Thursday, September 25, 2014

William Faulkner on Writing

Where Do I Begin?

When you're approaching an author or genre you're not familiar with, it's important to seek the help of a guide.

When I was a teenager I would go into the bookstore and stand in awe in front of the science-fiction and fantasy section and look at all the amazing covers. I hadn't read any science fiction and had a suspicious feeling that in spite of the covers, the books themselves were not all equal. No one in my family nor any of my friends read the genre so I didn't know which ones were good or not.

I would tentatively pick up a book and wonder at the story inside, then put it back and pick up another. I was a sci-fi virgin and if I picked a book at random I realized it could shape my opinion of the whole genre. What if it sucked? Would I be willing to try more and have them suck as well? I could read ten of them at random and still not have come across the best.

Eventually I would leave empty handed, aware of how little I knew of the world.

I wish that attitude guided me more often. I remember wanting to read books by famous authors and assumed that if I selected a book by a given author, I would have a fair idea of the author's style. How naive. I've since come to recognize that authors can experiment and change over time.

Back in the 1980s I wanted to read a book by William Faulkner and there were only a few on the shelf at the bookstore, so I bought Sanctuary and read it. It was all right. I enjoyed it and felt I knew something about Faulkner now and moved on to other authors.

That was before the internet. Now when I approach an author I haven't read before, I do a little research and try to select a book that accurately captures their voice. I'm not as concerned it is their most famous book as I am that it is representative of their style. If you based your opinion of Stephen King on the movies The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, and The Green Mile, good as those stories are, you would miss what he's really all about.

After a little research online I found if I wanted to read Steinbeck, I should start with Grapes of Wrath. If I wanted to experience Hemingway's terse writing style The Sun Also Rises is a good choice. Did the author ever say what their favorite book was? Nabokov said Lolita was his favorite, so that's the one I read.

The Sound and the Fury

As it turns out, after reading Sanctuary I didn't know that much about William Faulkner. The first book should have been The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner said, "It’s the book I feel tenderest toward," and caused him the most grief and anguish to write.

It was not an easy read. I read the first five pages and had no idea who was even talking, let alone what was going on. So I started over and after twenty pages a few pieces began to fall into place, so I started over again. This time I took a piece of paper and wrote down all the characters and their relationships as near as I could tell.

Finally, I made it to the end of the first chapter, and with trepidation started the second chapter. Part way through that one I felt lost again, so I started that chapter over, then halfway through I started to get glimmers of understanding about the first chapter and started the whole book over from the beginning.

Eventually I had to open a spreadsheet and coordinate the different timelines. By the time I finished the whole thing I thought I finally had a fair idea of what happened. Then I talked to my daughter who was reading it also, and it turns out that we had very different opinions of what happened, so we're both going to start over and see if we can sort it out. (Here's her version.)

Why go to so much trouble? I'm sure I could go online and find a review of the book that explains it all, but after spending this much time I would hate to find I missed some obvious passage that made it all clear. As much effort as Faulkner spent writing it I have to trust that he made every word count. It feels like reading a mystery. All the clues are there and if I pay attention I'll sort it out. So much better than the DaVinci Code. 

Jean Stein asked him in the 1956 Paris Review interview, "Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?"

He answered, "Read it four times."

Now I don't feel so stupid. In spite of the challenge these characters are some of the strongest I've ever read. Honest and believable. Lost and haunted.

On Writing

In the Paris Review interview Faulkner had some things to say about writing.
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. With me, 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.
[To be a good novelist requires] 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.
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.
...there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job...

When asked if he was obsessed with violence he responded,
That’s like saying the carpenter is obsessed with his hammer. Violence is simply one of the carpenter’s tools. The writer can no more build with one tool than the carpenter can.
Jean asked him if he ever felt the need to discuss his work with anyone. He replied,
No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.
Faulkner created the setting of Yoknapatawpha County based on the area where he spent most of his life in Mississippi. He said,
I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own.

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