Visitors from Other Colleges, tape 2

DATE: 12 May 1958

OCCASION: Representatives from Other Colleges, 4 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall

TAPE: T-145b

LENGTH: 23:35

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William Faulkner: [...] one of the tools. That's a particular saw, hammer that the particular carpenter feels he can do the most with, that he might not like the violence either. It's simply because he does not have a better tool to show man in his tragic or comic moments inside the predicament. That is, the dramatic story is, man is faced—the frail, fragile creature of flesh and bone, mostly water, in a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity, faced with problems which are usually bigger than he is. The story is, does he face it? Does it lick him? Or does he beat it? Or if it licks him, does he get beaten to his knees still, as Hemingway says, "Looking good." That, I think, is—is what anyone writes about. It's man that is striving to be braver than he might be, more honest than he might be, to be compassionate.

Unidentified participant: And it's so important in twentieth century, more than in other centuries [...] [to write about this]?

William Faulkner: Well, no, it's always been important. I think that's what makes man endure and what will cause him to endure, that he is capable of wanting to be brave and to be honest and to be compassionate, and he will last. He's outlasted his dinosaurs. He'll outlast his atom bomb. My belief is that the last sound on earth, when this earth is a red rock freezing, will be two folks building an airship and fussing about where they're going next. [audience laughter] Man is all right. You can't beat him. No, there'll be three. The other one will be writing a book about it. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, when you begin to write a novel, do you have it planned from beginning to end?

William Faulkner: Not always. It's—it's a little more instinctive than that. It could begin with a—a character. It could begin with an anecdote. And out of that the book grows in order to explain why the person got in that particular pro—complexity. I—some people work from plots, but I never could do it, just like I never did do any research. I—it's more fun to me to—to invent, I think, than to hunt up a fact. But—and this—I wish it were as simple as that, but it's—it's not. You—the writer, I think, never knows just where that germ came from that started him off.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Well, in some of our writing classes at Chapel Hill, we have—well, we've been discussing with—the ways you go about writing a novel and a short story. And—and one of the theories we've been [dealing] with is that a short story is planned, outlined, from beginning to end, whereas in a novel—it seems that most novelists tend to just find themselves as they go along. Do you find that's [true]?

William Faulkner: I don't quite agree with that. If you mean by planned, outlined into a pattern—

Unidentified participant: That's for short stories.

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: And the novel, you just kind of find the novel and yourself in it, or—

William Faulkner: No, I think they both come from the same source. I rate the—the ability to write in three degrees. The first degree, the highest, of course, is the poet. He can say in—say it in fourteen lines. I rate next the short story writer. He can say it in ten pages. I rate last the novelist because it takes him three or four hundred pages. [audience laughter] But it—that's a matter of working. If you work from notes, from something physical that you can look at in front of you, then you work that way, no matter what you're writing. Maybe the poet does. If you plan it all inside before you put down anything, then that's the way that you do it, novel, short story, or sonnet. I don't think that—that could be a—a procedure, a rule for procedure. Actually, the novelist wishes he could say it in ten pages. In fact, all that any writer wants to do is to say it in one absolute word, the poet, the short story writer, or the novelist. If he could state some moving, tragic, fundamental, eternal truth of man's struggle within man's heart in one word, that's what he wants to do. He'll never do it, and that's why he's never bored. He never touches satiation in his vocation. There's always some reason to get up tomorrow morning and rub your hands and go back to work.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Apropos of the last question asked, so far as I understood it, and apropos of the first question asked, I wonder if you would care to comment a little more broadly upon the effect of formal education on the creative writer?

William Faulkner: I hope I'm not going to step on any toes now. [audience laughter] I don't believe that formal education ever made a writer or ever hurt him. I think a writer is omnivorous. He will use [someday] any experience. That formal education has taught him one very valuable quality, which is mental discipline. He could teach himself mental discipline. He wouldn't have to have formal education for that. Formal education simply simplifies his field of research. That he is offered by experts, in—in the simplest way, knowledge, which he probably very likely will need and will use. Without formal education he would have to dig it out himself. But I don't think that formal education could take a man and turn him into a writer.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, a few minutes ago you mentioned personal experience as one of the sources, including that in books that you have read. According to that, what is your opinion of such writers as Stephen Crane and Dreiser and Frank Norris in relation to your own work?

