From the Forge: on Joyce Carol Oates on Writing

August 20, 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom: Bestselling American author and novelist Joyce Carol Oates before speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published over fifty novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. Her novel ” Them ” (1969) won the National Book Award,and her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. As of 2008, Oates is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University, where she has taught since 1978. (Murdo MacLeod/Polaris)

For most of my professional career, it seemed as though Joyce Carol Oates published a new novel every year, in addition to short stories and all manner of non-fiction pieces. So when one recent list of writing advice from well-known writers included three suggestions from Oates, I was intrigued.

Her first suggestion was this: “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.” I have mentored people who were working on longer manuscripts—novel or memoir—and who reached a point at which they struggled to find their way. My advice was usually to write a draft of the final chapter, as they saw it at that point, and then to come back to where they felt lost. In a way, it’s almost too obvious. We can’t know how to get there if we don’t know where we’re going.

Oates’ second suggestion was to keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” This is funny and may seem a bit absurd on the face of it, but I think Oates is trying to say that both fiction and memoir are story, and story is a crafted thing from which the writer must step back and observe with a critical eye. If you become too self-absorbed, it is easy to lose the necessary sense of story as art, as a made thing. Even in memoir, your life must be a story that is crafted to accomplish your objective.

The final piece of advice Oates gave was, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Okay, this is the witty, ironic side of Joyce Carol Oates. I doubt that she really believes this one herself. But it might serve as a reminder that, even though we need to know our audience, we need even more to know ourselves and our characters because those are the sources of our story.

Published by Gary Guinn

Retired English professor. Dog lover. Craft beer lover. Occasional writer.

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