This last Wednesday was William Faulkner’s birthday, and since he couldn’t celebrate it (what with being dead and all), I’ve decided to reflect on what I’ve learned about being a writer and a comedian from his life and works.
First, I think I should address one of my favorite passages from all of literature: Quentin Compson’s section in The Sound and the Fury. When Quentin first wakes up on the day he kills himself (I’m not one for spoiler alerts. Also, Snape kills Dumbledore.) he hears the ticking of his grandfather’s pocketwatch and he remembers the words his father Jason told him when he gave Quentin the watch: “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won, he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
It was also F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday last week, and by the time Fitzgerald was my age he had already written This Side of Paradise and was writing The Great Gatsby. Remembering that is disheartening when I’ve barely written anything worthy of being published. What I need to be remembering, though, are Jason Compson’s words. Time is a poor litmus test for success.
If I think to myself that, “if I haven’t accomplished something by now I never will,” then I’m losing a battle that isn’t even being fought. That’s true for any artist. It doesn’t matter when you accomplish something, only if you tried. Art is immortal, and sometimes it may take a while for it to be appreciated. Guess how many copies The Sound and the Fury sold in its first fifteen years of publication? Go ahead, guess. A million? Not even close. 100,000? Nope. Lower. 3,300. Yep. The first edition of the sixth-greatest novel (according to the Modern Library) sold 0.00004% of the copies Fifty Shades of Grey has sold. It appears that even success is a poor litmus test for success.
If you’re a comedian struggling to get a laugh at open mics, or if you’re an artist trying to get a show, or if you’re like me and you’re a writer who is waiting patiently for rejection letters from literary magazines, just remember that the time you spend failing is not lost time. You can’t beat time. Relax, drink a mint julep, and do your art like you have all the time in the world.