Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Details of How We Live And Die

“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.

The day I first read this, 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.


Latayne C Scott said...

Katy, I've been mulling that very issue over. I have a friend who is brilliant and whose Biblical lessons are used all over the world (by me, included.) His insights are sterling, astute, even immortal. And yet he himself is "of little report" in person. In fact, he has noted that others can teach his materials and be carried around on a crowd's shoulders while when he presents the same material people look at their watches or offer to drive him out of town.

I am reminded of the story of Daniel. While his book of prophecy is one of the most significant in the Bible, it is likely that no one read it while he was alive. In fact, he was commanded to seal up part of it till later. Not until he was long dead did people read and marvel at what he wrote.

With at least five novels written or partly written, I am wondering if they will be recognized after I am long gone.

Or not, of course.

Megan Sayer said...

I've been thinking about a similar thing too, in that strange, deep way I have of trying to sort out philosophy while pairing the socks.
I came to the conclusion that I don't want to live my life as a writer. Does that sound strange?
I'm not a writer. I'm a person. I'm a daughter of God, redeemed by Christ, and THAT's who I have a duty to be, and how I need to be compelled to live my life.
"Yes of course" I'm sure you'll say, "that's a given", although I should point out exactly why that was important for me:
It's freed me to focus my life on God, on my family and on other people, and not on myself and my career-building. It doesn't stop me from wanting to build my career - far from it - and it doesn't stop me from wanting to write - no way - but it's freed me to think of myself differently, and, most importantly, as a journey and not as a series of failures. If I use my gift of writing to write a blog post that helps someone see their life, their circumstances, their God differently, then that's a success and a purpose in life. If I can teach my kids the joy of art, life, literature, and how to find meaning and beauty in the mess of circumstance around them, then I am happy that my life has a purpose.
If I could write books that touch people's souls and draw them closer to the God who loves them and helps them to see the beauty and art in their own lives, then I'll be awed and humbled and completely overjoyed that I could use my gifts to fulfill such a dream...but I'd still rather call myself someone-who-writes rather than a writer.
That being said, I met some VIP lady at some posh-nosh function the other day, and she asked me what I did, and "I"m a writer" just slipped out of my mouth. First time I've said that in that context.

Well that was long. And wasn't really what you were talking about at all. Oh well. I"ll go back to pairing my socks :)

Cherry Odelberg said...

This writer ought to live her life day by day, in love and wisdom, in confidence that comes by faith in God's provision of all things. And may it be said of her that she lived and wrote and made music such that others caught the joy of a phrase well turned, a piano caressed, and a love of nature and relationships that made life richer for all.

Kathleen Popa said...

Latayne, your writing is so astonishingly, uniquely beautiful. I can't imagine that it will stay hidden that long.

Megan, I think it makes perfect sense to be a person on a journey. And yes: you are a writer. Among so many things.

Cherry: yes, may it be.