The Faith of a Writer--Joyce Carol Oates

For a long time, I've felt an odd affinity to Joyce Carol Oates.  It is odd in the sense that while I do not like most of her stories, I often found myself in love with her prose, which is so mutable and so perfectly attuned to where she is going in her stories.  I've read only a very small portion of her opus (which is of Dostoevskian proportions and makes one wonder about the temporal lobe epilepsy theory).  I found a sort of spiritual home in this book because her view of the writing life, and my own coincide on all major points.

Let's start with an essential:

from "What Sin to Me Unknown"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

Not "realism" (a convention most people believe to be primary) but a kind of "surrealism" is the mode of storytelling that seem to have predated all others. Legends, fairy tales, ballads, the earliest preserved drawings and other works of "primitive" art are not at all realistic but magical, with claims of divine or supernatural origin; of course, they are anonymous. As if, on some dreamlike a level of human consciousness, we are identical and the intrusive "individuality" of more modern times is not yet a problem. As beat and melody underlie the most formally intricate works of poetry, so romance underlies prose fiction, and is perhaps indistinguishable from it. All writers--all artists--may be classified as romantics, for the very act of creating, and of caring passionately enough to create, is a romantic gesture. What begins as child's play ends, not ironically so much as rather wonderfully, as a "vocation," a "calling," a "destiny". . . . But the origins of the impulse remain tantalizingly mysterious. . .

I have sensed that almost all story is surreal in its origins, and, in fact, life is often more surreal than real.  And perhaps that is one helpful diagnostic for a writer's view of the world.  Others might not see it so, but the way a writer looks at the world can be quite atomistic and hence rife with possibility for surrealism.

One quotation I really loved referred to the art and craft of writing:

"One is frequently asked whether the process becomes easier, with the passage of time, and the reply is obvious: Nothing gets easier with the passge of time, not even the passing of time.

And add to that:

"One has only to glance at Chamber Music to see why James Joyce specialized in prose."

A point completely supported by Seamus Heaney.

I could go on to quote passage after passage in these wonderful essays--every point building on the last and confirming entirely the vision I have long held (and experienced) of the writer and his or her world.

from "Notes on Failure"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mystery. It is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life; yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense.

Any dyed-in-the-wool writer will tell you this is so--even those who as yet have not a large published oeuvre in their domain of choice.  NOT to write is not a choice.  Writing is an imperative, as strong as eating, sleeping, breathing.  And when the impulse is not obeyed the consequences can be devastating and far-reaching. We don't write for something to do, we write because we cannot do otherwise--writing IS life.  The world does not make sense--you might liken a writer to a type of autistic person in which all processing must take place through verbalizing in order for the writer to come to terms with it.  As a small example, I often don't know what I think about a work of literature until I sit down to write about it.  For example, I reviewed Rhinoceros the other day, and until I sat down to write the review, I had rather vague thoughts about it being dated and rather worked up.  But in writing, some of the knots of the prose came undone, some of the contextual complexities I was struggling with were made more transparent.  So it is with many aspects of life for a writer.

from "Inspiration!"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

Why the need, rising in some very nearly to the level of compulsion, to verify experience by way of language?--to scrupulously record and preserve the very passing of Time? . . . For Nabokov as for many writers--one might say Boswell, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Flaubert; surely James Joyce--experience itself is not authentic until it has been transcribed by way of language: the writer puts his imprimatur upon his (historic) self by way of writing.

Whether this is true for all writers or not, I cannot say, but it certainly comes close to my experience.  Unless it is found in a journal, poem, or other piece of writing, it is not real, it has no validity in time and it is likely to vanish with all the other unrecorded shades.

I sha'n't go on--I have taken too much of your time, so indulgently given.  But I hope I've given you good cause to read this book--a marvelous, insightful, delightful collection of essays by an author for whom I have tremendous respects but whose oeuvre and worldview often leave me somewhat cold (to put it mildly.)  I have to say that five stars is insufficient an expression for how much I enjoyed this book and how profoundly it spoke to me.

***** Highest possible recommendation to those pursuing the writing life

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