On Faulkner, writing, and our splendid failure to do the impossible.

Like any other book nerd, I love quoting from literature. While it’s mostly from books I’ve read, I occasionally happen upon a set of beautiful lines that I’ve never heard of before, but love just as well. The current quote that speaks to me on a spiritual level is from William Faulkner.

“All of us have failed to match our dream of perfection. I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible.”

I discovered these two lines a few weeks back. I kept turning it over in my head, I kept saying it out loud, testing the words on my tongue. There are very few quotes that have affected me as much. After some extreme searching on the Interwebs, I discovered Faulkner’s Paris Review interview from 1956. He says that he and his contemporaries have written great works, but none of them match their ideas of perfection.

If you are a writer, I’m sure you already understand why this quote affected me so much. Haven’t you felt it? Your best work is not really your best. You always read something you’d written a while back and mentally list out all the things you would change now. In the interview, he addresses this feeling:

“If I could write all my work again, I’m convinced I could do it better. This is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps working, trying again: he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t.”

A two-time Pulitzer winning writer said this. You and I should take our seats. You are never going to match the ideal you’ve built in your head. Your story will be great, but not as great as the one you’ve built in your head. But, you know what? It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong. Write again. Failure is very much a part of the creative process.

So, what is Faulkner’s advice to novelists?

“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.”

As you can see, he talks about talent, but he also mentions discipline and work as reasons. Put your pen to paper, push words out. It sounds painful, but if you’re disciplined, you’ll definitely see results. For now, you just need to get the work done.

“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.”

Compare yourself against yourself, not others. As Faulkner says, “try to be better than yourself”. The results will definitely be worth your while–you could get recognized, or you learn from your mistakes.

If, like yours truly, you’re complaining about not having enough time to write, or other reasons, here’s what Faulkner thinks:

“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.”

So go forth and write! Keep writing and keep improving! You’ve got this!

Can you believe I haven’t read any of Faulkner’s books? The second half of 2017 is going to be all about Faulkner for me. I can’t wait to read his works. Writing this article was uplifting, it makes me want to write more.

How was this post? Do you have any book recommendations or writer anecdotes to share? Let me know in the comments!


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17 thoughts on “On Faulkner, writing, and our splendid failure to do the impossible.

  1. This is a great post, Shruti! Thank you for sharing it.

    I grew up in Mississippi and William Faulkner, not surprisingly, was in our pantheon of greatest artists (including Eudora Welty). Though I had obviously heard of him from our literature classes, we only read one or two of his short stories. His novels were considered too inscrutable for us mere high schoolers and he often wrote of topics that were too racy or too controversial to be introduced to young people. So, I began to read him on my own in high school. I was instantly hooked and I now consider him among the top five greatest writers in American history, and probably in the top 20 of the world. He was a towering talent and was decades ahead of his time. He often is accused of being racist, but that could not be more wrong. He was extremely sympathetic to the African-American people of the Deep South and his works were withering condemnations of racism in the Depression era South. I recommend starting with “The Sound and the Fury”. It is an amazing novel and the one that made me a life-long fan. “As I Lay Dying” is a quick read and is a good introduction to his style of writing (a sort of stream of consciousness style). I certainly hope you enjoy his works as much as I did! Happy reading!

    And thanks again for your wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I can’t wait to get started on his works! I’ve never enjoyed an author’s interview as much as I did this one. I get your point about his writing being inscrutable for high schoolers; in the interview, when asked about how people don’t understand his writing even after reading it 2-3 times, he says they should read it a fourth time. I find his reply impressive.😊 Thanks, again, for the recommendations. I’ll get started on them soon! 🙂


  2. I don’t know what to say about Faulkner, really. I read 2 or 3 of his novels in the 1970s and 80s, and liked them. Then, maybe 15 years ago, I read Light In August. Thought it was terrible. The dialog seemed ridiculous and overblown to me.
    But that, I’m sure, is just me (or maybe not).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Half way through reading this book, I decided to comment… this post your is really good and it has really inspired me as a writer and those are some great quotes. Keep on writing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I would say,

    That was something which was invented by my brilliant friends (JK, they love to cheer me up by saying this😂) AND OH MY GOSH. SHRUTI. YOU ROCK. AND ROLL. BECAUSE THIS POST WAS JUST WHAT I NEEDED. Inspiration. Please keep posting these kind of posts!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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