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Faith of a Writer: Joyce Carol Oates

12 October, 2009

I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’s thoughts about writing.  The Faith of a Writer: Life, craft, art (Ecco, 2004) is a collection of essays, mainly reprints. Oates provides writing advice and some philosophical pondering about  the act of writing. The essays are not easy reads and will not suit everyone, but I enjoyed  her ability to bring into focus some of the ‘fuzzier’ elements of writing.

She has impressive writing credits. In her 40-year career, publications have included 31 novels, 9 novels under another name, 19 short story collections, 5 novellas, 8 poetry collections, 7 plays or collections, 8 essays, and 3 books for children or young adults.

I have paraphrased some of her ideas I found useful.

Individual and communal voice

When your story is published, your sense of it and the associations you make no longer count. Publishing puts your story into the ‘communal space’ of the printed page; it is now ‘an autonomous creation’.

We may write from our individual background, our local or regional ‘home’. We can sometimes transcend these boundaries to create works that ‘speak to others who know nothing of us’. When this happens, ‘the individual voice is the communal voice’ and ‘the regional voice is the universal voice’.

I like this description of how a story can be set within the specifics of the local and still reach readers beyond this context. Short story writers who do this so well include Flannery O’Connor, Tim Winton, and E. Annie Proulx. Their stories are like trees, with a web of shallower roots—local/regional context—held up by a deep tap root of universal themes.

Writers as performers

Writers differ from other performers, including athletes, because writers get to do the most important things over again: to  ‘re-imagine, revise and rewrite completely. . . .’

An interesting comparison. Most performers and athletes train to do the same thing, again and again. They may perform solo but are just as likely to be part of musical group or athletic team. They usually have an audience, and if they improve the numer of fans increases. A writer differs in generally having to come up with completely new material, again and again. The writer usually works alone and there’s no guarantee of ever having an audience.

Riddlesome writing

Oates quotes Virgina Woolf, who wrote about transcribing onto paper ‘all that is inchoate, riddlesome’. The term ‘riddlesome’ aptly describes the experience of starting to write with a clear idea of where your story is going, then finding it changing, throwing up puzzles or obstacles. The challenge is to work with these new ideas to make them yield the treasure you first perceived.

Damp match of inspiration

‘We all know what it was like to have been inspired, in the past, [and] we can have faith that we will be inspired in the future. Most writers apply themselves doggedly to their work, hoping that inspiration will return . . . . like striking a damp match again, again, again: hoping a small flame will leap out, before the match breaks.’

Reminds me of camping on a wet night, knowing you will be toasty and happy—but only if you can get the fire going. And it’s the memory of enjoying past fires that keeps you trying.

Oates comments that you can rely on  inspiration to write prose fiction but you also need to learn the craft of it. Why? A story idea can be the product of inspiration but then it is  ‘consciously . . . written . . . . extricated, excavated. . . . ‘

Write your heart out

Oates advises writers to ‘write your heart out’. We should never be ashamed of our subject, our passion for it, and the emotions we have when we struggle with what she calls ‘our buried self or selves’. These elements become the ‘fuel’ that keeps us writing over the days, weeks, months and years.

Childhood and art

A writer’s first primary influence is childhood, which ‘into the very marrow of our bones’ and permanently conditions how we interpret the universe. The second major influence is art, its emotional power and its strategies.

Do you read?

‘If you read, you need not become a writer; but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.’  Reading literature is a comfort for writers, providing a ‘counter-world’ that transcends ‘artificial borders of time, place, language, national identity . . . .’

Read widely, read what you want rather than what you think you should, and read everything written by writers you ‘love’. Read their early efforts, when they too were once ‘groping for a way, fumbling to acquire a voice’.

I find it odd when I meet people who write but do not read for pleasure. And reading is such a pleasure, immersing us in other times, places, situations. Reading also has a practical side, showing us how other writers describe, characterise, create suspense, and structure their stories.

Place and homesickness

Oates is ‘mesmerized’ by place:  ‘. . . [T]he settings my characters inhabit are as crucial to me as the characters themselves’. This focus on place means that much of her writing ‘is a way of assuaging homesickness . . . .’ Other writers have also commented on the value of first vividly imagining a place before developing characters and plot.

Knowing where we’ve been

We need to have faith that when we have written our last sentence we will understand where we’ve been going and where we’ve been with what we write.

What is writing?

  • ‘Art originates in play—in improvisation, experiment, and fantasy. . . . [and it is] fueled by rebellion: the need . . . to resist what is.’
  • ‘To write is to invade another’s space, if only to memorialize it. . . . Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it.’
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