Breathlessly Writing

When my American Literature class began reading William Faulkner’s Light in August last week, I tried a writing exercise with them, in hopes that they would taste just a spoonful of what the technique of stream of consciousness would be like were one to write in that form. That is, if one were to be able to capture the random fragments that scuttle across the conscious mind, including sordid bits that flash from the unconscious mind.

I cautioned my students that no one writes likes this (save for journals, first drafts of Kerouac’s On the Road, or ramblings on blog posts); that to capture what we think as we think it on paper is impossible, at least for very long, and that Faulkner’s finished product took months, if not years of original drafts and endless-seeming revisions.

And with that said, I told them that their only rule was that they couldn’t stop once they started.

“Get ready, GO!”

They paused a minute as if to ask, “What shall we write about?” But I said nothing, and they looked down at their blank papers, and then they began writing.

Ten minutes later, I called time.

Sure, some were wringing their wrists, and some still looked confused. I didn’t ask them to read what they wrote, but I did ask them what happened as they wrote. Some said they began writing about the exercise itself and how they didn’t know what they were supposed to write. Others said that they wrote about what they had done the previous night. 

And one student said she wrote about reading Faulkner—how daunting it felt but how excited she was. From there, she reflected on her senior high school English class when she first read As I Lay Dying. From there she wrote about her own bedroom in her parents’ house and what it felt like to lie on her bed on fall nights, listening for street noise, and looking at the near horizon.

I smiled at my class, trying not to show how this last student was my favorite.

“Was this fun, or hard work?”

Most said “hard work;” some said “fun,” and that one student said, “Both.”

The mind works in strange ways, and how little do we understand of its working or of our capacity to keep several trains of thought, planes of action, layers of the past, and dreams of the future active within it, our consciousness, all at the same time. As we “think,” we don’t think in complete sentences; we don’t worry about spelling, capitalization, syntax, or proper diction. We don’t think linearly, or logically, and we are capable of working others’ conversations into our own interior monologue, as I over hear at this moment my wife and daughter discussing “love barrs,” the name of our recurring text thread.

When I have my students try to write in this breathless, interior, almost pre-thinking manner, I flash to the moments of the first week of my ninth grade English class, when my teacher, Bill McInerney, had us keep a “nonstop” journal. Every day, as soon as the bell rang, we got out our journals and began writing. Five minutes every day, the only rule being that we couldn’t stop.

“Don’t worry about not making sense,” Bill said. “Just write.”

Of course, he was trying to liberate us from our internal censors; of course, he likely hoped that some of us would enjoy doing this and even those who didn’t like English, writing, or school might find this a respite from high school monotony.

And, of course, he surely hoped that one or maybe two students each year might decide one day to turn their writing into something more than an exercise.

Bill and I are Facebook friends and he often reads the essays I post. Sometimes he comments; more often, he doesn’t.

I hope, though, that he understands why I write, and why I can’t stop.

That other “Bill,” Faulkner, caused me to want to go to grad school in English and instruct students in the fine art of Southern Literature, at the heart of which are stories like “That Evening Sun,” and “Barn Burning,” and novels like As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and my favorite, Absalom, Absalom! 

For my morning read, I’ve been journeying through Jay Parini’s One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner.  Today, as I was reading about Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, I came across this part of that famous document: 

“…that when the last ding-dong 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 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” 

(Parini 330).

Those last words are the most famous, but the image I saw, the one that staggered my mind for a second and then sent it reeling into my past was the “red and dying evening.” I saw in that moment, my hometown; my bedroom in my parents’ first house. The red sky extending over the three-story Methodist church where my mother took me all the years of my youth, and on into the downtown of Bessemer, including The Bright Star, the now oldest continuously-serving restaurant in the state of Alabama.

It’s impossible to capture my deepest feeling in these constructed words, just as, it would have been impossible for me to see this entire scene as I lay on my bed staring out the window.

That’s the art of fiction based on the life that we see, even if what we see is a dream version—something naturally occurring in our mind or stirred into being by other words from one who never knew us, but understands anyway.

We write because we have to, and we write because we love to.

My class will finish Light in August next week, and I’ll be wondering until then what exactly is happening to their unconscious minds, and their accepting hearts.

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