Being Ruthless

Today, I stumbled upon an interview with William Faulkner in the Spring, 1956 edition of The Paris Review. In it, he says this:

“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.”

I remembered this quotation particularly because the author Dan Simmons had posted it once, and gotten some fairly negative responses. (Dan is one of the first people who ever encouraged me, and I am forever grateful to him for it.) I remember one of them: a man who wrote that Faulkner was wrong, that a writer had a primary responsibility to his family, his community, his country — oh, this particularly man had a long list of things the writer was responsible to, all of which were supposed to take precedence over his writing. And I thought, no wonder I’ve never heard of him. He’s not a writer.

If you read the entire interview, you’ll see that Faulkner is being egotistical in a humorous way, in a sense posing as William Faulkner, playing himself. I like that about him. I like that he created a persona. Why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t writers write themselves as well as their stories? It’s certainly more entertaining for us, who read them. I mean, I’m glad J.K. Rowling went off and bought a castle. I’m glad Anne Rice used to arrive at readings in a coffin. I like it when writers have a sense of drama, of story.

But the quotation itself: I think it has a hard core of truth to it. And here’s that hard core. When you start writing, nobody cares whether you write or not. Your family wants what is best for you, which is often not writing, because writing involves making hard choices, including hard financial choices. I left law because I knew that I would never become a writer if I stayed in it. I think at some level, my family still doesn’t understand how I could have left a such a lucrative career. Your friends don’t care, because most of them don’t understand why you would want to be a writer in the first place. It’s only when you start becoming a writer that you make friends who are writers, and they do care — but that comes during the process. And when you start out, you have no readers. Once you have published some things that people have responded to, all this changes — then editors ask you for stories, agents want novels, readers let you know that your writing means something to them. But to get to that place, which can take a decade or more, you have to be ruthless. You have to prioritize your writing, because no one else will.

Of course, once you become successful and you’re making money, there are other things to be ruthless about — for example, ruthlessly following your own vision rather than writing the series that your editor or agent wants. It’s always best to have people around you, whether professionals or friends, who are on your side, who understand what you ruthlessly want to do, and actually support it. Then you can be a little less ruthless.

It’s the word “ruthless” that bothers people so much, I think. No, you shouldn’t actually rob your mother. But you may well rob her of a dream that you will someday be a successful lawyer or doctor. You may well disappoint her. That’s when I think it’s useful to remember Faulkner. To be a writer, you have to have a hard core yourself. You have to be willing to disappoint people, to say no, to take rejection. To be ruthless even to yourself, to refuse to put up with your own laziness and cowardice.

The arts are not for the faint of heart, you know.

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9 thoughts on “Being Ruthless

  1. There’s a thing I read, that stuck with me, a writer talking about how he found that to become a better writer eventually he had to become a better person. I think that in a very large sense that’s the epitome of being ruthless about your art: Letting it change you fully, if necessary, to make better art. So I’m in favour of what Faulkner said, completely.

  2. I’ve always been really uncomfortable with that quote. I have no doubt that it’s true for William Faulkner and for many writers, but I’m not sure how true it is for me. I guess this is for two reasons:

    i) I’m not sure that writing is ever enough to satisfy a person–no matter how much writing success a person has, it seems like there’s always this craving for more success;

    And ii) I think it throws a lot of extra things into the writing pot that don’t necessarily need to be there. I see plenty of people who write for an hour a day and sell stories and novels and seem perfectly happy with what they’ve achieved. Many people don’t need to make that many hard choices in order to free up an hour a day to write. For those people, I’m not sure it makes sense to think of writing as this thing that will extract a huge cost from them: that seems like it might just scare them.

    On the other hand, I do see the point. I also kind of made the same choices as you, and gave up successful and lucrative career paths in order to pursue writing. So…I don’t know. I guess this is just to say that it’s not something I can dismiss or something that I can fully accept.

  3. I don’t think it is, exactly, ruthless. It is often an overwhelming awareness that this
    need to write, to make music, to be what we most need to be sane is worth not doing
    more than what one needs to put food on the table and a roof over the heads of
    those you cherish.

    And now, I do wish a Happy Thanksgiving to the hardworking Theodora, and all
    we who comment in the grace of our love for the far fetched and magical. I have
    often had miserable times trying to get through really unthankful feasts which
    were full of anger for having to do all that work. If it is a chore, skip it, I thought. When I fed many I was happy. Now, those many are scattered and but I can celebrate both memories and joys to come.

    Coming up. Happy Holidays!

  4. I think you can be ruthless, that sometimes it makes you a better writer. To explore parts of yourself that you don’t want to, parts of society, parts of other people, patterns etc. I remember having an argument with my mum when I was younger and I told her I was going to be a writer and she wanted me to be a lawyer. But I refused. Something I find very hard to do with her because she exerts a lot of power over me! (Read guilt tripping) But I won and I’m not a lawyer.

  5. So true, considering I’m in a medical college at the moment :)
    I don’t know why but I keep coming back to read your blogs when I need inspiration. Thanks for having your kind of spirit, and sharing with people like me :)

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