William Faulkner and I have the same birthday

            My books are arranged by subject matter.  There is a section for Literary Theory, which flows nicely into Feminism, which then abuts American Studies.  All three topics overlap, and I can sandwich in the middle the books that fall into both categories.  Since I have a lot of plays about the Holocaust, I always position Holocaust Literature next to Dramatic Literature, although where to put American Theater History and Performance Theory is a bit of a muddle.  Does it go next to Dramatic Literature, or is it more a part of American Studies and Literary Theory?  And the book titled Holocaust Poetry causes me no end of angst.  Poetry or Holocaust Literature?  Each time I unpack my books that one throws me for a loop.

            The rest of the fiction is easier.  I divide it by nationality.  There is a respectable Brit Lit section, an embarrassing World Lit section, and a rather impressive American Lit section.  I do, after all, have a Ph.D. in American literature.  Within those departments, I organize chronologically.  The problem, of course, is what to do with the likes of Toni Morrison or Tom Robbins.  I need to keep all their books together (what asshole breaks up a family?), but Morrison and Robbins span decades.  Usually, I pick whatever strikes me as the writer’s best-known or most important work, put that in the right place chronologically, and stick the rest of his or her work in beside it.

            I am ashamed to say I do not organize within the author sections by date.  I used to, really I did, but who has the time to check the publication date of every single Edith Wharton?  And do you know how much Henry James I own?  It could take months to finish unpacking (it may anyhow).

            Most of these books were in storage while we lived in London, and as I unpack there is a feeling of returning the world to its rightful axis.  I own what must be well over 1,000 books – and those are just the adult books.  We’re not talking about the kids’.  Bringing them out of boxes, where Harriet Jacobs was absurdly stacked against Geoffrey Chaucer, and putting them next to their contemporaries restores order to an unruly world.

            Some are authors I have loved for as long as I can remember – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Octavia Butler.  Others are authors I have researched and written about, and so I know their work and their lives down to the skeleton – Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Gertrude Stein.  But others are writers I did not like at first, like the man at a cocktail party who blows his nose on the napkins and tells you about his new Beemer.  Getting to know them has been a courtship, and only through continued time together have I learned to love who they are underneath.

            And that is how I came to my relationship with William Faulkner, a writer whose work at first struck me as unnecessarily difficult and pretentious beyond its merits.  I have spent time with him, unpacked his words – reluctantly at first, for a class assignment or because I had to teach him.  But, eventually, I began to relax into his rhythms and submit to his poetry.  He is, after all, a genius.  As I unpack his books, I find they take up a whole shelf on their own.

            As I put Faulkner next to Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, A Light in August – and put Hemingway uncomfortably close, I wonder.  Did he know?  Did he know each day about his gift?  Did he sit down to write secure that he was creating something right? 

            And what about the others?  I know that Gertrude Stein never wrote about her doubts, but did she have them?  Does Edward Albee just assume his absurdity will strike the right balance with reality?  They might struggle with words, but do they struggle with writing itself?  Does the concept of being a writer feel uncomfortable, even to the geniuses?  Do they wonder each day whether what they are pulling together is any good or just more crap to fill the library shelves?

            Because for me, writing is a constant juggling of unreasonable confidence with continual self-doubt.  And, even though I know I am no William Faulkner, I’d love to know that every now and then he wondered who the hell he was to call himself a writer.

14 responses to “William Faulkner and I have the same birthday

  1. Faulkner was love at first read for me. As my adviser once put it, “His language is just so damn beautiful.” Being Southern helped. I want to believe that when Faulkner said he was just tellin’ a good Southern story he meant it.

    Who knows? I know he drank a lot and could be kind of a jerk. Maybe that was how he dealt with his uncertainties. Maybe he had no questions about his writing ability. Maybe he didn’t really care what people thought and was just telling good stories.

    I do think there are writing geniuses out there for whom the words just flow, Faulkner must have been one of them, even if he questioned it. For most of us, it is a lot harder. But we don’t have to be the genius to be a darn good writer. You’re doing a pretty good job.

