“Paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.” — William Faulkner on his writing requirements

“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.” — William Faulkner

Faulkner wasn’t fucking around.

It’s his birthday today.

While I haven’t written here about Faulkner’s books, I did write about the film adaptation of Faulkner’s 1940 story “Tomorrow”, starring pre-fame Robert Duvall (it was my Dad’s favorite Duvall performance. He referenced it to me before I had even seen it. Dad only saw it once, and it stuck in his mind all those years.)

Faulkner was a great interview. His Paris Review is fantastic and rich. A couple quotes:

On Moby-Dick:

“Writers have always drawn, and always will draw, upon the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless – the three men in Moby-Dick, who represent the trinity of conscience: knowing nothing, knowing but not caring, knowing and caring.”

On the writers and books he loves:

“The books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Don Quixote – I read that every year, as some do the Bible. Flaubert, Balzac – he created an intact world of his own, a bloodstream running through twenty books – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. I read Melville occasionally and, of the poets, Marlowe, Campion, Jonson, Herrick, Donne, Keats, and Shelley. I still read Housman. I’ve read these books so often that I don’t always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.”

On Ulysses (Faulkner’s first-response is one of my favorite quotes about the book):

You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

And finally: Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. It’s a doozy. He bought his first dress suit for the ceremony. It was a big deal that he even showed, that he left Oxford, Mississippi at all. 1950. Important to consider the context. The bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki just 5 years before. The horror of what was unleashed was fresh. Humanity faced extinction. Faulkner, one of the bleakest writers who ever lived, spoke about “the end of man” and where he stood on that urgent issue.

Stockholm, 10 December 1950
“The agony and the sweat”

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.

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 honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours 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 grive on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simplyl because he will endure; that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endue: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. 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 honour and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been 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.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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7 Responses to “Paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.” — William Faulkner on his writing requirements

  1. DBW says:

    “It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then.”

    And, thus, I will have no peace.

    While I wouldn’t say that Duvall’s performance in Tomorrow is my favorite, it is really fine work. He is a giant, and there are so many character portrayals from which we can choose. He has been in so many great, great movies that it’s almost hard to digest when you look at his list. Truly, one of our shared great acting legacies–and it IS a shared legacy. We all know so many of his movies, but I continue to be surprised when I realize he is in something I’m watching—Bullit, True Grit, The Rain People, MASH, The Seven Percent Solution, Wild Horses, Network, The Great Santini(a precursor, in my mind, to his real quality work), Joe Kidd, The Natural, The Conversation(great movie), Crazy Heart, Phenomenon, Sling Blade, ….oh, hell—on and on. I’m just trying to list some of the ones we all forget he was in, much less the ones we all remember. The Great Santini doesn’t really qualify for a list of movies that you are surprised he is in, but he’s just so good in it, and I think it’s generally unknown, that I included it.

    To end this, I want to recommend Broken Trail to anyone who hasn’t seen it. It’s very well done, and it’s one of the best Duvall western characters—plus, the cinematography is exceptional. It’s ‘based on a true story,’ and more so than most that make that claim. If you appreciate Duvall, you won’t be disappointed.

    Miss you, Red.

    • sheila says:

      DBW – Hey! I’m always here! I haven’t gone anywhere!

      Yeah, Duvall really got around, especially in his younger years. He was old-ish (comparatively) when he “hit” – which gave him that seasoning some younger actors lack. There was a really great Vanity Fair article about 10 years ago about the long-ago days when he, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were “coming up” together – they even were roommates!

      I’ve written about this before – but with all the great work he’s done ,he has a moment in Rambling Rose that is the best work he’s ever done. Strong words! He’s always great! But THIS is a horse of a different color. I love him in Rambling Rose because it’s a gentle comedic part – romantic even – a married man, a kind patriarch, and it allowed him to show parts of himself he was never asked to show. and there’s that one moment …. I got to ask the director (Martha Coolidge) about that moment when she came to Ebertfest! She said that on the day they shot that scene, he pulled her aside and said, “I think we should probably do my close-up first.” (it was a scene with Diane Ladd). He knew – it was going to take a lot – it was going to be DEEP – and he didn’t want to wait around all day. Diane Ladd was irritated, lol, but Coolidge of course said Yes. He wasn’t being a diva. He understood what was required – AND he did it on the first take. I have goosebumps just thinking about it.

      I love Broken Trail!

    • sheila says:

      I mentioned the Rambling Rose moment here – plus video clip of me asking her the question. http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=156352

      If you haven’t seen it – and you love Robert Duvall – it’s a very special performance and unique in his career.

  2. DBW says:

    First off, I apologize for jumping the gun a bit in my first comment–I saw Duvall’s photo, and just…went with it, when the post is obviously more about Faulkner. And, BTW, Faulkner WAS an interesting interview, when you could actually corral him into one–such a wise and caustic individual. If you haven’t read it, but I suspect you have, I would recommend Conversations with William Faulkner. It’s a good read.

    Secondly, I know the moment you mention in Rambling Rose, and it is perfect. “Bobby,” as Martha Coolidge calls him in the video you linked, has had a lot of moving moments on screen, and that is certainly at the very apex of his acting skills. And skills is probably not the right word. He’s obviously skilled, but it goes beyond that to some deep place that we all have, but few of us could ever call it up for public display in front of a camera. He is one of my very favorite actors–Top 5, if not higher than that, and he has been in so many movies that I love. One of the quotes from Faulkner you mention talks about him reading sections of books to revisit certain characters, ” just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.” I do that all the time, and one of the characters I revisit with relish is Augustus McCrae from Lonesome Dome. All credit to Larry McMurtry for creating the character, but has any actor ever captured a writer’s intent better than Duvall does with McCrae? I have read and reread all the Lonesome Dove novels numerous times, but sometimes I will just open my Kindle and read some of my favorite “Gus” parts, always with the character as portrayed by Duvall in my head–even the younger McCrae in the earlier novels. I still picture them as a younger Duvall. That’s acting on a whole different level.

    I know you are still ‘here,’ but I haven’t been, and I regret that. You are still my favorite ‘find’ out there on the www.

    • sheila says:

      // If you haven’t read it, but I suspect you have, I would recommend Conversations with William Faulkner. //

      I haven’t read it!

      One of my favorite anecdotes comes from his weird wanderings in Hollywood:

      Howard Hawks, Clark Gable, and Faulkner went out on some shooting expedition – something like that – piled into a car and drove out of town. Hawks and Faulkner knew each other well – were already collaborating – but Gable didn’t know Faulkner, so when he was introduced to him, he said, “And what do you do?”

      Faulkner said, “I’m a writer. And what do you do, Mr. Gable?”

      Puts Gable right in his place!

      // He is one of my very favorite actors //

      Me too. I miss him.

  3. Shawn says:

    I’ve not read Faulkner. If feel like this may elicit some laughter, but what novel of his would you recommend first?

    • sheila says:

      You can’t go wrong with starting with As I Lay Dying. He is very very difficult but very worth it. He has few heirs – except for maybe Toni Morrison (who, incidentally, wrote her dissertation on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. You can feel the influence on her very distinct work.)

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