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Posts Tagged ‘William Faulkner’

25 SEPTEMBER, 2014

William Faulkner on Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create: A Rare 1958 Recording

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“It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”

The writer’s duty, William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) asserted in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Faulkner’s idealism about and intense interest in the human spirit permeated all of his creative pursuits, from his views on writing and the meaning of life to his only children’s book to his little-known Jazz Age drawings.

In 1957 and 1958, the period halfway between his two Pulitzer Prizes, Faulkner served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. On the last day of his residency in May of 1958, he read from his favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions — wonderfully Southern-drawled questions — from the audience. The surviving recording, found in the University of Virginia’s Faulkner archives, is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in sheer richness of insight into Faulkner’s views on writing and the project of art. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he considers The Sound and the Fury his favorite novel:

I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date… This is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it — not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for me to do. It’s the same feeling that the parent may have toward the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

On his influences and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our lived experience:

I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, and I’m sure that everything I’ve read from the telephone book up has influenced what I’ve done since. I think that’s true of any writer.

[…]

Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.

The question of why writers write — why artists make art — has been addressed, in one form or another, at one point or another, by nearly every significant writer in history. For instance, George Orwell listed four universal motives and Mary Gaitskill outlined six. For Joan Didion, the impulse grants her access to her own mind and for David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis finds in it a way to exorcise the the necessary self-delusions of creativity and Joy Williams a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket, while for Italo Calvino it was about the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. When an audience member poses this very question, Faulkner offers his private answer, at the center of which are some beautifully articulated creative universalities:

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

He later revisits the subject in answering another question:

I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes

Faulkner echoes Schopenhauer in answering a question about style:

I prefer to think that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style.

Long and involved sentences — I don’t like them any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn’t think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it’s not really an evolution — simply that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

Having endured his share of derision early in life, Faulkner smirks at the question of whether criticism hurts him or causes him to change direction:

I don’t read critics. I’d rather read imaginary fiction.

(Susan Sontag once put it even more forcefully: “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.”)

Complement with Faulkner on the purpose of art and the strange story of the children’s book he wrote for the daughter of the woman he was courting.

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10 JANUARY, 2014

The Writer as a Booster of the Human Heart: William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

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“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”

Despite its dark history, the Nobel Prize endures as one of our civilizations’ highest seals of merit — so much so that the Nobel Prize acceptance speech has become an art unto itself. Among history’s finest are Ernest Hemingway’s brilliantly laconic meditation on the value of working alone, Seamus Heaney’s reflection on the essence and politics of poetry, and Alice Munro’s insightful recent interview-in-lieu-of-speech on writing, gender, and the rewards of storytelling. But one of the best comes from William Faulkner, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, exactly twenty years after he wrote The Sound and the Fury, and delivered his acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.

Despite the poor sound quality of this archival recording, it is a pinnacle of articulate thought and literary conviction at once timeless and remarkably timely in the context of our day. The transcript, found in the ceaselessly inspiring Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901–1967 (public library; Abe Books), follows.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Writing at the height of the Atomic Age — the threats and dystopian projections of which precipitated The Age of Anxiety, a cultural phenomenon alive and well today — Faulkner reflects on how creatively toxic it is to write from a place of fear rather than a place of hope for the human heart:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

In a sentiment that E.B. White would come to echo two decades later in his famous meditation on the role and responsibility of the writer, Faulkner

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Complement with Faulkner on writing, the purpose of art, and the meaning of life, his little-known Jazz Age drawings, and the strange story of his only children’s book.

For more notable insight on the written word, see this perpetually growing catalog of famous writers’ wisdom on writing.

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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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