnibus of great writers’ wisdom on the craft.

Like Thomas Edison, who believed that “success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” and Alexander Graham Bell, who argued that It is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Johnson reminds us that writing is an undertaking that requires remarkable self-discipline:

Composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.

In a sentiment later echoed by E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Chuck Close (“inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), and Neil Gaiman (“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist.”), Johnson insists that doggedness outweighs “inspiration”:

A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.

And yet he offers a disclaimer — a cushion against the cult of productivity:

Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write, nor has any man at all times something to say.

Like Zadie Smith, who counseled to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” and Neil Gaiman, who advised to “keep moving” because “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Johnson admonishes that getting too hung up on perfectionism ensures frustration rather than elegance:

It is one of the common distresses of a writer to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance and make one of its members answer to the other: but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished.

Like Ray Bradbury, who asserted that the only way to write well is to write intensely and emotionally, and only when you’re done to think about it and revise, Johnson advocates for letting the intuitive mind, free and uninhibited, shape the initial stages of ideation, only later allowing the rational mind to filter and edit:

The production of something, where nothing was before, is an act of greater energy than the expansion or decoration of the thing produced. Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur; and, when you have matter, you will easily give it form: nor, perhaps, will this method always be necessary; for by habit your thoughts and diction will flow together.

For more notable wisdom on the written word, complement Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson with Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.