Faulkner Told Me to Do It

Faulkner

“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 of the window.”  ― William Faulkner

I used to think I needed to finish everything I started (and I still kind of do). But if Faulkner implies that I ought to throw Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, or Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume out the window, well then consider me looking to fill some space on my book shelf.

Why Do You Do What You Love to Do?

Recently, I read a short article on how to write with style. In it, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word were mentioned. It was a great read. Some points hit home, namely: Find a Subject You Care About. Vonnegut said:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I’ve always had a suspicion that it didn’t matter as much how I wrote but what I wrote about, and that an audience (albeit mine quite small) would see past my well-placed commas and thesaurus-mined words. That people are willing to sift through my 5th grade reading level prose and structure in order to be impacted by the elements of a great story proves that they get something. A beautiful sentence might cause one to reflect for a day, but a beautiful story could change their entire life.

But, it’s easy to shimmy around on a mediocre plot when you can flower up your dialogue with wit and tight grammar. Soon, though (and we’ve all been here), the reader grows tired and the inevitable realization that they’ve been staring at the same page for several minutes and don’t have an idea of what it’s said sets in (this is not always the writer’s fault—though sometimes it is).

Were someone to stop me on the street and ask me, “why do you write?” I am afraid I would hesitate a little longer than I would like to admit. Why? Because it’s one thing to care about something, but it’s another thing to get bogged down by how you want to convey it. In fumbling through my mind to answer the question I would wind up saying something idiotic like, “Oh, well, I like to try to write about bicycles. You know, because they’re good.” My problem would not be the subject of my response, but the thoughts that premeditate my speaking it. The thoughts that, of course, say, you better say this in a convincing way, or at least in a beautiful way, or they’re going to think you writing about bikes is ridiculous.

But that is ridiculous. We all know that. If we have the gall to stand up for what we’ve decided to give our lives to then few will be able to blame us. In this way, confidence, assurance, and die-hard belief leap further than physical strength, beauty, or well-punctuated paragraphs any day.

The reason for this is, again, because a beautiful story can change someone’s life. A painter who slaves at her canvas, day after day, fighting back thoughts about giving up and starting over, has a chance to impact thousands who might see it in a gallery; a business man who deals in medium-grade sod because he knows it will, at least, provide for his family might increase the opportunities his children have later in life; a data entry clerk who enters numbers into spreadsheets, but who chooses to do it meticulously, might be compiling statistical data that could eventually alter the way the world looks at injustice.

Belief precedes product every time.

So why do I write? What subjects do I genuinely care about?

I write because I believe in honesty. It propels people. After fame, strength, knowledge, etc., fade and fall, honesty always remains. People don’t say, “oh, well he was that strong all of his life,” or, “she was always able to out think us when it came to quantum-physics.” But they do say, “she was always an honest girl,” or “he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.” I have seen people dramatically open their lives to others because they were inspired by another’s honesty, and likewise, I’ve seen people’s lives utterly destroyed because of dishonesty. There is a keen power in honesty then. It doesn’t come with prestige or flashiness, but it does outlive most everything else.

I also write because I’m on a journey. I know that sounds cliche, just bear with me. I can’t say I’ve always known which journey I’m on, or that the journey has always looked the same (because it hasn’t), but I do know that I have had chances to experience sights, smells, people, beliefs, colors and tastes that others haven’t. I see this as an opportunity for others: some of my most profound realizations have come by reading other’s words about their experiences. Mingled with my knack for writing (and really my enjoyment of it), I want to tell the kinds of stories that change people. Not for me, but for them, and for the God who (for whatever reason) gives me the chances to do it (and believe me, I’ve squandered plenty of them).

That’s why I write and, genuinely, keeps me at it. What about you and your passions? What keeps you at it?

John Updike on Thievery

The young people ask me about becoming a writer, and they really haven’t read, not even read bad stuff. They haven’t experienced reading as happiness, as it were. So without some knowledge of what other writers have done, it’s very hard to find your own way, I think. We’re all thieves, I suppose.