Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few American writers command the same level of respect and awe as Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner William Faulkner. Born in 1897 and best-known for his novels As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom!; Light in August; and The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner is a giant of American literature and a defining figure in the Southern tradition. But Faulkner is not for everyone – his dense, ambiguous writing style and his phenomenal ear for things like cadence, diction, and rhythm make many of his more experimental works seem startlingly contemporary and difficult to penetrate.
Of course, this complexity means that he’s an excellent model for writers looking to learn more about craft. If that sounds like you, here’s a primer on some of Faulkner’s most enduring and important lessons.
Go it alone
According to Faulkner, “The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.” This might not be the best advice to take totally literally, but it is useful – if you’re waiting for advice, you’ll never get started, and if you don’t quietly believe that you know best, you can’t be expected to write with any authority.Good advice is near essential, but have the artistic arrogance to make the final decision.Click To Tweet
Faulkner prefaces this statement with: “Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error”, and this can be read as an implicit push for self-improvement – after all, to learn from your own mistakes, you must be able to recognize your errors (which is easier said than done). Once you know where you’re going wrong (and you’ll have to work for the privilege), you can move forward on your own.
Don’t fuss over style or technique
Surprisingly, given the aesthetics of his own prose, Faulkner warned against agonizing over method, saying in a 1958 writing class,
I think the story compels its own style to a great extent, that the writer don’t need to bother too much about style. If he’s bothering about style, then he’s going to write precious emptiness – not necessarily nonsense… it’ll be quite beautiful and quite pleasing to the ear, but there won’t be much content in it.
Essentially, Faulker is arguing against a preoccupation with aesthetics, especially when placed above content. Style, he suggests, should emerge organically, taking on the form of whatever best serves the story, rather than being the impetus behind the creative act.Place style over substance and you’ll be writing Faulkner’s “precious emptiness”.Click To Tweet
In this sense, he’s pushing for textual purity – style should reflect content. For instance, if your book is concerned with time (as The Sound and the Fury is), clever manipulations of tense, perspective, and syntax can help blur the lines between past and present and can drag, for example, the sites of past battles into poignant new relief. However, if you begin with the stylistic choice to mess around with time, and then think up a story to match, there’ll be little worth in the end product.
Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.
– William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Cultivate a healthy personal perfectionism
It’s commonly accepted that writers should fight against their perfectionism, but as ever, Faulkner bucks conventional wisdom. Perfectionism, he argues, can be healthy, so long as a writer accepts that they are pursuing the impossible.
I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy.
Like Keats and the Romantics, Faulkner chased the high and impossible ideals of truth, beauty, and perfection. They combined to form the carrot that dangled in front of him, spurring him ever onward; for if he ever achieved perfection, “Nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.” Cheery stuff!
Faulkner once again exposes his preoccupation with the individual writer here – a writer’s perfectionism is tied to his belief that “nobody is good enough to give him advice”, and it relies upon the writer’s own conception and understanding of perfection. One author’s perfection is therefore different from another’s, and the quest becomes to understand and conquer one’s own form.Understanding and conquering your style is a lifelong quest (that’ll produce great books).Click To Tweet
Work from pictures
Speaking to the Paris Review about how his method of writing, Faulkner’s account of his broken-down creative process is both enlightening and alarmingly simple.
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.
It’s amazing to think that the writer of such celebrated short stories as ‘A Rose for Emily’ and ‘Dry September’ grew those stories from single images. Often, the creative processes of successful writers can seem obtuse or impossibly complex, but Faulkner was famously unmoved by comforts or eccentricities – “All [the writer] needs is a pencil and some paper”, he said.
Don’t neglect setting
When scholars speak about Faulkner today, they invariably focus on his famous Yoknapatawpha County, his masterful use of dialect, and his remarkable understanding of rural Southern culture. Faulkner never let setting be merely a backdrop – in almost all of his novels and stories, it provides the plot’s context; shapes the characters’ opinions, desires, and prejudices; and sets the limits of what can happen.
