Tell Me A Story: Lessons From Parker Palmer That Can Transform Your Writing
I was still in graduate school when I attended my first American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference. I was not yet at the point of putting together a syllabus for any course but was still interested in attending sessions related to teaching religion. One course in particular introduced me to Parker Palmer and his philosophy of teaching. I still think of Parker Palmer every semester as I put together a syllabus and have used his teaching philosophy in every course I have taught. Palmer’s influence has several applications to writing as well.
The teacher (or writer) is the lesson.
If you want students or your readers to fully invest themselves in you, you must be transparent with them. Honesty is the primary factor in this type of openness. No one expects you to be flawless. They want to see your humanity as well. Share your life through your writing, and others will be more likely to connect with you, through both low points and successes.
The teacher (or writer) is on a journey with the student.
The goal is not for the teacher to talk nonstop, communicating information one way, filling the heads of the listener or reader. But how can a writer be on a journey with the readers? It is a matter of perspective! Write to share your vision, story, and passion and invite the reader to join in your journey together. This practice may be more prevalent in religion, where one investigates matters of faith and belief and calls out others to commit to faith. But no matter your subject, you are asking others to join with you in examining topics you care about.
The model for teaching is a conversation.
The same is true for writing. Open conversation with your reader. It is OK to challenge, confront, and even bring discomfort, but it is done in a way where everyone has a voice and seat at the table. Welcome feedback. Welcome questions. Welcome doubt and disbelief. Be open to new ideas and alternative theories. Teachers and writers who do so will build an audience and following much quicker than those who are distant and uninviting.
Provide a safe environment for an equal seat at the table.
The teacher sets the stage in his classroom, laying ground rules for conversation, confidentiality, and respect. A writer does the same thing through even through his word choice. Derogatory references and outdated euphemisms can kill a reader’s trust and willingness to invest in you or your writing.
Personal experiences provide the best entryway to conversation.
I borrowed a model from the professor I heard that day at the AAR. The first assignment I do every semester is to ask all my students to write a spiritual autobiography or about a key experience that shapes their spirituality. This assignment shows how each of us have opinions and thoughts about ultimate questions, even if we don’t have specific beliefs, and provides a current assessment. Teachers and writers should open themselves to sharing this same information in order to have students and readers take risks in sharing themselves. The result should be integral both to winning trust and taking the journey together through the pages of your book.
Some of the best advice book editors can give their clients–especially those clients writing fiction–is to think about and attempt to develop a theme in their work. Book editing services should definitely pay attention to the thematic element in books they’re editing.
Here are some of William Faulkner’s major themes, which are timeless and always resonate with readers:
Man’s capacity for evil
This Calvinistic position that man is evil contends that sinfulness must be expiated. Images of collapse and disintegration illustrate the moral paralysis and spiritual desolation and sterility suffered by many of his characters.
“The human heart in conflict with itself”
As Faulkner put it in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he is concerned mainly with “the human heart in conflict with itself.The writer’s duty is to write about man’s soul and his capacity for endurance and compassion and sacrifice.” Thus, Faulkner engaged in a constant struggle against defeatism, negativism, cynicism, and pessimism. He stressed his faith in the human heart’s ability to triumph over the failings of the modern human condition: greed, injustice, fear, cowardice, and duplicity. How a man reacts to the negative forces of life is how he should be measured. These aspects are portrayed in images of fortitude and indomitability. Life is essentially meaningless but man must be reconciled to his fate; a man’s handling of his fate becomes his raison d’être.
The Decline of the South
As I mentioned at the outset, Faulkner’s work chronicles the decline of the South due to its fatal flaw or original sin, if you will, of slavery, which itself represents the universal of humanity’s struggle against outrageous and blind circumstance. He transforms local social history as the record of the human spirit.
Primitivism vs. civilization
Primitivism vs. civilization informs much of his work. His ethical system is grounded in a romantic hatred of modern civilization which he feels has destroyed much of the essential goodness of natural man. The mechanistic forces of modern industrialization have helped destroy the environment while dehumanizing the individual. Thus, he admires those who live close to the land, feeling that slaves, and the sons and daughters of slaves, have inherited the South and have a greater birthright to its land because they worked it. In fact, the heart of essential human values can be found in Faulkner’s Black characters. The Negroes—even the ones the whites call “niggers”—are the ones with the most goodness, charity, endurance, integrity, courage, and pride.
Nature & Transcendentalism
Faulkner loves nature and could almost be called a pioneering environmentalist. From the Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, Faulkner inherited his pantheistic view that God is in nature and that those who exploit nature‑‑both man’s and the world’s‑‑are the real evil people. These “pure exploiters own “things” and attempt to treat the earth and other men as objects. But the rape of nature and the exploitation of man is always avenged; the exploiters always destroy themselves for man’s nature is, after all, Original Sin, which can only be redeemed through love—of others and of nature.
