William Faulkner


Having dabbled in music composition, graphic design, and writing fiction, I found in myself a confusing network of interests and an alarming readiness to feign expertise in a new medium. I realized that I had become a jack of all trades (and the rest of the cliché)—a fool who enjoys sensual and creative stimulation but can’t bring himself to commit to any one discipline. But now, after recovering from that intense addiction to creative practice, I’ve begun to understand a larger definition of space—one that functions not only in art per se but in the creative process and in real life.

I had never thought about space until I started taking graphic design classes. When I heard the same crits over and over and studied the successful examples the teachers pointed out, I began to perceive the visual silence around the subject, around what we consider at first glance to be The Good Stuff. Comparing this to the student work around me, I realized that The Good Stuff suffers in oversaturation without a context of visual silence.

I started thinking about this in relation to music. I thought about things I had written and things I had analyzed. I questioned why I loved or hated certain pieces. I found that what I disliked about a lot of mainstream genre music was its low range of both vertical and durational space—that is, a tendency toward sameness in how big and how complex. Then I realized that that’s what I like about Oceansize and Fleet Foxes and Bach: Each gives me, in its own way, a constant interplay between The Good Stuff and some form of silence. Bach’s music especially displays this use of space. He is a master of the unstated, and his unstatement shines in his solo cello suites. He uses the leaping of a single melodic line to sketch the forms of larger harmonies, giving you the sense of a harmonic context which you aren’t actually hearing. Your ear, rather than Bach, assembles the outlines and suggestions into something larger.

While I was still a music student, I never worked toward unstatement. Instead, I pushed myself obsessively toward Good Sounds. I looked for one grandiose chord, something with the towering suggestion of infinite color. I created some good chords, but I never found The Chord of Everything. Eventually I gave up. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in composition and a general bitterness toward academia, a resolution not to perpetuate the cycle of get-degree-to-teach-at-university. Feeling smart and rebellious, I abandoned that track and turned to my neglected writing project, the latest novel in a long line of work that wasn’t worth sharing with people. And I resolved to become a Novelist, capital N.

I tried it for a while. I grew a lot as a writer, but then I started thinking about raising a family and being a breadwinner. My creative potential was still high, but my income potential looked like silence; so I scrambled to fill that silence. I started another degree, this one in graphic design. Rather than leaving the white space in my life alone, I tried to slather it with The Good Stuff. One and three-quarters semesters later, I dropped out, overworked and plagued with anxiety attacks. I had not yet learned the function of silence, of uncertainty.

I suppose any creative discipline, including the living of life, is a constant relearning. Before I tried graphic design, I thought I knew novelizing; I didn’t. Now, no longer cutting cardstock with a razor, I started cutting words with a razor. I relearned and relearned, but I knew I had not yet found my voice. It was not until I grappled with William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that I began to realize the meaning of white space in Story. With my clinical descriptions of roads and trees, feelings and thoughts, I was shouting at my imagined reader, “This is my story! Don’t you like it?” But Faulkner showed me another way. He insisted, with his obtuseness, that I pay attention and stumble toward some form of reality that even he might not know. He never preached Story; he offered it, and he refused to hold my hand.

I resolved to do likewise in my novel. I rewrote the whole thing. I worked obsessively, editing first thing every morning and reading last thing every night to absorb another writer’s brilliance and do it all again the next day. But the anxiety attacks came back. In purging myself of other people’s demands and turning inward to my great purpose as Novelist, I wasn’t curing myself; rather, I was oversaturating my mind and emotions with The Good Stuff. Insanity was blossoming in the noise, and it was my fault. For once, I couldn’t blame the bosses or the professors, for I had become my own professor; and I was a tyrant.

At the same time, I couldn’t say no to music. I was still in a band with my brother. I was still hauling amps at the wrong hours of the night and still adoring the imago of our rich and varied material. Oh, we had certainly stumbled upon the law of silence. Our stuff was loud and then quiet, mechanical and then melodic. It was really good. But our well-composed music bore no reflection in my disorderly life.

All of this began to look like some weird analog to the concept of Signal Versus Noise—except that the meat of artwork, The Good Stuff, wasn’t the signal; it was the noise. The signal that I so desperately needed could only be found in the silence that I refused to practice.

That was when I realized that the creative process itself is an artwork, sheltering what we call art, nested within the larger artwork of life. This three-tiered fractal structure of art within art within art, of wheels within wheels, was collapsing around me. I was not balancing the outermost medium of creativity—my life itself, my mental and emotional health—with crucial white space. My head was crammed with obsession over what I wanted to accomplish and the corollary fear of failure. I may have written The Good Stuff with my pen, but with my life I was writing noise, an insidious scrambling toward infinity. And it was becoming clear that I was not meant to be infinite.

