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.