William Faulkner: No writer is really interested in who wrote the book. He's interested only in the book. So I could probably find more influence of characters of Crane's on what I've written than influence from Crane himself. That the only thing that's interesting to the writer is how someone else has taken man and from those three sources has created him in a slightly new or slightly awry—awry light in his comic or tragic struggle within his own environment or his own dilemma. Everything the writer has read from the telephone book up has influenced him. He's amoral, omnivorous. He will rob and steal from any source, because he is not only willing but if anyone after him robs and steals from him, he's flattered. That means that he did it pretty well if somebody else wants to steal it.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, with all this talk of conformity, particularly literary conformity, don't you suppose that there's either less of it than talk of it has taken for granted or that it's [...]?

William Faulkner: Would you ask me that again please, Ma'am?

Unidentified participant: In other words, don't you think there's less literary conformity than is constantly talked about?

William Faulkner: Oh. Well, I—I don't think there's any such thing as literary conformity. The pressure to conform is not to be literary. It's to belong to an economic strata. That litera—literature can't be conformed. The only restriction it submits to is that of language. And that's only in the terms of the reader. That no first-rate writer is going to—to bother about writing like Hemingway or like Mark Twain. He's too busy. He's writing about people. If anything—any trick Hemingway learned is good, he will steal it from Hemingway or from Twain, but he's not going to conform anybody's school of—of literature. He's writing about people. And if he belongs to a school of literature, it's because they are pleasant folks to talk to and drink with until two and three o'clock in the morning, not to write like.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Speaking of language, you said that the two great influences on the western world and writing are the Bible and the Greek myths and that the latter are dying out such as, in terms that we speak of, cultures or parts of cultures dying out, and yet it's feasible that a writer understands those myths and works with them. It's a tenuous question but is it still legitimate for him to express himself in—in an old, outmoded form of language, such as myths, even though he's pretty sure that people who read him will not understand him, at least right away?

William Faulkner: If he feels that that is the best way for him to—to isolate man in the motion of being alive, inside his dilemma, yes, by all means. He can use any—any means, any method, he likes. But if he is going to write just to use means or method of style, he's simply writing rhetoric, and he would be better off at something a little more fun than that. That the—the story itself compels its symbolism, compels its—its style, I think. That the writer, as I said, simply reaches behind him with one hand while he's writing with the other and drags out a symbol which he thinks is exactly the scrap of wood he needs to make that joint with, which is, in my opinion, perfectly legitimate. If he is dealing simply with man in motion then he has obeyed all the—the compulsion of his craft on him. He can use whatever method he likes, just as long as he sticks to the primary compulsion, which is to deal with man in motion, in a—a believable, a credible, dramatic way. Not to judge, simply to describe man struggling within his predicament, in his unceasing conflict with himself, with his fellows, with his environment. Any method he uses, in my opinion, is all right.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You tell us in Absalom that Miss Rosa writes poetry, and I've always been curious about what kind of poetry Miss Rosa [...]. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: It would probably have been gothic love poetry, fourth-rate. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: What do you think of the dramatizations that have been made of your work for the movies and for the play coming out next year?

William Faulkner: I saw Intruder in the Dust. I thought that was a—a pretty good picture. It was a good deal like my book. [audience laughter] The others, I never saw. That play which will be in New York next—next fall is—is the way I wrote it. That hasn't been changed. That was—was sections of a book that was told in play form because that seemed to me the best way to tell the story of man struggling in his dilemma. So I used play form. The others I haven't seen because—well, I'd done the best I could with that book, and I was interested in writing another one which would be better, I thought, and I just didn't have time to go to see it. And then picture shows come at the wrong time of day for me. It's—that's the time of day I like to—to be at home and have a drink or two and then eat supper and sit down and smoke and read for a while, not to go out to the picture show.

William Faulkner: Yes'm.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [...] [you often] talk about man's [condition] and man's dilemma, and I hear people [...] [more poignant in the South] [...]?

William Faulkner: No, that's simply because the writer to save time can write about what he knows best. Then there's less chance of somebody, saying "Uh uh, you're wrong. That—folks don't do that in Keokuk." [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: [...] the same [...] for your ideas?

William Faulkner: Yes, I think that people are the same everywhere. Their problems, their immediate problems, are different but, their—their struggle within—within the—the fundamental, simple human truths is the same everywhere, I think. One writes about his own native land simply because that saves him having to do research to keep people from checking up on him. [audience laughter] That it's—it's easier. It saves—saves time. He's writing about something that's familiar, that he has—well, you might say, not only seen, but smelled, too.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Does that mean in a short story like "Dry September" the situation is [...] ?

