How I Write: Joyce Carol Oates
Published: September 12, 2001
|Acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates' passion for writing and delight in the process has produced a wonderfully diverse body of work, including 28 novels; dozens of poetry, short story and essay collections; screenplays; and a libretto. She also has edited several essay and short story anthologies and literary journals. Oates has received the Rea Award for the Short Story for her significant contribution to the art form, the PEN/Malamud Award for a lifetime of achievement in the short story form, and a National Book Award for her novel them. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Oates lives in Princeton, N.J.|
Credits Novels include: Blonde: A Novel (2001), We Were the Mulvaneys (1996), Zombie (1995), What I Lived For (1994), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1991) and them (1969). Short story collections include: Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001) and Will You Always Love Me? (1996).
Why: Writing to me is very instinctive and natural. It has something to do with my desire to memorialize what I know of the world. The act of writing is a kind of description of an inward or spiritual reality that is otherwise inaccessible. I love transcribing this; there's a kind of passion to it.
When and where: I write every day. I have a desk with numerous pieces of paper arranged on it in a way that's important to me. When I'm on a trip, I write on the airplane or in my hotel room. It's easy because I'm alone, and instead of getting lonely and miserable, I turn to my characters.
How: I write in longhand. I don't have a word processor. I sometimes write on little notepads and have 60 pages of notes that I spread out and organize [by characters or scenes]. If I had a word processor, I couldn't do that sort of thing. It wouldn't be so physical or visual. I take the strongest parts and build slowly, doing a lot of rewriting as I go along.
I lose myself in the physical world. I describe it very assiduously. When I'm writing fiction, I populate the [narrative] with people who are expressions of a specific place.
Writer's block: I have many ideas. They come easily to me. The hardest part of writing is getting the voice and the structure. The only thing I can do is keep trying. I can write a scene over and over 17 times, and I'm very unhappy if it's not working, but I never give up.
Influences: Alice in Wonderland, which I read when I was 9 or 10, has had the most profound influence in my life. Alice has bizarre adventures but she never gets frightened. She's thoughtful, she's skeptical, she has a sense of humor and she's rational. She is coherent and calm when confronted by nightmarish situations. Her calmness made a strong impression. That's the way I am. I can write about nightmares and bizarre things in a coherent, calm way.
Advice: My advice springs from my own experience when I was quite young. Read what you want to read, not what you are told to read. Read what makes you happy. Remember that writing is a craft; it's not an experience like an emotion. It's not like going to a psychiatrist and delivering yourself of emotions. It's made up of text, the text has
paragraphs, the paragraphs have sentences, and all of this has to be coherent and as beautifully composed as you can make it.
Photograph by William Zuback
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