“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.”
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” But Anderson himself already had a great deal to teach about what it means to be an artist. Around that time, he met young William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), who considered himself lucky to be “uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions.” Anderson recognized the kernel of immense talent in the young writer and took him under his wing. Decades later, Faulkner would remember Anderson as his sole important mentor in a beautiful 1953 piece originally published in The Atlantic as “Sherwood Anderson: An Appreciation” and subsequently included in the Faulkner anthology Essays, Speeches & Public Letters (public library) under his original typescript title, “A Note on Sherwood Anderson.”
William Faulkner (left) and Sherwood Anderson
Faulkner reflects on the most important thing Anderson taught him about being a writer:
I learned that, to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born; that to be an American and a writer, one does not necessarily have to pay lip-service to any conventional American image… You had only to remember what you were.
He quotes Anderson’s own words to him as a young writer — words of immense timeliness nearly a century later; words that apply as much to literature as they do to any wakeful artist’s task:
America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning… All America asks is to look at it and listen to it and understand it if you can. Only the understanding ain’t important either: the important thing is to believe in it even if you don’t understand it, and then try to tell it, put it down. It won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper, and something else to try to understand and tell. And that one probably wont be exactly right either, but there is a next time to that one, too. Because tomorrow America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.
To believe, to believe in the value of purity, and to believe more. To believe not in just the value, but the necessity for fidelity and integrity; lucky is that man whom the vocation of art elected and chose to be faithful to it, because the reward for art does not wait on the postman.
Faulkner clearly kept his mentor’s words close to heart as he grew into himself as a writer. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature a quarter century after meeting Anderson, he echoed the heart of this abiding advice in his spectacular acceptance speech, in which he asserted that “the poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”
Complement with Anderson’s timeless advice on art and life to his own son and Faulkner on writing, beginner’s mind, the human dilemma, the artist’s role in society, and his little-known Jazz Age drawings, then revisit Susan Sontag on what it means to be a writer and a moral human being.
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