In As I Lay Dying, a novel about (among other things) human stagnation, Dewey Dell Bundren’s desires are tied to the town, the comparatively urban environment that seems impossibly far from her rural home. Addie Bundren is similarly bound by her geography, and the book’s whole premise is built on the back of her desire to be buried in Jefferson, a journey she was never able to complete during her life. Vardaman Bundren’s famous line “My mother is a fish” (which, by the way, is an entire chapter), similarly illustrates how Faulkner’s characters perceive themselves, others, and high concepts like life and death through direct allusions to the worlds they inhabit.
Setting also defines how Faulkner’s characters speak; one of the biggest challenges of reading Faulkner is trying to translate his characters’ heavy dialect. This forces the reader to inhabit the character and to occupy their world, and helps too to hammer home the themes of Faulkner’s writing. As critic Eva Burkett noted, “Local forms of speech maintain one’s individual dignity in a homogenizing world.” Once again, we see Faulkner binding theme, form, and style to create texts of impressive cohesion and purity.If your setting is just a backdrop, it hasn’t earned its place in your story.Click To Tweet
So next time you’re writing, take some time to think about the settings and cultures your characters inhabit. All stories need a setting, but they needn’t be dead backdrops – place, after all, defines those who live there.
Don’t simplify morality (and be amoral yourself)
None of Faulkner’s novels have straightforward villains – rather, they present ordinary people coming up against abstract evil and trying to deal with it or harness it. This makes for some compelling human drama, and ensures that characters are complex, believable, and utterly human – there’s no ‘evil for the sake of evil’ here. Consider this passage from Light in August:
It did seem that in a small town, where evil is harder to accomplish, where opportunities for privacy are scarcer, that people can invent more of it in other people’s names.
Evil, for Faulkner, is not something confined to particular people or actions, and that is what makes it so dangerous. His characters try to counter it or else they yield to it, but their motivations are always clear, and are all the more believable for it.
As a writer, Faulkner encouraged amorality. In his interview with the Paris Review, he said:
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.
So to summarize: torture your characters with the abstract specters of evil, but ignore it yourself. Steal, beg, and borrow, and never ask permission. “If a writer has to rob his mother,” Faulkner says, “he will not hesitate.”
Consider simultaneous voices and follow your characters
A defining feature of many of Faulkner’s novels is his penchant for flicking between multiple narrative voices and perspectives. As I Lay Dying, for example, bounces between the voices of the various members of the Bundren family (as well as others connected to them) as they struggle to transport Addie’s corpse to Jefferson.
Such an approach helps to flesh out the narrative, the setting, and the events described, as each character will focus on different aspects of the plot depending on his/her tastes, motivations, and desires. It is an organic way of storytelling in that, if you’ve developed your characters, their own perceptions and motivations will tell the story for you. Says Faulkner,
I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself.
In this respect, Faulkner’s narratives are really collections of distinct stories focused around one core premise. Each character tells their own story as as they follow the core plot and respond to the foregrounded setting.
Try this method out yourself – think long and hard about your characters, drop them into a distinct world, invent a context for them to respond to, and then let them tell their own stories. You’ll be surprised where your pen takes you.
The best way to learn more about Faulkner
Of course, I can summarize until the cows come home, but the best way to learn about Faulkner and his idiosyncratic style is to get out there and read some of his books. As well as novels, Faulkner wrote short stories, poems, essays, screenplays, and even a play, so there’s loads to get stuck into. I’d recommend As I Lay Dying or ‘A Rose for Emily’ as great entry points. He also gave a few interviews, including the famous Paris Review interview I’ve been quoting from, and you can find many of his lectures, and insightful observations on his method, online.
There’s loads more to say about Faulkner (I didn’t get a chance to talk about the musicality of his language or his much-envied ear), but I’ve run out of space, so I’m passing the torch on to you. Next time you’re writing, why not follow Faulkner’s lead and give some of his methods a go?
What are your favorite works by William Faulkner? Has his writing influenced you in any way? Let us know in the comments. Or, for more advice from the greats, check out What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us About Book Marketing and Advice From Kurt Vonnegut That Every Writer Needs To Read.