AUTHOR JOYCE CAROL OATES TALKS PROLIFIC CAREER
Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer and recipient of many awards, including the National Humanities Medal in 2010. As such, she was a great person to start the Creative Life series, a group of events hosted by Joe Donahue from WAMC, who described the series as, “A conversation series to talk to really cool people about the really cool things that they do.” Introduced by William Kennedy, Oates answered questions about her writing process, her thoughts on the pacing of writing, and the structure of her writing.
The Creative Life began at 7:30 in the Performing Arts Center on the University at Albany campus, beginning with Donahue introducing journalist and novelist William Kennedy of Albany, who then in turn introduced Oates. Kennedy’s introduction focused mostly on Oates’ 2000 novel Blonde, a historical work of fiction about the girl that would turn into Marilyn Monroe and her relations with President JFK. Most notably, he brings up how Oates had written in an article for the New York Review of Books, “Most serious and productive artists are ‘haunted’ by their works.” Kennedy brings up how haunted Oates must have been by the story she found in Blonde, because she started out to write a short novella, and it ended up as a 1500-page epic, that eventually had to be cut down for publishing.
Walking onto the stage with a rousing round of applause, Oates addressed the allure she had to the story of Norma Jeane Baker, who would later become Marilyn Monroe. Girls with tragic life stories is a theme of many of her books, such as “Foxfire,” winner of the national book award in 1993. Oates explains this fascination as a wonderment of the mystery that was adults to her as a child. She said that she had a rather sheltered childhood, but there were “still glimmers of untalked violences.” This can be seen as a driving factor of hers towards that subject.
One thing that Oates is known for is the incredible volume of books she has written. With over 160 novels, not including the many plays, short stories, and poems she has written, it can be easy to see why one of the first questions Donahue asked was about her pacing in writing. Oates replied that she felt that she was writing incredibly slow to her- a statement met by, “Doesn’t your third book this year (2016) come out next week?” from Donahue.
While she writes incredibly fast to some and slow to herself, one of the main points of the conversation was that Oates believes that you cannot write any faster than you are currently writing, psychologically. If it was meant to be written that day, she believes, it would have been, and waiting till the next day to write something can often bring about better ideas than if you forced it the day before.
In relation to teaching, a student from SUNY Albany asked her about how she felt about and dealt with writer’s block. Oates responded with a humorous, “I always saw writers’ block as a very expensive piece of real estate, where Hemingway and the like would live.” She likened her answer to the question back to her thought that people could only write so fast for a reason, and that writing any faster would be missing out on an important part of the creative process.
She also brought into it the structure of a story. By formulating a plan, the structure of how the story would go before writing, she felt it was easier to fill the scenes in afterwards. Another tip that she often gave to her students as well as any other aspiring writers was to be in motion when trying to structure a story- often moving when thinking was helpful to her to structure stories, as it gave her insight into spatial form.
The Creative Life Series is an ongoing project between the New York State Writer’s Institute, the Performing Arts Center, WAMC radio station, and the University Art Museum. There will only be one other conversation this fall, Savion Glover, but more conversations are planned for spring 2017. It is hoped to expand and deepen the collaboration between the three organizations, and to bring more leading figures in varying artistic disciplines to talk about their craft and careers.