William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

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As prizes go, the Nobel has long been accepted as one of our civilisation’s highest seals of merit. Among the great writers to have received the Nobel Prize for literature – including J.M. Coetzee, Ernest Hemingway, Alice Munro and Seamus Heaney – stands one of the all time masters of the written word: William Faulkner.

Exactly 20 years after he wrote The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 – and what is remarkable here is not so much that a great writer was recognized for his creative skill and genius, as well as his contribution to our culture and society; but that his acceptance speech remains a pinnacle of articulate thought and literary conviction.

Long before acceptance speeches became synonymous with the glitz and glamour of modern award spectacles – of teary-eyed celebrities reeling off a list of thank yous to a crowd filled with other celebrities teary-eyed themselves at not having the chance to read off their own list of thank yous, Faulkner seems to make his speech an art in itself. Despite the poor sound quality of the recording, his thoughts remain remarkably timely in the context of our day. The transcript, found in the ceaselessly inspiring Nobel Lectures: Literature 1901–1967 (public library), follows.

“Ladies and gentlemen,

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 some day stand here where I am standing.”

At this point, Faulkner adjusts the tone of his speech slightly, and reflects on how toxic it is to write from a place of fear; rather than a place of hope for the human heart. While the literary titan was writing just as the Nuclear age was dawning, and dystopian thoughts of nuclear holocaust were reaching their zenith, Faulkner’s words surely seem applicable to us today – gripped as we are by news of faltering diplomatic relations across the world, as acts of terror are committed, and our media spreads fear and anxiety.

“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 honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors 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 grieve 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 simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong 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 endure: 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 honor 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.”

 

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Kafka, truth, reality – and working for an insurance company

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For many aspiring writers and artists working full-time jobs, the difficulty in pursuing their calling comes from the challenge of rousing one’s creative self after hours spent in stressful offices trying to meet tight deadlines. Often, the easiest option is to simply stumble through the front door, and crash in front of the television set on the sofa, or socialise with friends.

For inspiration here, therefore, let us turn to Franz Kafka, the literary genius who spoke of the power books have to “break the frozen seas inside us” and who taught writers to trust in their ability to say what they want (and how they want to). After completing his education, Kafka worked for twelve years in an insurance company – pulling long, hard shifts, and only able to write on nights and weekends.

Despite the limitations of being shackled by the capitalist system, he nonetheless composed The Metamorphosis. And his intellectual, creative mind never ceased working.  In the last four years of his life, he befriended the son of a colleague at the insurance company – a young Czech boy named Gustav Janouch. The two began taking long walks together, on which they discussed everything from literature to love to life itself.

Decades after Kafka’s death, these conversations were put down in writing by Janouch, and published in Conversations with Kafka.

Perhaps some of the most intriguing observations contained in the collection (and there are so many to choose from), are those the pair shared on the topic of reality. For instance, in one encounter, Kafka posits his thoughts on the nature of wisdom, and “truth”:

Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.

[…]

The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.

According to Janouch, after making this point, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist” – which is perhaps how more philosophers should laugh and deliver their observations on the world, human nature and the universe itself. Kafka also added:

Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.

[…]

There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.

 

Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing

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In 2010, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you Michael Morpurgo’s writing tips. And in the past we’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements thewriting commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown author Elmore Leonard (who also inspired the Guardian’s project to collect together all the writerly wisdom they could). So this is a big one. Enjoy!

 

 1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 

Ray Bradbury on work, and writing with love

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Often, it is easier to shy away from work than face it head on. And when we do tackle our work – be it the drudgery of the nine to five, or the fear of finally getting round to working on that novel you’ve not yet started actually, well, writing – we can often approach it with a less than constructive attitude. It’s natural, perhaps; but it isn’t helpful.

These, at least, are the thoughts of one of literature’s truly great champions – Ray Bradbury.

Indeed, Bradbury has given us more than his excellent novels and short stories. He has also given us his timeless wisdom on work, motivation, and creating from a place of love. These are collected in Zen in the Art of Writing.

Bradbury considers why we hate work, as a culture and as individuals:

“Why is it that in a society with a Puritan heritage we have such completely ambivalent feelings about Work? We feel guilty, do we not, if not busy? But we feel somewhat soiled, on the other hand, if we sweat overmuch?

