Friday, August 7, 2009

What Do You Want On Your Tombstone?

Just after my son’s wedding this week, I picked up A Writer’s Commonplace Book, by Rosemary Friedman. When you’ve hosted a large rehearsal dinner and a much larger wedding reception on two consecutive evenings, you have just enough umph left to read a couple of quotes in a nice little book, and this was one of them:

“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.

11 comments:

Katie Ganshert said...

Oh wow, this is a great post, because sometimes I'm tempted to shirk life for the sake of writing,a nd I never want to do that. I want to take joy in my husband and my family and live life - and let my writing be a reflection of that.

I think the more passionately we live, the more passionate will our writing be. :) Now if I could only get that in my head...

Connie Brzowski said...

As long as the kiddies aren't dancing around the tombstone singing, 'Thank God she's gone,' I'm good :)

And as I waited 24 years until the small fries grew up to write, there's not much chance anyone's going to accuse me of burying myself in a laptop (although hubby dear does complain a bit when he's needing attention.)

Seriously, there's only One person's opinion that really matters and if He's happy, I'm happy :)

Nicole said...

If I can't invest my passion, it isn't in my life. My catch-phrase for myself is "Passionate: right or wrong."
If I can't love Jesus passionately, my husband, my family, my work with a passion, I will not care for it/them.
Isn't it always interesting who is deemed to be worthy of praise. I thought Hemingway was a very good storyteller, but I detested his style of writing.
As for Faulkner, no thanks. I had to force-feed his work to myself in college.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I like Annie Dillard's quote, "One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now...Some more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water."

Sometimes we write tentatively, fearing that we'll run out of things to say in the next book, and maybe we live that way, too, sometimes. We should love extravagantly. Maybe a great epitaph would read, "She loved and lived extravagantly."

Carla Gade said...

God blessed the broken road.


(and He did!)

Kristen Torres-Toro @ Write in the Way said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that struggles with that, Debbie! When I start writing a story, that's all I see. It's so easy to wonder if there's another one after that. I have a friend who's the exact opposite. She has mulitiple ideas going at one time. My brain doesn't work like that. It takes a lot of trust to pour everything into one novel and not know if another will come.

But another one always does come, praise God!

I like that: that we are to give our best at everything we do and trust God with the rest. That's definitely how I want to write. Publishing would be nice, but most of all, I just want to write for Him.

One more thing: I'm off to Cambodia and India for a few weeks (I'm a missionary too), so it'll be a bit before I can come back here. I truly love this blog and am thankful for y'all! See y'all in a few weeks!

Nicole said...

(Be safe, Kristen, in the Name of Jesus.)

Kathleen Popa said...

I love it that our readers have started talking to each other. Nicely, even!

Great comments, all. Carla, I love that line, "God blessed the broken road." And the one by Dillard as well, Debbie.

Here's to a life fully lived.

Sherri Woodbridge said...

"Find ecstasy in living; the mere sense of living is joy enough."

A wonderful post. I think Emily hits the mark - If we are able to find the adventure, the high of life, the superb and unbelievable - the ecstasy - there is joy, wonder,awe,and amazement found in life. Whether in joy or sorrow, the good or the bad, if you are living - really living and experiencing life, not merely reacting or existing - that is joy.

Sherri Woodbridge said...

I love Connie Brzowski's comment and identify completely!

Kathleen Popa said...

Sherri, Amen. And Amen.