“A writer’s obituary should read: He wrote books then he died.” ~William Faulkner
Gosh, really? I’d hoped mine would say a bit more, something perhaps about sucking the marrow from the bones of life (that’s Thoreau). Or perhaps simply that I loved my family and friends even more than my books.
Curious, I looked Faulkner up on Wikipedia, to see if he’d gotten much done besides writing, and the answer was yes, he had. He’d won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzers, and The Nobel Prize in Literature. Of course, you could argue that his awards only meant that he had written very good books, so his record was safe from clutter. Earlier in life, he’d joined first the Canadian and then the British Royal Air Force (too short for the US military), but had not seen any action. Ah, but then, once he’d won his awards, he’d gone and donated part of the prize money to establish scholarships for African-American education majors as well as the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. A writer who wants his obituary to span no more than six words should be more careful. After all, if you run a print preview of his entry on Wikipedia, you get nine pages of material.
Ernest Hemingway would have pointed out that the military experience - paltry though it was, compared with his own - would come in handy for a writer penning war novels. He himself had won the Silver Medal of Honor during WWI, the Bronze Star during WWII, and two medals for bull-fighting! Oh, and he’d won an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Pulitzer and The Nobel Prize in Literature as well.
Know how many pages you could print out about him on Wikipedia? Nineteen, more than double that of the modest Faulkner.
He had his own take on the life and death question:
“Every man's life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.” ~Ernest Hemingway
For myself, I think I could gladly leave off the bull fights from my life story. And I’m sure I’d make a terrible soldier. In fact, if I had to live Hemingway’s life to be an author, I might be tempted to give up writing and take up cross-stitch.
Perhaps the author who best exemplifies Faulkner’s ideal would be Emily Dickenson. She spent most of her adult life voluntarily confined to her home, caring for her parents while they lived, writing poems she never meant to publish, lowering gingerbread to children on the street by means of a rope and a basket. She wrote poems - that were later put into books - and she died.
No Nobel Prizes. No Pulitzers. But in the hundred and some years since her death, people have described this poet with her basketful of cookies as “daring,” “sophisticated,” “pre-modernist.” William Dean Howells once wrote that "If nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry, we should feel that in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world, and could not be left out of any record of it."
Sixteen pages on Wikipedia. This woman who asked that her poems be burned when she died. What was her answer to Faulkner and Hemingway?
“Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” ~Emily Dickenson
What’s your answer? How ought a writer live her life?
We’d love to read your thoughts.