'The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" Is Worth Any Number of Old Ladies'

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This is a really beautiful interview with William Faulkner with The Paris Review. Faulkner discusses the rank amoralism of being a writer, something I have always felt:



FAULKNER 

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That's why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won't, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing. 

INTERVIEWER 

Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist? 

FAULKNER 

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 don'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. 

INTERVIEWER 

 Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless? 

FAULKNER 

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. 


INTERVIEWER 

Then could the lack of security, happiness, honor, be an important factor in the artist's creativity?

FAULKNER 

No. They are important only to his peace and contentment, and art has no concern with peace and contentment. 


INTERVIEWER 

You mentioned economic freedom. Does the writer need it?

FAULKNER 

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.

I see a lot of truth in how Faulkner talks about the writing process--violent, disturbing, churning, and amoral. The art really does have no concern for peace and contentment. That sense of violence can feed a kind of machismo, which you see Faulkner brandishing in this interview. And I think, most sadly for him, it leads to the sense that these feelings of violent creation are particular to men. 

This is the import of "Then she will do the crawling." It's not simply that Faulkner personifies success and envisions engineering its violent submission. It's that he sees that deed through the lens of what men must do to women. He can't really imagine women feeling that creative violence, women artists needing to not be enslaved by success, and instead seeking to enslave it. 

There's so much truth in what he's saying. But he couldn't quite understand just how much. He can't quite imagine  a woman arm-deep in the shit, blood and guts of the work.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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