BLOOD ON THE FOREHEAD, 1: Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech

This marks the first installment of the newest of my ongoing mini-columns, along with GONE YARD (catch-all sports over at the Chicago Sports Review), PAINTING THE CORNERS (Braves commentary, monthly in ChopTalk), and COMICS THAT JUST AIN’T RIGHT (self-explanatory) and the as-yet-untitled Southern Lit review, both found right here on the site. Got another one to roll out soon, but for now, let’s dive deep into BLOOD ON THE FOREHEAD. This one’s focused on the art and craft of writing, and the title comes from a quote by 50’s-era screenwriter Gene Fowler, who said: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” I like it–it’s got that whole utter futility-slash-Jesus-suffering-in-the-garden thing going on.

Anyway, I’ve got no freakin’ idea where BOTF is going to lead. But I can tell you this–we writers love pithy quotes about writing. (See: the title of this very column.) We love ’em because they can give us a feeling of how tough it is to write–but we don’t have to actually WRITE to get that feeling. We can nod in sympathy with Gene Fowler–hell yeah, brother, preach on about that blood and stuff–and then we can search around for other neat quotes that reinforce what a lonely-yet-noble pursuit we all–um, pursue. And trust me–they’re out there. By the bargeloads.

‘Cause the truth is, writers HATE writing. It’s hard, y’know? Sitting down there and staring at a blank page–or, since 1985 or so, a blinking cursor–and trying to wrestle little black squiggles into some kind of sense. Bringing ideas and characters and settings to life on a page using nothing but the 26 letters of the alphabet is like trying to start a fire with a picture of a matchbook. No wonder we’re scared of what comes after we type CHAPTER 1. So let’s bitch-slap the blank-page boogeyman together, hey?

When it comes to the writing life, there’s no end of potential topics. In grad school, I knew folks who made whole careers out of being writers without actually writing. I’ll turn the guns on folks like that soon enough. I’ll also focus on WHY we write–how, when we break through the persistent blankets of civilization and the outside world, we can jive on the kind of endorphin-jacked high that runners get after they’ve pounded the pavement for four or five miles. And I’ll of course give plenty of examples from my own career of what NOT to do to establish yourself as a writer.

So that’s our mission statement here. It’ll hopefully be of assistance to the 2005 equivalent of me in 1984, skinny, downy-soft, and just discovering stuff like Stephen King and realizing that creating this kind of stuff in your head and getting paid for it would be a pretty choice gig. And for those of you who aren’t writers and have no intention of ever becoming one, there’ll be an open bar. Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup.

To wrap things up for Episode I, let’s ride into the SUNDOWN with one of the most important and inspirational passages ever written on the subject of writing–William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Faulkner was one of the finest writers in American history and certainly in the top 20 in all of literature, and I’ll kick the ass of the man who says different. He found eternity and the soul of humanity in his tiny little “postage stamp of land” in Mississippi, and he had a recognition that as a writer, he wasn’t just entitled to sit around at Starbucks and bitch about the bourgeoisie; he had a freakin’ obligation to describe the world as he saw it. He lays out his manifesto right here. I dare you to read this and not be inspired to write something:

“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.

“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 ding-dong 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.”

Come back soon–but write something before you do.

Jay

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