I can only suggest that we often indulge in made work, in false business, to keep from being bored. Or worse still we conceive the idea of working for money. The money becomes the object, the target, the end-all and be-all. Thus work, being important only as a means to that end, degenerates into boredom. Can we wonder then that we hate it so?

[…]

Nothing could be further from true creativity.”

Bradbury argues that writing for either commercial rewards or critical acclaim is “a form of lying.”

This warping of motive can also deform our definitions of success and failure. And, urging us not to quit on something before we know exactly what it is we are quitting, Bradbury writes:

“We should not look down on work nor look down on [our early works] as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.”

A lifelong advocate of doing what you love (and making sure you do it as much as you can), Bradbury ends with a beautiful disclaimer for the cynical:

“Now, have I sounded like a cultist of some sort? A yogi feeding on kumquats, grapenuts and almonds here beneath the banyan tree? Let me assure you I speak of all these things only because they have worked for me for fifty years. And I think they might work for you. The true test is in the doing.

Be pragmatic, then. If you’re not happy with the way your writing has gone, you might give my method a try.

If you do, I think you might easily find a new definition for Work.

And the word is LOVE.”

White winter mist

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The woods are shrouded in a white winter mist. Snow falls from the sombre sky, trees twist and creak in the icy wind. There is someone lying in the woods. A girl.

Her skin is as white as the snow around her, and yet it is a sickly pallor. Her mouth, once as red as blood, is now pale and lifeless. Her hair, as black as ebony, is unkempt and lies straggled on her shoulders. Her figure is delicately cracked in place, as if she were porcelain. Yet the cracks are tinted with faint blue hues – the tell-traces of cyanide.

She had always been so lively – scampering and exploring the woodlands which had become her home. Her eyes had shone with bright delight whenever she found a new fruit, flower or animal.

Everything she encountered seemed to befriend her. She was the darling Snow White; her pure white skin, her vibrant red lips, her glossy black hair made her perfect.

She was irresistible.

She was envied.

The girl was exploring in the woods, when the Queen – the Hag – crept up to her, offered up the cursed fruit. She had seen the young girl’s beauty, and was overcome with jealousy.

“An apple darling?” she rasped, outstretching a withered hand.

The girl should have run – she might have been spared. Yet alas, she was blind to the Hag’s wicked ways.

“For me?” she cried, her innocent eyes, widening in surprise.

“For you,” replied the Witch, in her feigned, scratchy voice.

The girl gazed at the fruit: its red flesh looked positively divine. “It’s to die for.” the old woman chuckled. Like Eve, the girl was tempted. Like Eve, she couldn’t stay strong. She gave in, took a bite, and fell. Her body collapsed upon the freezing snow, her limbs spread-eagled, her mouth parted slightly in shock. The Hag vanished – victorious.

The girl grew weaker and weaker; the poison grew stronger and stronger. It surged through her veins, controlling her, overwhelming her. She could not move. The snow whirled, the winds howled furiously, as if to rouse her from her sleep – her nightmare. She could not sleep. She could not wake.

There was no-one to save her; the pulse slowed in her wrist. The girl’s heart stopped beating in the white winter mist.

 

About the author

Profile Picture.jpgJudith Webster is an English student and aspiring journalist who loves reading and analysing books, which inspired her to start her own blog. Her favourite books to read are classic novels, Gothic novels and a little mix of Horror and Young Adult books, too. She has always been quite a creative person, as well as a bookworm, and so always wrote stories as a a child. As she makes her way as an aspiring creative writer, she is inspired by reading other people’s posts and watching “BookTube” videos on YouTube. You can find her on Goodreads, here.

Michael Morpurgo’s 10 writing tips

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In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you Hilary Mantel’s wisdom and writing tips. And in the past we’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements thewriting commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown author Michael Morpurgo. Enjoy!

  1. The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
  2. Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.
  3. A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.
  4. It is the gestation time which counts.
  5. Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.
  6. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I’m talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.
  7. Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don’t have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.
  8. When I’m deep inside a story, ­living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.
  9. Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.
  10. With all editing, no matter how sensitive – and I’ve been very lucky here – I react sulkily at first, but then I settle down and get on with it, and a year later I have my book in my hand.

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

Alternatively, you could get all this and more by signing up to our free, weekly newsletter for everything interesting. Join the gang!