The Best Life Advice from William Faulkner

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Today marks the anniversary of the birth of legendary Southern author William Faulkner, whose works, as we probably don’t have to tell you, still rank among the most important novels of our age. Though he didn’t much like to speak about his personal life, the author did have a great many things to say about the practice of writing — and by extension, the practice of living. Here are some of Faulkner’s most poignant suggestions for writers, artists, or anyone looking to live life to the fullest.

“Read, read, read. Read everything —trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” – Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

“So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room tonight, but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world today and tomorrow and next week, will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth.” – Address to the Graduating Class of University High School, Oxford, Mississippi, 1951

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

“All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy.” – Interview with The Paris Review, 1956

“[A]ny language if it is not changing will not last long. That is, the only alternative to change and progress is death.” – Faulkner in the University

“Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest.”

“Pouring out liquor is like burning books.”

“We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

“I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” – From Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet Speech, 1950

“A dream is not a very safe thing to be near… I know; I had one once. It’s like a loaded pistol with a hair trigger: if it stays alive long enough, somebody is going to be hurt. But if it’s a good dream, it’s worth it.”

“You can’t have freedom unless you deserve it and work to keep it.” – Faulkner in the University

“There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others. But a man shouldn’t fool with booze until he’s fifty; then he’s a damn fool if he doesn’t.”

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance — that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to be — curious — to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got it or not.”

“[M]y idea is that no person is wholly good or wholly bad, that all people in my belief try to be better than they are and probably will be.” – Faulkner in the University

“I doubt if people accomplish very much by banding together. People accomplish things by individual protest.” – Faulkner in the University

“Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move — which is ambition, power, pleasure. What time a man can devote to morality, he must take by force from the motion of which he is a part. He is compelled to make choices between good and evil sooner or later, because moral conscience demands that from him in order that he can live with himself tomorrow. His moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream.” – Interview with the Paris Review, 1956

“What matters is at the end of life, when you’re about to pass into oblivion, that you’ve at least scratched ‘Kilroy was here,’ on the last wall of the universe.” – Lion in the Garden