William Faulkner: Yes. In which a—a—a woman, in that condition of frustration after menopause or about menopause, could have caused that sort of tragedy. It wouldn't necessarily have to have a—a—a colored note in it. Not necessarily that same story, but she could have caused that same grief, injustice, crime.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Pertinent to that, I'd like to ask why is it that Mississippi seems so very active in a literary way, and yet we don't find the same phenomenon in New Jersey? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, that's—that's because Mississippi is in the South and New Jersey's in the North. [audience laughter] I think—I think that the wisest thing any nation can do when it gets itself into any sort of a economic muddle is to pick out some rich nation and declare war on it, and get licked and then be supported. The folks in the South write because the North has supported us ever since 1865. [audience laughter] We had plenty of time to write.

Unidentified participant: Would you comment on this? It would seem to me in talking to other people about your work that—the ladies in Richmond, this class, southern ladies in general, do not know your work as well as people in other parts of the country, in Europe. Have you observed that? Do you think that's true?

William Faulkner: I think that's because everybody in the South is writing. Nobody has time to read [anything]. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you speak of finishing a novel and then sitting down to write a better one. Do you feel that your last book is—whatever it is, is the best that you've done, to date I mean? Taken at any time?

William Faulkner: No, sir. I think to the writer there's no good, better, best. It's got to be the best or it's nothing. And none of them are good enough to suit me. I don't—as I said, the writer don't give a damn what anybody else thinks about this book.

Unidentified participant: Yeah.

William Faulkner: It ain't good enough to suit me, so I'm gonna write another one. And if I live another hundred years, maybe I'll do it. I—I probably won't, but I'll keep on trying. But the work is—never suits the—the writer. That's why it's the—the happiest of all vocations because you never touch satiation. You're never bored. There's something to get up to and go to work at tomorrow.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I've been puzzling since asking my question. What did you mean when you said that Joyce was electrocuted?

William Faulkner: Only that he had a—a tremendous talent. He tried too hard to put the whole tragic history of man's struggle within his dilemma on the head of a pin. I think that is—is a feeling that every—every writer, every artist has, that I will be here only for a very short time, and this—this tragic, beautiful dilemma of mankind is so moving that I must put it down, and I may not live long enough to finish the book, so I'll try to do it in one sentence, one word. Joyce was trying to do it all in one English sentence, which was Ulysses, and in one English word, which was Finnegans Wake.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel that a good writer should necessarily be a regionalist in the sense that he should write about those things that he knows best?

William Faulkner: He is writing about people, and people, in my opinion, are not regional. They are universal. They—the same hopes, aspirations, tragedies are universal everywhere, no matter what color nor what race. The writer is regional only in the sense that he is using something that he is familiar with to save himself the time of research. He is not trying to be a regional writer when he writes about the East Tennessee mountains or about California. He is simply using the material that he is most familiar with to save himself the trouble of having to read up Chamber of Commerce brochures on Portland, Oregon, for instance. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Where did you first [really]get your—get your interest in Indians? Was it from relics or living near them in Mississippi or—?

William Faulkner: That's a part of—of my culture, my North Mississippi culture. Our country is—compared to the country east of the mountains is—is—was frontier only a hundred years ago. Remnants of Chickasaw families still live. They're still my neighbors. Some are—are—are mixed with Negroes. Others are mixed with white people. The traditions are still there. There—in my childhood, boyhood, there were old men that could remember having heard their fathers tell them about the old days. The Indian names are still on the creeks and branches. The old roads, the old hilltops, still have the Indian names with the tribal significance.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [...] work a certain number of hours [at a time], or do you wait for inspiration?

William Faulkner: I don't have to wait for inspiration, if we can use that term. My trouble now is to—to keep from—to find some good reason not to work. I don't like to work. I put it off as long as I can. When the demon begins to worry me and nag me too much, then I will sit down and write. But I never have used any system, though some people do. Just like I've never kept notes. I will put off the work of—by any means I can think of. Then when I've got to get it done, I will sit down and write a batch of it, so I can take off a week and not work. [audience laughter] I'm lazy.

Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, I'm sure that we all join in thanking you for being with us today.

William Faulkner: Well, thank you, ladies and gentlemen. [applause]

[end of recording]