That’s where I am now. Not infinite, living sometimes in the sounds and sometimes in the silence. The other night I lay in bed at 4:30 a.m. wishing that Sudafed hadn’t made me antsy—and that, if it was going to do so, it would at least clear my nose so I could sleep. Exhausted, suffering this for many nights in a row, I asked God with sincere and childish tears where He was. I heard only silence, and I cried some more.

But a thought kept nagging: maybe this God is balancing his artwork with white space.

The Lost Art of the South

A gift from my musically esoteric boyfriend, my record player has been my proverbial time capsule to the American Southlands I call home. I load dusty albums from the past–kings and queens of country–on the record’s arm and they drop by themselves. So I stack up five of those melancholy discs, and listen to the A-sides. They play through, drop down, and I flip and start with the B-sides. Sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss, all held within the grooves of the black vinyl. These artists sing a different tune than the post-millennial country. They sing about dusty clay roads, but they also sing about the lowest lows of desolation and the prayers of the darkest night. They sing about prison and adultery, tragedy and comfort. Their words are not contrived and sometimes not even catchy–slow and dull and long–dragging on one continuous chord. But they come from a place exclusive to the South, a place that the South could be forgetting.

I was raised in and by the hills of Virginia so I am acquainted with bluegrass and the bucolic banjo pluck of the Appalachians. Life in the South to me has meant mountains and magnolias, bourbon and a sauntering pace of life. But until recently, I did not know the darkness of the deep musical movements coming from the South less than a half century ago. In this place, in the acapellas of low sadness and the hymns of wandering, I have found camaraderie with the land that hemmed and honed me as a young woman and as a contributor to family and place. The deeper I listen to Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the like, the deeper I enter the old South; a place where despondency, pride, and revelry exist within each other. Ever since the needle scratched and crackled through that first disc, the open space between me and my homeland, and all her past sins, triumphs, and profundity, has sealed.

Emmylou Harris was quoted recently in Garden & Gun magazine saying that she has given up on present-day country radio. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element,” she said. And she’s right, alluding to this spiritually infused land where God is seen more with dirty shoes holding out redemption, rather than a glowing halo bestowing blessings. Some present-day artists–Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings in particular–hold fast to the tenets of powerful, bleeding and vulnerable music of the South, but these artists are rare. The influence of the South is too often watered down to an occasional mechanized twang, girls who wear dresses with cowboy boots, and cheap beer cans. And behind the barbeque and pickup trucks, we have lost, or are at least losing, our edge.

William Faulkner at work.

It’s the same edge that the writers of our Southern fiction have made famous. The place of darkness which honed the literary voices of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque, Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares, and William Faulkner’s pontifications on death. The South provided a backdrop unmatched by other geographies, fostering art that feeds on our ability to make the worst of our lot.

This land of moonshine and muskets belies a deep disenchantment. O’Connor wrote that since we lost the war in the 19th century, we have ‘had our fall’–the type of fall that keeps the whole populace awake to their potent inability to pride themselves on themselves. We are aware that we can believe deeply and still, with sweat and blood, lose everything. The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.

Flannery O’Connor herself said that we may not be Christ-centered as much as we are ‘Christ-haunted.’ And these ghosts, as much as they keep us fearful and frightened, keep us wide-eyed and questioning. We have been the “Bible Belt” for decades, a symbol of centrality as much as corporal punishment. And we Southerners have been beaten by our own faith. We are holy tormented and wholly sanctified.

The South has created from this fallen place and offered the nation a voice otherwise unheard. A perspective cast through an interminable mix of searing nostalgia, bated hope, and a weighty present balanced between the two. For decades, artists let this land mold their perspectives. It was the Southern zeitgeist, and it is this curious mix of hope and sadness.

More recently, the blurring of state and cultural lines has come as a detriment to artists. We lose our senses and loosen our allegiances, as we drift above the lands. As O’Connor said, when we cease to create from the reality of our place, this Southern place, we have lost ourselves, and we have lost the South. Makoto Fujimura has said before, we have a language for the waywardness. What the South is beginning to miss is the language for the ties that bind. So the challenge for Southern artists now is to stay connected–to keep the ankles in the mud and the fires smoldering. To be a product of the palpable senses, and to let the sights, sounds, emotion and memory of your place build your reality and your platform. We need to reorient our perspective to move beyond what we do in the South, beyond fishing, hunting, and cooking with butter, and enter into who we are, in joy and in trial.

And perhaps, optimistically, we can find ourselves anew in the people who understand and channel this spirit, regardless of their geographical upbringing. Because in the end, what the South did was connect in the darkness. It is the invaluable voice of a fallen community that still echoes from my record player, and is still found within my pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.