Faulkner’s Flames Light the Way

William Faulkner, Nobel laureate in Literature...
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Since Texas is burning, and our friends and neighbors are evacuating and losing their homes, this morning I was drawn to William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning.” As you may know or imagine, the story is not so much about a barn burning as it is about relationships, power, conflict, identity and “the terrible handicap of being young.” Nevertheless, I feel drawn to the element of fire in the story. Faulkner was too. It’s a stunning tale, not of heated passion, but the blazing effects of cold methodical rage.

I recommend the story for it’s rich detailed rendering of a life of despair, not only due to economic and class oppression, but due to the particular suffering one ruined person inflicts on everyone else, all the time, without end. For my narrower purposes of learning to write from one of the greats, I want to mention one small device Faulkner used that helps me solve a problem in the writing of one of my stories.

I notice Faulkner jumped forward in time in a couple of instances by letting the narrator tell us early on how the young boy main character would have responded to certain abuses if he were older. This allows the reader to have a spark of hope the boy can’t possibly have in real time as the story unfolds. The narrator may be omniscient, but the story stays with the boy’s point of view, keeping it intimate, immediate, and terrible. Faulkner’s use of the narrator’s wider scope is small and measured, like the father’s campfires and his spirit. The few tiny sparks from the future indicating the boy’s adult self are brief but significant expansions of awareness needed to keep readers buoyant, even as they feel the despair of the characters.

The takeway for me:  in my story “Heat Wave,” I need my main character to move forward in time and come back to the present, not just in a flight of fancy, or a wish or hope for the future, but as a premonition, a state of being brought on by great exertion during the heat. One member of my writers group pointed out one instance of a premonition in my piece that was distracting, seemingly plunked there from another story. She was right. At first I thought it wasn’t working because it was a premonition. I wondered if it was too new-agey and didn’t fit the story. But I’m trying to blend magical moments with normal experience; that’s what my story is about. In truth it didn’t work, because I hadn’t written it well. There are two other premonitions in the same piece that do work. Keep the premonition, but observe Faulkner:  cut the part that announces it’s a premonition, and simply let the narrator state what is true in the future of the character’s life.

The talk of writing feels like dry tinder near the circle of heat such a story as “Barn Burning” radiates. I hope I catch some of Faulkner’s flames, even as I hope the wild fires around us soon burn out.

What’s your favorite Faulkner story, novel, or screenplay/movie? Or better, yet, what stories catch you on fire?