Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living | The Tim Ferriss Show | Transcription
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Well hello boys and girls, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job, my privilege to attempt to deconstruct world-class performers from all different fields. My guest today is a writing icon, Joyce Carol Oates. Joyce Carol Oates is the author of novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers, We Were The Mulvaney's Blonde and A Widow's Story. Among her many honors are the National Book Award, the Pan-America Award, the National Humanities Medal, the 2019 Jerusalem Prize, and the 2020 Sino Del Duca World Prize for Literature. Oates is the Roger S. Berland Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. So that is the approved bio. There are a few other things I would like to say though, because I think Joyce certainly is prone to understandably understating her prodigious talents. She is published, and again this is getting into semi-non-fact check territory, but I think I do have most of these rights. She has published around 60 novels, not to mention all the other formats and genres. She is so prolific that in her Wikipedia entry there is a separate entry just for her bibliography to give you an idea. So Joyce Carol Oates Bibliography is its own gigantic page. Her first book was published in 1963, and I have read at least from two sources that on average she has had two pieces of her work published per year since. Just let that sink in. Three of her novels in two short story collections, if I am getting it right, were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and her work is incredible. This is just an endlessly impressive woman, endlessly impressive human, endlessly impressive writer and teacher, and with all of that preamble, please enjoy this wide ranging conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. One very quick note, we had some Wi-Fi connectivity issues for the first 10 minutes or so, so please bear with us as we work through that, and then we were able to change a few things and improve it dramatically. So might be a little bit of touch and go in the beginning, but if you stick with it, we'll get to smooth audio pretty soon thereafter. This episode is brought to you by Peak T. That's P-I-Q-U-E. I have had so much T in my life. I've been to China. I've lived in China. In Japan, I've done tea tours. I drink a lot of tea. And 10 years plus of physical experimentation and tracking has shown me many things, chief among them that gut health is critical to just about everything, and you'll see where tea is going to tie into this. 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I wanted to start with a name that will be familiar and that's Jonathan Safran for, former student of yours, now a colleague of yours, who also happened to be in my same class, I believe, of the class of '99 at Princeton as an undergrad.
Discussions On Writing Skills And Influences
On the importance of energy. (07:05)
And you wrote him a letter, perhaps his parents at some point, but the way that he recalls it, there's a specific line that I wanted to ask you about and we can take it any direction you would like. And the line is this, quote, "You appear to have very strong and promising talent coupled with that most important of right early qualities, energy." And he then later has come to strongly agree with that. And man is she right, energy is the most important right early quality. Could you expand on what you mean by that? I think it's sort of self-evident. We need a good deal of energy to be a creator. We need a good deal of spirit and kind of optimism. I think of his kind of positive delusions or illusions about the worth of what we're doing. I was reading biography of Walker Evans, his very distinguished early 20th century photographer. And Walker Evans is my point that he would be asked like, "Why is he doing this? Who's his audience?" And he said that he wasn't thinking of that. He was thinking of the pleasure of the camera and seeing where it led him. And I think that's true of all created effort, that there's a kind of spirit or like a flame. It leads us somewhere to tell the story. It could be an entire novel to paint a painting of something extraordinary that's never been done before. And beyond that is just the fuel that is the sheer pleasure in creativity, which is energy. And the opposite of that I think is being interrupted many times in situations professional or familial, where one is interrupted and one's energy is drained off in different directions so that we don't have the concentration that we need. That is really the great enemy of creativity. If we're looking at maybe enemies, it wouldn't be the right label in the way that I'm going to use it. But obstacles as would-be writers perceive them. I'd like to speak to getting started.
