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20 Pieces of Writing Advice from William Faulkner

William Faulkner is one of the best writers America has ever produced, with a distinctive voice and a relentless intelligence that earned him a Nobel Prize in literature at age 52—not to mention two Pulitzer prizes, two National Book Awards, and the undying love of many readers. He’s one of those writers you can read again and again without really understanding how he’s done what he’s done; he has that magic. But that doesn’t keep anyone from trying to learn from him. Though he didn’t much care for interviews, he has shared his expertise in a few; he also served as the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in 1957 and 1958, and some of his pedagogical conversations with students there have since been made public. Faulkner was born 120 years ago today in New Albany, Mississippi; to celebrate his birthday and to better learn from his work, find below some of his best advice on craft, character, and the writer’s life.

On “being a writer”:

“Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing. Being ‘a writer’ means being stagnant. The act of writing shows movement, activity, life. When you stop moving, you’re dead. It’s never too soon to start writing, as soon as you learn to read.” (from an interview excerpted in The Daily Princetonian, 1958)

On how to approach writing:

“Keep it amateur. You’re not writing for money but for pleasure. It should be fun. And it should be exciting. Maybe not as you write, but after it’s done you should feel an excitement, a passion. That doesn’t mean feeling proud, sitting there gloating over what you’ve done. It means you know you’ve done your best. Next time it’s going to be better.” (from an interview excerpted in The Daily Princetonian, 1958)

On technique:

“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.” (from a 1956 interview with The Paris Review)

On the best way to start a novel:

“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. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical. Most of the the writing has got to take place up here before you ever put the pencil to the paper. But the character’s got to be true by your conception and by your experience, and that would include, as we’ve just said, what you’ve read, what you’ve imagined, what you’ve heard, all that going to giving you the gauge to measure this imaginary character by, and once he comes alive and true to you, and he’s important and moving, then it’s not too much trouble to put him down.” (from a 1958 q&a with University of Virginia graduate students)

On what makes a good novelist:

“Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. [A good novelist] 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. . . . The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” (from a 1956 interview with The Paris Review)

On when to stop work for the day:

“The only rule I have is to quit while it’s still hot. Never write yourself out. Always quit when it’s going good. Then it’s easier to take it up again. If you exhaust yourself, then you’ll get into a dead spell, and you have trouble with it. It’s—what’s the saying—leave them while you’re looking good.” (from a 1957 q&a with University of Virginia writing students)

On writing dialect:

“I think best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It’s best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognizable touches.” (from a 1958 interview for “What’s the Good Word”)

On character:

“The real truths come from human hearts. Don’t try to present your ideas to the reader. Instead, try to describe your characters as you see them. Take something from one person you know, something from another, and you yourself create a third person that people can look at and see something they understand. (from an interview excerpted in The Daily Princetonian, 1958)

On the best age for writing:

“For fiction the best age is from thirty-five to forty-five. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from seventeen to twenty-six. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed into one rocket.” (from a 1947 interview with The Western Review)

On style:

“I did not develop [my style]. I think style is one of the tools of the craft, and I think anyone that spends too much of his time about his style, developing a style, or following a style, probably hasn’t got much to say and knows it and is afraid of it, and so he writes a style, a marvelous trove. He becomes Walter Pater, which is beautiful, but there ain’t too much in it. I think style is simply one of the tools of the craft. That the story you’re telling commands its style, that one style is good for now and another style will be good for tomorrow. And like the good carpenter, one should be able to—well, you might say almost imitate . . . but the style is incidental, I think.” (from a 1957 q&a with University of Virginia writing students)

On writing towards truth:

“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.” (from Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize banquet speech)

On titles:

“I doubt if there can be any rule about [long titles]. I think that anything, the shorter it’s said the better. I think that—that stories title themselves quite often. Yes, in that anything, the shorter it’s said the better it is.” (from a 1958 interview for “What’s the Good Word”)

On failure:

“All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So 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. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” (from a 1956 interview with The Paris Review)

On getting it down in the moment of inspiration:

“You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretenses. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.” (from a 1947 interview with The Western Review)

On what a writer needs:

“[T]he 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. . . . 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. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death.” (from a 1956 interview with The Paris Review)

On writing outside one’s experience:

“There should be no limits to what the writer tries to write about. He has got to tell it in terms that he does know. That is, he can write about what is beyond his experience, but the only terms he does know are within his experience, his observation. But there should be no limits to what he attempts. The higher the aim, the better. If [he wants] to be a failure, let him be a fine bust, not just a petty little one.” (from a 1957 q&a with University of Virginia writing students)

On revision:

“In the heat of putting it down you might put down some extra words. If you rework it, and the words still ring true, leave them in.” (from a 1947 interview with The Western Review)

“Probably any story that can’t be told in one sentence or at least one paragraph is not worth writing. The revision, the cutting out—in my own case, I’m lazy. I don’t like to work, and so I will do as much of it as possible in the mind, in thinking, before I undertake the arduous, hateful job of swatting it out on paper. I think the revision quite often follows because when the job is down on paper at last, it still is not quite what it should be, and so you change, you revise, you edit, you try to bring it closest to the ideal of perfection, which, of course, you’re not going to reach either. That is, what I’m trying to say, is that the revision is I think for the writer more than the editor’s revision, which is for the reader.” (from a 1957 q&a with University of Virginia writing students)

On the writer’s essential toolkit:

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. I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, since it came first in man’s experience and history. But since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better. (from a 1956 interview with The Paris Review)

On the best training for writing:

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” (from a 1947 interview with The Western Review)

On also getting a job:

“Don’t make writing your work. Get another job so you’ll have money to buy the things you want in life. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t count on money and a deadline for your writing. You’ll be able to find plenty of time for writing, no matter how much time your job takes. I’ve never met anyone who couldn’t find enough time to write what he wanted.” (from an interview excerpted in The Daily Princetonian, 1958)

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