“The power of genius is to make us love a beauty we feel to be more real than ourselves, in those things which in the eyes of others are as particular and as perishable as ourselves.”
The famous novelist William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit,” he opened his speech. “Not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it,” he continued. “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
“He must learn them again,” he said. “He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
Until the writer teaches himself to write about these universal truths, Faulkner said, “He labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”
Faulkner didn’t believe writing about these truths are something that an artist should do, but rather, an obligation he must carry on his shoulder as he creates his work.
“I decline to accept the end of man,” he said. “I believe that man will not merely endure : he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”
He ended his speech by boldly saying, “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Look around you and you will notice that the basis of all great, lasting work is that they fight against despair, they fight for the good in man, they sing out against the darkness. Or at the very least, they cast a mirror to ourselves so that we could be aware of our human faults and failures for the sake of our improvement.
This fight against hopelessness isn’t new — As old as speech, literature goes a long way back. Another great writer, John Steinbeck later echoed Faulkner’s views in his own Nobel speech saying that, literature “grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.”
This fight, also, is endless. In this never-ending war against weakness, literature serves as our “bright rally-flags of hope.”
“A writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man,” Steinbeck said, “Has no dedication nor any membership in literature.”
Centuries and ages pass, but our maladies stay the same. We drown in information, but we starve for wisdom. We’re surrounded by entertainment, but inside, we long for enlightenment. In parallel with Ernest Hemingway’s immortalization of “The Lost Generation” in his timeless novel, “The Sun Also Rises”, we speak but we say nothing. We hear, but we don’t listen.
And as we’ve discussed before, literature doesn’t limit itself to only books. And neither does art necessarily mean a painting or a century-old statue.
While the mediums change, art and literature themselves do not.
In Search of Redemption
“Literature is writing meant to be read twice.”
Musing about the stories he loved, Marcel Proust wrote, “One would have so much liked for the book to continue or, if that was impossible, to have other facts about all these characters, to learn something of their lives now, to employ our own on things not altogether unconnected with the love they have inspired in us, whose object was now all of a sudden gone from us.”
That’s the hallmark of great storytelling — Once we turn to the back cover of a book, it leaves us wanting to know more about what goes on after the story has ended. We become emotionally connected with the characters that we barrage ourselves with questions about her life, what happened in her past, pieces of her story that were never mentioned, as if she were a real person — Even though we’re not actually supposed to do that — Because what happens in a story stays in the story. That’s why it’s called finite art, right?
Since we’re unable to have those questions answered, we do the closest thing that could get us there — We give it a second read. And the story only becomes better.
My idea for this article started brewing in my head for weeks and months after I completed Red Dead Redemption II’s long story. I could say that for the first time, a video game had a profound effect on my life.
I gave the game a second play as how I would give a good book a second read. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice” — The river stays the same, but because we are different from how we used to be when we first experienced it, we learn new things.
All in all, it is a different form of storytelling — Unlike novels and movies, your own motivations in how you play as the protagonist bleeds into the shaping of his character, and of the story itself. Instead of merely consuming the story, you become part of it — Choosing how it unfolds, and ultimately, how it ends.
You could compare it to a TV series in that the narratives are somewhat episodic in structure, where the characters and the storylines develop gradually over a timeframe. Yet, television is still a fixed, passive experience. You could have a favorite character in a TV series, but in Red Dead II, you can choose to have an active and direct relationship with that character. You could spend time with the characters and get to know them better as time passes.
The protagonist, Arthur Morgan doesn’t fully belong to the storytellers, nor is he purely a making of the player. It’s a tender balance between those two ends. You’re partly experiencing the story, and you’re partly shaping it — Something which only a video game can operate.
Being immersed in the characters’ world, I felt every bullet shot and I took every hit to heart as I witnessed the unraveling of a gang of brothers through Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur was me, though he wasn’t. He is just a character, but his deeds and actions, his choices were of my own — I lighted up at every opportunity to do good towards others, and together with Arthur, I grieved at the shell of what used to be a happy family.
Gaming is often seen as a way of avoiding responsibility, of escaping into virtual worlds where nothing is real, and therefore nothing matters. Red Dead II is different. It is a game about making choices and living with them — It’s about taking responsibility for the way you live.
No matter what’s crumbling down in your life, the game teaches you that you can always choose to learn to be good and do good.
Arthur was an outlaw — He robbed and killed in the name of loyalty to his gang. Having the gang as his only family, loyalty was all he knew. But life started to turn around when he had to question just what and who he had to be loyal to. After he contracted tuberculosis from beating a sick man to death, he spent his last days looking for redemption for his past mistakes, trying all he can to be a good man.
Time and again, Arthur met people along the way who convinced him of the good person he really is. And every time, he would only chuckle and say, “You don’t know me.”
In a particular scene, a nun that Arthur befriended assured him that “We all have lived bad lives. I know you.” Again he responded by saying that she didn’t know him. The nun replied, “That’s the problem. You don’t know you…Whenever we happen to meet, you’re always helping people and smiling.”
“Life is full of pain,” the nun said. “But there is also love and beauty.”
As Arthur still doubted himself, he said, “But I still don’t believe in nothing.”
The nun replied, “Often, neither do I..But then, I meet someone like you, and everything makes sense.”
She then said, “There is nothing to be afraid of..Take a gamble that love exists, and do a loving act.”
I started out on the game often feeling preoccupied and anxious. But as I went deeper into the game, I realized a change in myself as well. As Arthur fought through disillusionment and despair, I learned to accept things that happen in my own life as how they are. I learned that what truly matters is how I could take all of that to teach myself to become a better person. Because I can’t control events to be the way I want them to be, because we all screw up and learn, because “that’s the way it is”, as the song plays while Arthur rides on his horse for the last time.
Arthur has taught me that while we have done things we wish we didn’t, while we have made our share of mistakes and of the people we’ve hurt, we can’t take them back. But we can still become better, today, with the limited time we have left. We can still make things right, in however best we can.
And that’s what great art does for us. It gives us hope. And hope, really, is the best thing anyone can have.
“I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future.”
To quote Jeff Goins, “Entrepreneurship is a blessing for the people you serve.” And that’s just as true for all forms of creative work — Whether you write, or you paint, or you sing — The ultimate goal, and the largest satisfaction, is knowing that you’ve made at least one person’s life better. It’s knowing that you have given people the most important thing to carry forward in life — Hope.
Now that you’ve read this article, with hopes that you now have a clear idea of the kind of work you should create, what’s left for you to do is to start taking action.
There aren’t any silver bullets in creating work, no rules. So long as it’s effective. But you can keep in mind of how you want your audience to feel — The mark that you want to leave.
Looking back, I can’t say that I did this very well. But I can say that I tried, and it’s worth the agony and sweat.