William Faulkner is one of the greatest American writers and one of the world’s most quotable authors. But what makes Faulkner’s writing so wonderful is the way he incorporates the past, present and future all into novels that somehow feel eternal. A common refrain from writing instructors to students is to “write what you know.” But what does that really mean? How can writers who want to focus on fantasy or faraway lands remain connected to their roots? Faulkner had a lot to say about this during his life. In an interview with the Paris Review, Faulkner explained that he only summoned his best work when he realized that the place of his own upbringing, Oxford, Mississippi, was wroth writing about.
“I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and by sublimating the actual into apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top.”
Faulkner sets his novels in stories in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which he described as “a cosmos of my own, a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse.” Faulkner’s suggestion does not mean that writers must keep their stories set in their own towns and cities. Instead, he is hinting at similar lines of thought as Walt Whitman, who once wrote: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” It is important to keep yourself rooted in the truth of your own experiences. No matter where you set your stories, be sure that your characters are connected to a bit of your own soul. In his book Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” From this relatively obscure source came one of his most memorable lines. Faulkner’s line does not mean that nothing ever changes. Instead, it means the past is alive in all of us. An old audio recording of Faulkner was recently rediscovered that also addresses the motivations behind why writers write. He said:
“You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race. He endures.”
The great writer also had words of wisdom about love.
“You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
Faulkner was speaking of his home when he said that love starts at fault rather than at virtue, but it can be applied to almost anything one loves in their lifetime.