  2. Yikes! I just put a comma where I meant to put a period. That kills me. I am a grammar nerd, if not a writing genius.

  3. I think all writers feel like that from time to time.

    I can see now why no one was allowed to unpack your books but you. ;)

  4. One of my favourite writing quotes ever:

    “Many of the productive writers I know believe they are simultaneously shit and undiscovered geniuses. Brilliant shit. This belief is in itself anxiety-producing. …If you want to write or if you are a writer, you maintain, in part, a glorious sense of self. You live inside a soul that desires to create. Just like God, you create! This is thrilling and intoxicating and hugely gratifying. Naturally, you have been told, many times, you are not actually God, get over yourself. So you aren’t sure. That’s the root of anxiety. Are you a fool? Should you really be taking four hours away from your family on the weekends in order to do this selfish writing thing? What is the point of all this writing? Why do it at all? Do you suck horribly? Can you write? You will never know the answers. Every single writer I know has some doubt or enormous paralyzing doubt. ” -Heather Sellers

    I can’t tell you how many times I comfort myself with this one in the course of even a single writing session. I think this was from Page After Page, which was a good writing book, if you’re into them.

    Still, I think it’s common. I’m sure Faulkner was as filled with this as anyone else.

  5. I’ve got Hemingway on my birthday, which I’ve always found cool, and which I think makes me overlook some of the sexism in his writing.

    Andrea, I love that quote. I think it applies to so many life endeavors. I’m definitely going to store it away for when I’m doubting myself!

  6. What a wonderful post – and how I would love to spend some time browsing your bookshelves! I’m afraid I have never read any Faulkner, but I’d like to try. I love the quote that Andrea has posted, and I think that all writers suffer self-doubt. The better they are, the more they are writing against the grain of their times and trying new things that are often ill received in their lifetimes. Writing takes a lot of courage, I think, to put oneself out there so vulnerably, and so writers need that unreasonable faith, and risk losing it all the time. You remind me also that I must read Octavia Butler.

  7. Oh yeah. Feel like that all the time. Which is why I haven’t finished that novel. I feel so guilty spending all that time on something that might never turn into anything except a glaring reminder of my most stunning failure in life.

    I think, and I hope, that such self-doubt is an occupational hazard shared by all writers.

  8. First, I’m impressed by your organization. And yes, I think all writers must have doubts. I think of them all as a rather tortured lot, myself.

  9. The doubt is part of it for every writer I’ve ever known. I feel it all the time. If there are writers who never doubt their ability or talent, I would rather hear it than not.

    I’m impressed with your organization.

  10. i love the quote Andrea posted…brilliant shit. i think it takes different forms in different egos and personalities, but i’ve never met a creative person who didn’t have that sense of themselves as possessing secret worlds inside…and the wonder of whether those worlds matter at all.

    damn, are you organized.

  11. Emily, I’m afraid that I’m still holding one of your 1,000 (sorry!) I have an annotated copy of Kindred that I found on my bookshelf that _must_ be yours. I brought it with me to DC, and I’ll put it in the mail for you but I’m going to read it first. Great post– books make such good friends.

  12. Our bookshelves are orderly and – if not as carefully arranged as yours – at least divided into fiction, more or less chronologically, and nonfiction, broken down by subject matter.

    But your books sound like they keep you company and bring comfort. I confess that I sometimes feel oppressed by the sheer number of books we own.

  13. I am in awe of your amazing library. Very serious awe.

    Mostly we just have a pretty extensive collection of children’s books. I do keep them very much so organized, or at least as much as you can when the primary reader is 2. If I can just get her to start checking the published dates, we’ll be all good. ;-)

  14. I avoided Faulkner like the plague until college when a professor in a composition class pulled out a stack of pages and told us to diagram and syntactically order the sentence on the page. It was the opening sentence from Absolom, Absolom! if memory serves, and it was a page long. I went to the library and checked out A Light in August, and read it instead of working on my freshman comp assignment (which turned out to be a good thing as I was assigned the book the next year in an American lit class). I was hooked.