“The world’s gone mad,” was my mother’s response to the news that the heads of two mummies from the King Tut era had been torn off by protestors who broke into the famed Egyptian Museum this past weekend. This was a sad statement from a woman who was born in rural south Louisiana during the Great Depression and who, in the past five years alone, had witnessed her home state get massacred first by a disastrous hurricane and then by a disastrous oil spill.
In times of such madness, it may seem silly to write stories. I spent part of this week going back and forth with a client, discussing theme. Specifically, how a writer makes a story bigger and more meaningful by addressing a big, meaningful theme. What sort of subjects touch and move readers?
The discussion made me recall a dinner last year, when I sat next to an agent. When asked about her pet peeves, the agent said that often she will ask a writer, “What is your story about?”And the writer will tell her, “It’s about unrequited love or family honor.” That bugged her because, she said, she was interested in the plot, not the theme.
I piped up. “Then you’re asking the wrong question. If you want to know about plot, you should ask ‘What happens in your story?’ Your question, ‘What is your story about?’ is asking about the theme.”
This was not, by the way, a wholly popular comment, but I stand by the differentiation. “What is your story about?” addresses theme; “What happens in your story?” addresses plot.*
So back to the question, and my opening line. What is a big enough subject in a world gone so mad that precious antiquities are destroyed by their own descendants? The question was too big for me, so I turned to a writer who was big enough to answer.
I don’t remember the first time I read William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize banquet speech. I think I was in college. I attended a southern university where at least one instructor per semester worshipped at the altar of Yoknapaptawpha County. I never did forget the speech, exactly, but I had not thought about it in a long time. I did this week as I pondered theme and what Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart.”
Love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice. Those were Faulkner’s themes.
I re-read the speech and was moved again by his earnestness. But what struck harder was this part:
“There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”
Faulkner spoke these words in 1950, sixty years ago, in post-World War II America, a time that many people recall as full of prosperity and growth–but a time also riddled with fear and paranoia about powerful foreign enemies, about nuclear war, about home-grown agents of terror and dissent.
It is disconcerting to realize the same question ‘When will I be blown up?’ remains so timely, relevant and frightening six decades later.
As he received his Nobel Prize in Literature, William Faulkner, who can hardly be called a happy-go-lucky writer full of good cheer, addressed a writer’s duty in such times. He spoke of his belief that man will endure and prevail because he has a soul, and it is the writer’s duty to write about the parts of that soul–“love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”—because those themes show the human heart in conflict with itself. That is the only subject worth writing about.
But why am I paraphrasing this speech for you? Why don’t you read it, via the Nobel Prize site? If you’d like, you can also listen to it and enjoy the beauty of a Mississippian’s voice.
Return and tell me what you think. Were you as moved, and heartened, by Faulkner’s words, as I was this week?
When the world seems crazy, that’s the time to dig as deep as you can to make stories meaningful, so that they will last as long as the mummies from King Tut’s time. The human heart in conflict with itself—is there really any subject bigger than that?
*For people pitching a story, the savvy answer when an agent asks “What is your story about?” might be something like, “My story is about temptation, and how a desperately poor woman who cleans office buildings is tested when she discovers a valuable piece of jewelry in the desk of an employee fired for stealing.” Two birds, one sentence.