"Language Well Used" is Civilization's Cornerstone, Faulkner Tells University's Authors and Editors

The following is from New York State Writers Institute Associate Director Donald Faulkner's speech at the Oct. 25 Authors and Editors Celebration.

I am very proud to be among so many individual talents. This is what, as President Karen Hitchcock so often, and to my delight, aptly calls a "research institution". That means we work here. To brazenly paraphrase the apostle Paul in one of his epistles, there are teaching or educating, administering, and writing, and the greatest of these is writing. I hasten to add editing as a form of writing. Writing is great, because without it the other efforts make little sense. (You see, I am the Associate Director of the Writers Institute).

I, like many of you, consider myself a writer who teaches, and as a teacher who writes. As some of you know I have come to Albany recently from Yale University, a somewhat esteemed institution. But however grand that place is, they've never organized an event such as this. Though collegiality could be found, it was a concept that frequently gathered dust, and publication was something expected, of course, but never heralded. Recently, back in New Haven I told some of my former colleagues of the event held here this afternoon. They would not have looked more surprised if I had made the desk before them levitate. "They really do that in Albany? They must be really nice up there!" "Yes," I replied with a satisfied smile, "they are. And smart, too."

"I gotta use words when I talk to you," Sweeney says in the T. S. Eliot poem, and language is all we have to work with to express and communicate our ideas. Language, which lives by the breath passed across our tongues. Language, which is a cornerstone of community and, indeed, of civilization. And, as with any good story, or good line of verse, language well used becomes unalterable, and demands telling, and telling again.

And when I look through the marvelous list of recent publications by the faculty, a 64-page single-spaced list . . . it does include many fascinating items across all of the academic disciplines, ranging alphabetically from Kenneth Able's "Interaction in the Flexible Orientation System of a Migratory Bird, published in Nature, to Richard S. Zitomer's "Multiple Elements and Auto-Repression Regulate Rox 1, a Repressor of Hypoxic Genes in saccharomyces cerevisiae," published in Genetics. And in between I read of ground-breaking gender studies, explorations in physics and Mesoamerican studies, sociology, history, and educational theory, public policy and public health, economics and atmospheric science, and works ranging from Talking Back to Shakespeare, to "Sperm as Property." Birth and death, comings and goings, all work acknowledged here reflects the robust intellectual life of this institution.

And yet there are some who would have us not write, who would seek to stem the flow of fresh ideas. These are sad people, censorious by nature, who don't understand the principles of freedom of intellectual pursuit as part of a system of inalienable rights, and whose mothers probably raised them in an environment of language that repeated, "don't touch, mustn't touch, bad." We are people assembled here today who touch, who explore, whose insatiable curiosity is our greatest strength, and one of the touchstones of civilization.

Malcolm Cowley, a literary critic, and one of my mentors, offered the simplest definition of a writer: "A writer," he said, "is someone who has readers." Perhaps so simple as to be simplistic, but when you think on it it confirms the whole process of what another writer, Alastair Reid, termed "the effort of putting well into words." Words are the vehicle by which we become among, with each other, have readers, and in the process confirm our communal nature. It is also how we elucidate, edify, and in effect, say to the world, "out there, over the hill, I saw it. You come too."

Once, when a number of famous writers were asked why they write, more than a few memorable statements were offered. Robert Frost said, "I just don't get quite the same pleasure out of doing anything else," indicating in the process that writing is also research, and that such endeavors are happy ones, a form of deep play, though it may not always feel that way. Writing is hard work, as is editing. My introducer, William Kennedy, himself a great writer, has over his desk a scroll of paper inscribed, "write just one sentence." My thoughts instantly go to how many times that incitement engendered inspiration or self-damning frustration. We all need such a scroll above our desks . . .

I want to say something about editing, because I believe in it so. Perhaps even more than writing, it is the cleaving together of all the talents a scholar can bring to bear, so that what is absent is just as important as what is present. Ted Wilentz, an old friend and sometime editor of Corinth Books, maintained that the editor's role was to "stand behind the author, and be ahead of the reader." Sometimes a physically impossible task. "But," he continued, "the editor must always be the author's best friend. His or her major goal is to avoid allowing the author to look a fool." It is one of the most selfless acts in the endeavor of writing in which we're collectively involved: to erase yourself in order to allow the work to show forth.

I'd like to give an incitement to all of us as writers and editors to continue to improve our writing. As disciplines change, new theories develop, and new media technologies expand our sense of what writing and its publication is, I'd like to hearken back to George Orwell, a great writer who once purposely took a passage from the Bible and drained it of its energy to make a point. Let me read first the sentence he generated, and second, the sentence in King James Ecclesiastes from which it was taken:

First: Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

That's a mouthful.

Now, second, the Biblical version of the same: I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, not yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Same idea; sharper language.

Keep at your good efforts. We will be here to sing your praises. In the meanwhile, I'll close with another incitement: Write well, speak honestly, tell the truth about your time.

Thank you.

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