William Faulkner’s Self-Doubts (and yours)

Have you ever doubted yourself as a writer?  Why am I doing this?  Am I good enough, or any good at all?  Is it worth my time and the blood-letting?  Have you tired of the “Oh, that’s nice,” response when someone asks what you do and you reveal that, “I’m a writer”?  William Faulkner has some wise and telling observations in the Editor’s Notes at the end of the Vintage Books edition (1987) of “Sanctuary.”  They deal with his early sense of himself as a writer and his off-beat perception of success.

I’ve just finished reading “Sanctuary” for the third time, but the first  in over twenty years.  I recalled having liked it a great deal but like it even more now.  (I suppose “Light in August” is my favorite, but choosing among his works is like a chocoholic choosing whether he or she prefers dark chocolate nuts or chews.  Here’s a better analogy:  If I were “stuck” on a desert island with “Light in August,” upon finishing it (again),  I’d swim to the next island for the promise of “As I Lay Dying.”

So, here is what William Faulkner has to say about himself as an early writer  (By the way, he didn’t want this revelation printed in later editions by Random House):

“This book (Sanctuary) was written three years ago.  To me it is a cheap idea, because it was deliberately conceived to make money.  I had been writing books for about five years, which got published and not bought.  But that was all right.  I was young then and hard-bellied.  I had never lived among nor known people who wrote novels and stories and I suppose I did not know that people got money for them.  I was not very much annoyed when publishers refused the mss. now and then.  Because I was hard-gutted then.  I could do a lot of things that could earn what little money I needed, than to my father’s unfailing kindness which supplied me with bread at need despite the outraged to his principles at having been of a bum progenitive.

“Then I began to get a little soft.  I could still paint houses and do carpenter work, but I got soft.  I began to be concerned when magazine editors turned down short stories, concerned enough to tell them that they would buy these stories later anyway, and hence why not now.  Meanwhile, with one novel completed and consistently refused for two years, I had just written my guts into “The Sound and The Fury” though I was not aware until the book was published that I had done so, because I had done it for pleasure.  I believed then that I would never be published again.  I had stopped thinking of myself in publishing terms.  [I wonder why he doesn’t include “Mosquitos” and “Soldier’s Pay”.]

“But when the third mss., “Sartoris,” was taken by a publisher and (he having refused “The Sound and The Fury”) it was taken by still another publisher, who warned me at the time that it would not sell, I began to think of myself again as a printed object.  I began to think of books in terms of possible money.  I decided I might just as well make some of it myself.  I took a little time out, and speculated what a person in Mississippi would  believe to be current trends, chose what I thought was the right answer and invented the most horrific tale I could imagine  and wrote it in about three weeks and sent it to Smith, who had done “The Sound and The Fury” and who wrote me immediately, ‘Good God, I can’t publish this.  We’d both be in jail.’  So I told Faulkner, “You’re damned.  You’ll have to work now and then for the rest of your life.’  That was in the summer of 1929.”

6 thoughts on “William Faulkner’s Self-Doubts (and yours)”

  1. With self-doubt comes loneliness, for me, at least. I was feeling so alone, so disconnected when I saw your posting. It is helpful, even uplifting, to know that others doubt themselves too. It helps me feel I have some company. Good company. I don’t consider myself a writer, but I sure need to write, to give form to my inner voice, to find out who I really am. I wish I could simply not care about what others think, but, the truth is that I am terrified of it. I am reminded of what Christopher Hampton said once that “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs.” I am a lot more fragile than a lamppost. So, thanks for the encouragement. And for a place to share these thoughts.

    1. I’ve heard the lamppost story; it’s funny, but less than perfectly analogous as it can’t walk away (or shoo away the dog). I used to obsess about what people thought, and one negative seemed to outweight 10 or 20 positives. Then I grew up, and now it takes at least 5 negatives to outweigh 10 or 20 positives. (Just joking.) I don’t mean to make light of your own concerns, but I hope you will come to the place where you can make light of them. Thanks for your comment, Wan.

    1. Tom, you and I have been through the J-wars of having our efforts dismissed with a sneer, a crumple, and maybe even a cussing-out. I don’t miss those days. Thanks for commenting.

  2. I think it helps to know how many of our greatest writers went through the same endless rejection and self-doubt we do. Perhaps their greatest talent was to keep going in spite of this kind of discouragement. Thanks for this!

    1. Anne, would it be overly dramatic to analogize (is this a word?) writing fiction as akin to a bull-fighter stepping into the ring to garner cheers? Maybe it’s from watching “Hemingway & Gellhorn” last night. Writing non-fiction isn’t nearly so painful (though not absent of pain from critics) since the essence is information being passed along rather than raw feelings and the workings of one’s imagination in fiction. Thanks for the comment.

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