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Advice from Faulkner: lift your readers’ hearts

I’ve always felt that offering hope was one of my duties as a writer. Recent events in world politics have made this seem more urgent than ever.

Of course, many writers would laugh off such a grand notion. We write to help people escape their lives, they say. To forget their burdens. Above all, we write to entertain. And entertain we must – otherwise, who would read us?

But that is not enough for me. Grand or not, I feel a deeper duty. A duty that comes with the privilege of my vocation. The duty to, in Faulkner’s words, ‘lift the heart.’

At present, I am surrounded fear. Fear that our most cherished human values are under threat. Values that many of us had assumed would be upheld by any thoughtful, clear minded individual raised in a democratic society:

Tolerance, equality, compassion, kindness, understanding, humility, a placing of person above possessions, a desire to enrich the soul over the wallet, a valuing of character over appearance, a hope in a better world for our children, not just economically but also environmentally and socially.

It is a fear that the world is turning inward. A fear that it is no longer willing to hold out its hand to its neighbour. A fear that the differences of race, religion, culture and colour are held to be more important than our common humanity.

And I share that fear.

My own country, Britain, has voted to turn away from its neighbour and towards itself.

My newly adopted country, the USA, has voted for a man who believes in building walls between people, rather than breaking them down.

A country I lived in for much of my childhood, France, is seeing a rise in far right political extremism.

Many think that the voting in of the latter would be the third in a hat-trick of current events: Brexit, Trump – next, Le Pen.

But stronger than this fear – and I have reiterated this in several posts over the past few days – is my belief in hope.

Hope in the human spirit.

Hope that good will prevail.

Hope that times of challenge strengthen rather than weaken our vision and our determination to act.

Hope that for every step back, there is the passion and drive and dedication to take a thousand steps forward.

Hope that, in dark times, the light shines brightest.

And one of those lights, for me, is literature. Time and again we’ve seen how the best fiction has been produced at times when the human spirit has been threatened.

I believe that is because stories are essential to our sense of self, to our humanity, to our spirit and our soul and that they have a vital part to play in showing us the light, in giving us hope and in propelling us forward.

Early one morning, a few days after the US election result, I was cycling my little girl to her nursery when I came across one of the humanities teachers here at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. He is one of those individuals who makes you feel as though you’ve learnt something profound every time you speak to him.

In other words he has little time for the candy floss of small chat.

I told him about my sense of hopefulness, despite the current political climate, and how I was more determined than ever to write fiction that lifted people’s hearts. I also told him that I was sad to hear a recent writer (a very talented, successful writer), speak about the human race in despondent terms. When this writer was asked whether he felt that his stories could contribute anything positive to the life of his fellow human beings or bring about constructive change, he replied, rather flippantly, that he has little faith in such things. That he just writes because, well, her writes.

I am not naive. I know that my stories will not shift continents or stop wars – or change the outcome of elections. But I do believe that my stories can touch individual hearts.

That they can build compassion. And that by giving my readers hope, through that precious, intimate experience of reading a story, a spark can be ignited. And this is how change happens. It is slow, perhaps, but it is true and lasting:

A change that starts in one heart, and then is shared and leaps into another, and another, and another, until the spark becomes and flame and then a great and glorious fire that can give light to the world.

Which is not to say that my stories are falsely optimistic. I explore the depths of human life, ‘the human heart in conflict with itself,’ as Faulkner said. My characters behave badly. Families fall apart. People get terribly hurt. There is real darkness. And my endings are not always neat. There is no glass-slipper-bearing prince who rides in on his white horse to carry off the princess so that they can live happily ever after. But there is always hope. Real hope that despite the compromises and challenges and disappointments of life, my characters can make it through. That, as Faulkner says, their spirits will ‘endure’ and ‘prevail.’

Anyway, back to that early morning bike ride. This erudite humanities teacher pointed me in the direction of William Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. A time of great political upheaval and unrest, a time of fear and paranoia. In other words, a time when hope was in short supply.

‘Faulkner provides a timely message,’ my friend said. And there is magic in that too. That a writer, writing in a different century, when speaking truth, can be as relevant to his own audience as he is to ours.

It took a few days for me to get to it but today, sitting in a bath in the middle of the day (forgive me: it was cold and rainy and I’d been writing for three hours non-stop…), I listened to the speech. And my friend was right.

In his few, humble words, Faulkner reminds us that the power of literature lies in its ability to help humankind find the best in himself: compassion, sacrifice, endurance, courage, honour. That, at its best, literature can ‘life the heart.’ And that this lifting of the heart comes from one thing: hope.

So as I sit down at my desk each day, this four letter words, HOPE, is writ large on my noticeboard. Because to give my readers hope is my greatest privilege as a writer.


William Faulkner