The William Faulkner Primer for Writers

On one side of the street, William Faulkner was known as a high school dropout, a University of Mississippi dropout, a dreadful postmaster, an addicted womanizer, and an alcoholic whose wife drank just as badly and tried to take her own life on their honeymoon. On the sunnier side of the road, Faulkner was respected as a poet, a writer of short stories, an author of books, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel prize for his literature.

William Faulkner simply referred to himself as “a farmer who likes to tell stories.”

Like none before him and few after him, Faulkner captured the raw beauty of the rural south in all of its dark and brooding complexity. He was driven by the history and culture of his Mississippi homeland, and Time Magazine reported that his “novels are a kind of diary of his own tormented inner struggle, an inadvertent self-portrait of a man making visible his own conflict of loyalties and good will.”

As a writer, his sprawling verse and insatiable habit of knotting together remnants of the past, present, and future overwhelmed many of the nation’s literary critics.

They did not understand his prose.

They did not understand Faulkner

They could not grasp the depth of his writing.

William Faulkner wrote with a mad man’s stream of consciousness, telling highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic stories of Southerners whether they happened to be aristocrats or members of the poor white or agrarian working-class sharecroppers. His themes were timeless. He understood the tragic circumstances facing both black and white. And he prided himself in writing about fiercely intelligent people dwelling behind the facades of good old boys and down-home, country simpletons.

His prose was a little different. His sentences were long, rambling and passionate. When he had a point to make, he took his time getting there. The power was woven in the setting, the scene, and the dialogue and it could be suffocating.

But Faulkner was never concerned with mastering a technique. He had a story to tell, and he told it the way he felt it. As Faulkner said, “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.”

So it stayed the way it was, just as Faulkner remained the way he had always been. As esteemed Southern author Flannery O’Connor said of him, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.’

Through the years, in interviews and letters, he left these guidelines for writers:

  1. Read, read read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
  2. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
  3. In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
  4. You cannot swim for horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.
  5. Don’t be a writer. Be writing.
  6. If a story is in you, it has to come out.
  7. Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.
  8. I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written down.
  9. 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.

10. The best fiction is far more truer than any journalism.

11. The artist doesn’t have time to listen to their critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews; the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews.

12. It’s all now you see; tomorrow began yesterday and yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow.

Alcohol ruled William Faulkner’s life and ultimately ruined it. He once said, “Pouring out liquor is like burning books.” But the demons inside his psyche drove him hard.

Robert Hamblin, an expert on Faulkner’s literature, once explained to frustrated readers: “Think of yourselves as members of a jury. Imagine sitting in court listening to and sifting through contradictory testimonies of a parade of witnesses, and knowing that finally you’ll have to make up your own mind about what actually happened and who is and is not telling the truth.”

Faulkner as both prosecutor and defense attorney laid out all of the facts and falsehoods and bald-faced lies. And I’m not sure even he knew what was real or imagined.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner pointed his thoughts directly at the writers who would come after him. He said that “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 he sweat … 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, and 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…

“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 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.”

Faulkner once told a reporter for the Paris Review that he was certain he could do better if he were to write his novels a second time. Striving for improvement, he said was crucial for any writer.  Some believed that Faulkner was not so much writing stories for the public as telling them to himself. It is, one critic said, what a lonely child might do, or a great writer.

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  • David L Atkinson

    Very interesting Caleb abd with some profound ideas. Cheers

  • Fantastic work, Caleb. Faulkner has always been an enigma to me. But reading your piece about him and his thoughts on writing has made me want to get to the keyboard and discover something new about the inner conflicts of the human heart.

  • I truly believe that the greatest American storytellers came from the South. The writers were all Yankees.

  • Christina Carson

    I have always felt if one is not welling to peer down into the depths of the river where it’s life exist, all you have left to talk about is the froth.

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