Some quotes from William Faulkner’s interview with the Paris Review. Folks desirous of reading the whole interview and not just my choicest quotes can do so by clicking on this link.
I’ve posted it mainly as a mode of highlighting the important points that made a strong resonance within me.
But even if there seems nothing more to be said, isn’t perhaps
the individuality of the writer important?
Very important to himself. Everybody else should be too busy
with the work to care about the individuality.
Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a
Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline
. . . ninety-nine percent work. He 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 doesn’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.
Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?
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.
You mentioned economic freedom. Does the writer need it?
No. 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.
Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.
Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she
will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back
of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.
What technique do you use to arrive at your standard?
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.
Then would you deny the validity of technique?
By no means. Sometimes technique charges in and takes
command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands
on it. That is tour de force and the finished work is simply a matter
of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably
every single word right to the end before he puts the first one
How much of your writing is based on personal experience?
I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not
important. 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.
That is, music would express better and simpler, but I prefer to use
words, as I prefer to read rather than listen. I prefer silence to
sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence. That is,
the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence.
Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after
they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest
Read it four times.
You mentioned experience, observation, and imagination as
being important for the writer. Would you include inspiration?
I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know
what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by
artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later,
when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man
is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave
something behind him that is immortal since it will always move.
This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall
of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must
On the Difficulty of Writing Short Stories
Yes sir. You can be more careless, you can put more trash in [a novel] and be excused for it. In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless but in the short story you can’t. I mean by that the good short stories like Chekhov wrote. That’s why I rate that second—it’s because it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There’s less room in it for trash.
On Writers Teaching Young Writers
I don’t think anybody can teach anybody anything. I think that you learn it, but the young writer that is as I say demon-driven and wants to learn and has got to write he don’t know why, he will learn from almost any source that he finds. He will learn from older people who are not writers, he will learn from writers, but he learns it — you can’t teach it.
1.) William Faulkner at Paris Review
2.) William Faulkner On The Web