Time Out of Joint
Faulkner embraced a new and different conception of time itself, posited by the philosopher Bergson: “That time is, and if there’s no such thing as was, then there is no such thing as will be. That time is not a fixed condition, time is in a way the sum of the combined intelligence of all men who breathe at that moment¼.no man is himself, he is the sum of his past….the past is….” Many of his narratives take the reader into a dimension free of space and time through his use of multiple, fragmented voices in a variety of unannounced and often inexplicable non-chronological sequences, themselves interrupted by flashbacks and flash forwards.
Faulkner & Racism: The Great White Hope of Black Power
Faulkner was born in the Bible belt, into segregated white society. The tenets of his strict Calvinist-directed Christian faith were strained and twisted by the racism all around him. How could the idea of all men as brothers and equal in the eyes of the Lord be reconciled with the bigoted, double-standardized, violently derogatory attitude and actions of his fellow Whites toward Blacks? They couldn’t. Thus, Faulkner labored under a horrible moral dilemma not unlike Huck Finn’s: Whose side should he take? His society’s and family’s or God’s? Faulkner often played out this tragic dilemma through stories tortured by the Christian drama of sin, guilt and redemption. As many critics accuse him, Faulkner may well have been a racist, but he knew that about himself, he hated being so, and he struggled his entire life to overcome this inherited, ingrained malignancy.
These struggles found their literary shape in the characters and character of one small county in Mississippi that Faulkner named Yoknapatawpha. By the time he was 30 years old, Faulkner had sketched in his mind an entire mythological superstructure for his microcosmic Southern county. Apropos for the Pathos of his people—who include aristocrats, carpetbaggers, college boys, lawyers, clerks, farmers, bums, saints, sinners, gangsters, con men, ladies, whores, gentlemen, bastards, and all varieties of Blacks (who, collectively, are his best human beings)—his stories, if segregated, fall short of adequately representing either the South in its entirety or the brilliance of his talent. However, taken all together—integrated, if you will—the stories create a patchwork quilt larger than life, greater than mere literature. They rise to an epic mythic status, no less an artistic achievement than Homer’s The Iliad & the Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a very good thing that timid book editors didn’t try to tamper with his bold and controversial books.
Some of Faulkner’s major novels include:
- The Sound & the Fury (1929): This story of the decadent Compson family chills with its psychological violence.
- As I Lay Dying (1930): You can read more about this gothically dark comedic tragedy of sub‑normal poor‑whites in my article available at edit911.com.
- Sanctuary (1931): This sadistic horror story traces the corruption of small town youth and the power of crime in the Prohibition era.
- Light in August (1932): This story of forbidden love violently pits Black against White, man against woman.
- Absalom! Absalom! (1936) records the downfall of the aristocratic Sutpen dynasty in a non-chronological, irrational narration.
Faulkner and The American South: All the Rest is 2nd Best
As a professor of literature and an active book editor, I appreciate great writers such as William Faulkner. I’m quite certain you can find some people who’ll disagree, but many scholars contend that among American authors, only Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville are in Faulkner’s league. In a prose style unlike any other, Faulkner created a massive body of work, distinguished not only for its literary qualities, but for the breadth and depth of its engagement with the human condition. Perhaps his most impressive achievement is that he created an entire world or what Balzac called “a cosmos in miniature.”
Constructing one archetypal county in the American South from the days of Indian possession, through the Civil War to the early 20th century, Faulkner populated it with over 1100 characters who mix and mingle throughout all of his stories. Taken altogether, his novels and stories transcend literature and rise to the level of cultural artifact—a living, breathing chronicle of the South’s soul and soil, its socio-historical reality. Mere history books pale in comparison to the authentic flavor and feel of Faulkner’s moving, soaring saga.
Faulkner’s own family epitomized the fate of the South: once prominent and proud, they suffered a progressive generational decline into poverty and disrepair. His great grandfather was a politician and colonel; his grandfather a lawyer; his father a livery stable owner. Born in 1897, Faulkner entered the Southern world in its doldrums—wallowing in a decadent 30+ year slide downhill from defeat in the Civil War. As heredity and environment are wont to do with both artists and mere earth-bound mortals, they profoundly affected Faulkner’s perception of the world and influenced his selection of subject matter and themes. Of the Southern aristocrat’s world of faded glory, Faulkner admired its courage, gallantry, and code of conduct, but deplored the slavery system upon which it was built. Ultimately, he saw the South as a tragedy—doomed by its fatal flaw.