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?

Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

Portrait of Henry James, the novelist
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“…the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations…” – Henry James

Before writing in the morning, sometimes I read a short story for inspiration. Today I chose Henry James’The Real Thing.” I’m rewriting a script today, not a short story, but short stories inspire me no matter what I’m writing. It works for me like divination, as someone who picks passages from the Bible or any inspiring written work, and reads them as if they’re messages from God or the muses.

In “The Real Thing,” an illustrator finds a married couple at his door looking for work as models. They have fallen from a higher class and operate not only as a team to find work, but to hide their state from their friends and even from themselves. We watch them through the eyes of the illustrator. They’re “the real thing” in that they really are the upper class people the illustrator is commissioned to render. Furthermore, “the real thing” refers ironically to the shifting nature of identity when human beings are forced to confront their nature and essence. The married couple cling to their past identity in the new situation. It seems to work, much as any big fish in a small pond. Maintaining their posture, literally and figuratively, gets them work. However, they have no sense they may need to adapt to the actual world they now inhabit, the world of art, in order to thrive or even survive. In this world, an immigrant servant who doesn’t speak the language emerges as the best model. Modeling is artistic in itself and requires an openness and malleability of expression. That talent can arise in anyone, thus dismantling the influence of the class system in the couple’s new world.

In a companion piece, “The Mirror of Consciousness,” included by Gioia & Gwynn in their book, The Art of the Short Story,  James writes about the need to tell the stories through a consciousness that feels what is happening. He says the story is weak if it merely recounts facts and is strong when those facts and events filter through the mind of someone who feels them fully. In “The Real Thing” the illustrator is deeply affected by the actions of the married couple over time. At first it helps his work and later hurts it. Through the lens of the illustrator’s struggles and his own feelings for all his models, I was moved by the plight of the fallen couple, rather than merely irritated by their obstinance and classism.

The takeaway for me today:  my main character serves well as the consciousness through which I show the plight of her struggling friends and neighbors, the web of characters around her. And, I meant to underscore her own troubles by doing this. But since the story is about her, I see that I need to make her more alive, more malleable, more feeling. I need to show her struggle more clearly in the beginning, so the changes near the end have more impact. She must feel the full extent of the situation I’ve put her in, or else my audience won’t. It won’t matter how many rewrites I do if I don’t do that.

How do you get inspiration? Who’s your favorite character in books or on screen?