As some of you know, I'm in the throes of earning my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. One of the good things about the process, and there are several, is working our way through the stories by a wide variety of writers that Joyce Carol Oates gathered for Telling Stories; an Anthology for Writers. (New it's $40, but my used copy cost me $8; I highly recommend getting your own copy.) We've been discussing Oates' theories on writing and her reasons for selecting these stories, so of course I was reminded of the time in October of 2010 my daughter took me to hear Joyce Carol Oates read from her work, speak about writing, and answer questions about the craft. I wrote about the evening in my now defunct LiveJournal. Since plans for publishing the leather-bound limited edition of my old posts have hit a snag, I thought I might share the story with you.
My oldest child, Alethea (I wish I had an icon of just her and me together), took me to hear Joyce Carol Oates last night.
"Do you like Joyce Carol Oates?" she asked as preamble to the invitation.
"Joyce Carol Oates, the breakfast of intellectuals?"
"You do know you don't have any grandchildren because I think that's hereditary," my daughter said.
"Does it help that I was quoting someone else?"
At length I was able to convince Alethea that though I've never read one of Oates' novels (thus blowing my creds as a 'serious' reader) I've always liked her short fiction and would love to hear her speak. I even promised to make a passable attempt to control myself in public. Thus, against her better judgment, my daughter took me with her to Keenan Auditorium at UNCW.
The program, which was hosted by the English and Creative Writing Departments of UNC Wilmington, consisted of Oates standing on a bare stage behind a simple lectern and talking for a bit about her life as a writer and the craft of writing, then reading one of her stories, then answering questions that had been submitted in advance by creative writing students to be read in stilted academic tones by an English professor. There was a reception of sorts and a book signing after, but the poor woman was so mobbed we did not stick around for the chance to say what everyone else was no doubt saying about appreciating the honor of meeting her.
I decided I liked Oates herself when she walked out on stage. Her blouse was teal, UNCW's primary color; a nice gesture toward her hosts. And she was carrying her purse – a largish, practical sort of bag – as though it hadn't occurred to her to ask someone to hold it and she was too conscientious to leave it lying about. She plopped the bag matter-of-factly on the lectern and pulled out the rolled pages from which she would later read before taking a moment to regard the audience with evident pleasure.
"This is exciting," she began. "I spend most of my life alone in my study obsessed, as all writers are, with structure or this or that or some other aspect of whatever I'm working on with only my cat, who is never impressed with me. So whenever I'm out in public and get to see real people who seem genuinely interested in me and what I have to say I'm always a bit giddy."
She spoke for a while about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction. (Simplistic summary: Nonfiction conveys information while fiction conveys knowledge.) She told us it was impossible to ever say what a story meant; you can recount the events, but to be understood the story must be experienced. She used Shakespeare's "King Lear" as an example. She spoke of the differences between art from the heart, such as van Gogh's rich oils, and art from the intellect, which she called 'calibrated,' using James Joyce as an example. Anecdotes connected and illustrated these points. As she spoke she would occasionally make languid gestures that did not always seem to correspond with her words, as though directing our attention toward distant objects. My thought is she was indicating where these ideas she was sharing with us lay in the landscape of her mind.
The story she read was "Pumpkin-Head," the opening piece of her new anthology Sourland. It is a brutal tale – a story of brutal events that is equally brutal to the reader's expectations and emotions – Alethea and I were riveted by Oates' quiet, compelling reading. She lightly affected the accents of her characters, indicating without belaboring the differences in heritage and social status. The description of the violence was surreal in its poesy – the victim of sexual assault distancing herself internally from the event even as it was happening made more immediate through Oates' voice. (In discussing the story after the fact, Oates said that neither of the characters was wholly good or wholly bad. I understand her point, but gotta say I think one was a lot badder than the other.) Sourland is on my buy list.
One of the student's question asked her to explain or expand upon a quote of hers about writing. "Did I say that?" Oates asked. "I've been around forever and have been talking most of that time. I've said just about everything at one time or another. I have no idea what I meant by that."
Another student challenged her to defend Rape: A Love Story, which she did ably. However based on Oates' summary of the plot, it's not on my read list. I would get too angry and I've got to watch my heart rate these days.
Of interest to me was her response to a question about the characters in the story telling the story in their own voice. Oates quickly dismissed the notion of a story's characters being somehow out of the writer's control, speaking their own minds and finding their way self-directed through the plot. However, she emphasized, it is the writer's obligation to find each character's voice. She said one of the most damning criticisms is to have a reader say all of your characters sound the same; it means you as a writer did not take the time to understand who you were writing about.
Then, to preface or frame her point, Oates described her own upbringing. Her family had been working class and often below working class – aspiring only to have sufficient employment to provide for their own needs. She was the first in her family to not drop out to find a job to help the family, the first to complete high school. This opportunity and the experiences this opportunity made possible enabled her to become an intellectual. But through her background, her life, she knows that intellectualism has nothing to do with intelligence; intellectualism is just a manner of organizing thought. The wisdom of others is no less real because they lack the tools to compare and contrast or construct and defend a formal thesis. The writer is by nature an intellectual because the writing process, done well, is an intellectual process – a craft of carefully calibrated choices. Sometimes you are aware of the calibration process and make deliberate choices going in, other times the process is more organic, but even at its most organic it is still a deliberate intellectual act. As a writer to find the voice of your character, particularly if your character is not an intellectual, or even intelligent in the formal sense, you have to respect the wisdom of the character; respect who they are. Then as a writer you have to find a voice that is somewhere between their own 'unintellectual' thoughts and nature and self-expression and your own intellectual, calibrated writing process.
The craft, Oates said, is in using your writing skills to give your characters their own voice so they can speak as themselves.