Nobody is good enough

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

William Faulkner
in the Paris Review

*   *   *

 I’m inclined toward Faulkner’s view of learning how to write. That it can be only self taught in the end.

I often think that some people turn to guidebooks and groups and classes as a way to give them an easier route to their goal than the hard work and frustration and restarts that are the real path. This is probably true about any endeavor, from writing to weight loss (and I’m convinced that the last thing a for-pay diet program wants is for you to lose significant weight — they’d lose a customer if you did).

Sure, a lot of workshopping and peer editing can improve a story, but that merely points out the mistakes, which Faulkner speaks of. The writer must still overcome them.

I especially like the line about the good artist believing that nobody is good enough to give him (or her) advice. True or not, it gives the artist drive and confidence.

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4 Comments on “Nobody is good enough”

  1. Annam Says:

    I’ve found in academic circles, quite the opposite is true. Everyone wants to emulate the “greats'” styles instead of creating her own, and that is what the literary journals seem to be taking too. In the end, most of it sounds the same to me.

  2. Lyra Says:

    That leads to the question though, of why other things can be taught, science, math, music, but writing is held as a gift from the gods.

    Yes, there is the natural talent aspect, of course there is. Everyone has a different gift going into it. But just like any other skill it is the amount blood and sweat you are willing to put into it.

    I guess I see it more like Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” We’re not recreating the wheel. We’re working with the models that were laid out long ago, no?

  3. Paul Lamb Says:

    Of course, Faulkner may be wrong (but I doubt it).

    Annam – I’ve heard that observation about academic writing programs several times.
    Lyra – I’ve asserted (here and elsewhere) that I don’t think writing can be taught but that it can be learned. And the learning comes from the 99 percent perspiration.

  4. Averil Dean Says:

    I agree, given the caveat to distinguish learning from being taught. It doesn’t prevent me from spending money on writing books, however. Hope springs eternal. . . .


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