I subscribe to The Writer’s Almanac daily newsletter and every morning in my inbox there is an interesting and informative email containing “Poems, prose and literary history from Garrison Keillor.” [Thank you, Merry, for sending an email that contained a link to the site.] It’s a nice way to start the day. Plus, it’s free.
This is from today’s newsletter:
It was on this day in 1950 that William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in literature. When a Swedish correspondent in New York called to give him the news that he was being honored, Faulkner was busy working on his farm in Oxford, Mississippi, and he said, “It’s too far away. I am a farmer down here and I can’t get away.”
The man pleaded for him to go the award ceremony, and so did Faulkner’s friends, relatives, publishers, editors, agent, and other American writers. But Faulkner resisted. Finally, his wife devised a plan. Their only daughter, Jill, asked for a trip to Europe as a graduation gift — she wanted to accompany him to the ceremony in Stockholm and then go to Paris. Faulkner relented.
Faulkner was a raging alcoholic at the time, and his wife came up with another plan, this one to make sure he would be sober by the departure date. Faulkner intended to drink heavily in the days leading up to the trip. He was set to leave on a Wednesday, so the Friday before, his wife and daughter came into his bedroom and told him that it was Monday, time to start sobering up. He started to space out his drinks, but that afternoon he realized that he’d been tricked, and he drank for three more days. But he did manage to quit on Monday.
He flew to New York with his daughter on Wednesday and went to a party in his honor, where he drank Jack Daniels and came down with a fever. He and his daughter arrived in Sweden on Friday. He had continued working on his speech on the flight over. On the day of the award ceremony, he told the American ambassador that he’d never given a speech before and that he was afraid.
There was a formal dinner before the speeches. Faulkner wore a tuxedo with a white bow tie. But he hadn’t shaved, and he wore his ragged, oil-stained trench coat over his nice suit. When he got up to give his speech, he didn’t stand close enough to the microphone, and no one in the room was able to understand him. It wasn’t until the next day, when the text of the speech was printed in newspapers, that people realized what a brilliant speech he’d given.
He said, “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
A half century later his words still resonate, his advice remains valid.
As I said, it’s a nice way to start the day.