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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

Some Random Musings About Faulkner (yes, it’s related to memoir)

I’ve always adored Faulkner. Bored with the usual high school literary fare, I picked up The Sound and the Fury when I was 16 or 17. 


“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” said T.S. Eliot, and such was the case during my first encounter with the Benjy section. I didn’t understand his non-linear, associative mind, largely enmeshed in the realm of the primitive and the tactile, and I gave up trying to understand it in exchange for being swallowed by it, swept along by “the Dixie Limited.” (Eudora Welty, once asked if it was hard being a writer from the same state as Faulkner, replied: “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”)


There are certain reading experiences that can’t be repeated, and finishing that novel was one of them—when you close a book, emotionally shattered, and say to yourself, “Now THAT was a novel.” And it kept happening as I read my way through Faulkner.


His first two were mediocre, and his third, which he considered his breakthrough, was rejected in its original form. Faulkner, in despair, said he closed all doors between himself and the publishing world, and wrote what became The Sound and the Fury. Walker Percy once said that Faulkner writing that novel after his first three failures would be like Jerome Kern writing Showboat and then in his next project Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—there’s simply no accounting for it.


Faulkner is often quoted as saying the past isn’t dead, that it’s not even past. The exact quote I prefer is from Quentin Compson: “It’s not even time until it was.” The other quote I like is Faulkner’s statement that the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”


When I’m writing a memoir with someone, it’s easy to get lost in the details of someone’s life, in simply telling stories (the kind of writing readers like to skip) and losing sight of the essential thread—the plot, the core theme, the meaning of all the events. A very good writing teacher told me to remember Faulkner’s reference to “the human heart in conflict with itself” whenever a memoir is in danger of getting lost. What is the essential conflict contained within a story, a memory, an incident or point of view? What is the hidden universal truth that needs to be identified and expressed? How can the memoir writer transcend the personal?


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