I’m trying to dash off this post before I get swallowed up again by my short story.
Yes, I know I’ve been absent from the blog this month, but August has found me immersed in developing characters and crafting scenes. Whenever I sat down to write a blog post, I became distracted by a scene in the story that I needed to polish or a character that I wanted to add.
The writing process has been quite fun, but now I’m nearing the end of the story, and the usual fears are beginning to surface:
Is the story really any good? Have I succeeded in making the characters compelling or are they one-dimensional? Will I be able to tie everything together in the conclusion? Will it connect with the reader? Will people criticize my work?
This past week I came across a 1956 interview with Nobel laureate William Faulkner in The Paris Review. Several of his observations have encouraged me to see my story through to the end despite my doubts.
If you need a bit of inspiration in your writing journey, read on for Faulkner’s wise words on why it is healthy for the artist to question his work and the formula for becoming a good writer.
William Faulkner on the Healthiest Condition for an Artist
William Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature for “his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel.” He was also a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner for his novels A Fable and The Reivers.
And, yet, in The Paris Review interview, he revealed that he was never completely satisfied with his work. He explained that writers carry an ideal of perfection in their heads that they can never live up to.
Faulkner told the interviewer,
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.
Faulkner believed that it was impossible for an author to write a perfect story. However, attempting to write a perfect work is still a splendid endeavor. How well you try to do the impossible is what counts.
Faulkner observed that his own work often fell short of the mark,
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.
Here is an author who won two Pulitzers telling us that those novels could have been improved. Faulkner knew that no matter what he wrote there would be flaws in his writing. But that was okay because there would be a next time. With his next work, he would get closer to his goal. That’s what was important.
So we must not grow discouraged during the creative process. The first story we write will probably disappoint us, but when we tackle our next story, we can study our last piece to see how to tighten up plots or develop more complex characters. Our skills will improve.
Faulkner says our knowledge of the fact that our story is not perfect should drive us to keep pursuing our craft. Each step forward with each new novel, short story, or poem is a step closer to perfection.
William Faulkner’s Formula for Becoming a Good Writer
But how do we know we’re on the right track to becoming a better writer? When asked if there was any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist, Faulkner replied,
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.
Faulkner acknowledges talent, but he places equal emphasis on discipline and work. As writers, we can never sit on our laurels. Even if we think our last piece was the best we’ve written, it could still be even better. As Faulkner says, never be satisfied. Dream higher.
I love Faulkner’s advice to “try to be better than yourself” as I often find it easy to fall into the trap of comparing my work to that of my favorite authors.
As I write my story, I am tempted to hold it up against the short stories written by O. Henry, Luigi Pirandello, Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Big mistake. I’m just setting myself up for failure.
While I should look to these authors as teachers and use their stories as guides, I should not try to judge my work against theirs. My work is going to fall short, and that can be incredibly discouraging. Instead, I need to remember what Faulkner said.
Faulkner tells us that we should use ourselves as the measuring rod for judging our work. Is this piece of writing better than the last one you wrote? How can you make it better? What can you do to improve your skills?
The Takeaway: Cultivate the Growth Mindset
Faulkner’s advice is not just anecdotal. It actually has empirical backing, aligning with a concept called the growth mindset. Carol Dweck, a researcher and psychology professor at Stanford University, coined the term while conducting studies on how mindset affects learning.
The growth mindset is rooted in a single concept: we can improve ourselves for the better if we are willing to put in the hard work. With perseverance and determination, we can develop skills we never knew we had.
Faulkner observed in the interview,
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.
Contrast the growth mindset to the fixed mindset. The latter believes that people can’t change, that we have fixed traits. Either you’re born a talented writer or you’re not. “It’s no use to try again,” a person with the fixed mindset tells herself when she receives her first rejection slip. She is afraid of looking like a failure so she gives up.
Someone with the growth mindset, on the other hand, embraces difficult situations as learning opportunities. She sees her brain like a muscle and believes if she challenges and exercises it, it will grow.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone can become a Nobel Prize-winner. But it does mean that you never know what you are capable of as a writer unless you roll up your sleeves, refuse to quit, and are willing to put in the time and effort to hone your skills and learn from your mistakes.
And while you’re doing that, don’t forget to have fun. At the close of the interview, Faulkner commented on the first novel he ever wrote,
With Soldier’s Pay I found out writing was fun…With Soldier’s Pay and Mosquitoes I wrote for the sake of writing because it was fun.
I’m taking Faulkner’s advice to heart and am going to have some fun as I wrap up my short story. I hope you too have a fun and productive day of writing!
What do you think of Faulkner’s advice? If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment and share with someone you would like to inspire.