Overcoming the difficulties of starting a writing project. (09:34)
So a writer friend of yours, I think with the initials LM you described is having remarked that she'd like to be married and not get married. And in other words, and I'll take some liberty here, but not to find the perimeter, the parameters, go through the growing pains of those first few years, but to be sort of settled in the existence of being married. And you liken to that to creative projects and writing. How do you overcome the difficulties or advise that students overcome the difficulties in starting a given writing project? You could choose the genre. Well, I think we're all very different. Some people have a good deal of energy and excitement in the beginning, and they can stay up all night long and working on a novel. No writing a complete short story. I think as we get older, we sort of regard our energy differently. We don't quite stay up all night working, but parcel it out in a more reasonable way. So it does depend upon who the person is. I have writing students have a good deal of energy, but I have others who have been working on one project for some time, and so they're kind of focusing their energy. But as I said, the one, the great adversary is being interrupted and distracted. So distraction is our main adversary right now. I think in contemporary America, in the world of the internet and cell phones, at the moment, we have a kind of toxic political situation that's very draining of goodwill. So all these distractions make it difficult to concentrate. When you look back at your own creative process, I've read, I don't know if it was in the Paris Review, it could have been or elsewhere in this series called the Art of Fiction, that you need the title. And I want to say last line before you being in writing. Was that true or is there any truth to that? Was there at some point? Oh, yes. I need to see the ending of the novel. I need to see it in a kind of cinematic way, to sort of envision it. And then I usually have some words to go with that. And I really need a beginning and an end. And I need a title. The title is what brings it all together. It's sort of like a triangular shape. So the title will give you a sense of what the totality is. The beginning, obviously, is the precipitating factor of the story should be in the first line. And then everything is a consequence of that. And then the ending is the ending, which has been, you're moving toward that ending from page 19 or 99 or 199, you're moving toward that inexorable ending.
The importance of titles. (12:26)
So you have a destination. That is an ideal way of writing. It may not be possible for everybody. Some people like E.L. Doctor or my friend and Doctor, he said that he never knew how his novels were going to end. He thought it was like a car trip. He was driving along a road, and he didn't really know where he was going. But I'm not like that. How much do you think about structures? If you have the beginning and the end, and the title, even if it's a placeholder, I guess two questions, do the titles often change after you've decided upon what you think it might be? And then the second is, how do you think about or how much do you think about the structure once you have those initial points in place? The title could definitely be changed. It would probably be an equivalent title, something that was the same tone and the same symbolism, but maybe a different word. I have changed titles a few times. Ideally, if you have the title first, then you have a vision. So until you work out the structure of a long work, it's not a good idea to begin in. However, I have begun and I have made mistakes that I had to correct as I went on. So much of writing, like I think it's exploratory, we don't always know what we're going to do. But ideally, if you have an outline and a sense of where you're going, it's much easier. I spend a lot of time running and walking. Every day I go walking or I love to run. And when I'm running, I think of my writing in structural terms, have a spatial sense. So if I don't go running every day, my writing doesn't work as well.
Running and thinking. (14:42)
It really depends upon this kinetic release and energy. Could you speak more to that? Is it an active thinking about or considering of the writing? Or is it moving the body and letting thematically, loosely, let's just say in the case of structure, pointed consciousness, just kind of bubble up in the process of movement. Could you just speak to running and walking? Because I know it seems to have been a huge part of your life. What about you? Are you a runner? I used to run. I used to run. I do a lot of walking. So I walk and swim in bike. I try to walk at least a few hours a day. So I walk a lot. This is saying there's a hill near, I live in a semi-row area. There's a hill near where I live, a country road at the top of the hill. I've gotten so many ideas. I ran over there. It must have about a mile or maybe a mile and a half. So it's like waiting for me on top of that hill would be some idea. Now, that's obviously a mystical superstitious notion on my part. Yet it seems to happen quite often. So if I'm stuck on a, trying to work out a plot at my desk, I'm sitting right now at my desk, I really can't work it out here. I have to go somewhere else, preferably at the baby on a hill. And I need to be alone with my thoughts. Let's talk about once you have set foot into this exploratory process of writing, even if you have some landmarks laid out ahead of time, let's just say the beginning and the end. Actually, before I hop to that, I'm going to ask you about revision. But when you say you have an idea of where it ends or you know the ending, is it just a concept? Is it finished prose? Is it a finished page? