by Matthew McEver
Ninety-four years ago today, in 1919, William Faulkner published his first short story, “Landing in Luck,” in The Mississippian, the literary magazine of Ole Miss. “Landing in Luck,” about an air force cadet’s first solo flight, doesn’t receive near the notoriety of “A Rose for Emily” (1930) or “Barn Burning” (1939). “Landing” doesn’t even appear in my nine hundred-page collection of Faulkner’s short stories. One of Faulkner’s biographers (J. Parini) even calls the story “generic.”
For that matter, compare Faulkner’s first novel, A Soldier’s Pay (1926), with The Sound and the Fury (1929) and the differences are quantifiable. The former offers occasional flashes of the brilliance to come, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the latter. Faulkner, like any other writer, had to develop his voice, hone his writing, cultivate.
Sure, I know we should write more. I get that. What I can’t get past, though, is that Faulkner’s writing improved so dramatically. The man who wrote this “generic” story about flying a plane went on to write Absalom, Absalom. How?
A clue is found in this bit of counsel attributed to Faulkner. I see this quote every now and then, and it’s a saying with which many of you are familiar, I’m sure:
“Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it,” Faulkner said. “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”
I could never overemphasize how, in my own experience, better reading makes for better writing. My growth as a writer is directly related to how I challenge myself as a reader.
As I look ahead to completing the MFA in January, I’ve already realized that one of the benefits of graduate school was faculty advisers who prodded me into reading several works that I otherwise would’ve missed or avoided for one reason or another. Once the required reading of graduate school no longer looms, though, it’s tempting to settle into less challenging reading— to seek the kind of literature that comforts rather than confronts, to turn to books that will “teach me what I know.”
Reading lists aren’t just for school. Use the semester calendar, if it helps. Choose titles with some purpose in mind. Reconsider works that you’ve “never gotten around to” reading. Better yet, ask other writer friends, perhaps those who understand your aesthetic, for their suggestions. Some of the most fascinating literature that I’ve read over the past two years came through suggestions from other grad students. Or, maybe, there’s an author whose work you found—at an earlier time in your life—“too dense, too confusing, too much.” You might give that author a second chance, now that you see the world differently. For instance, my introduction to Faulkner was as a college freshman. (Many high schools still avoid him). I was ill-prepared to read his work at that time; therefore, I hated it. But as I ripened and got into literature and writing, I turned to and became a real admirer of Faulkner, appreciative of his willingness to take risks, reveling in his lyricism, recognizing the extent to which his writing rewards rereading.
As writers, we are either writing the same airplane story over and over, or we are moving into something beyond ourselves. None of us are Faulkner, and even he believed that his writing could be better. In the 1956 Paris Review interview, he said, “I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met.”
“Try to be better than yourself,” he added.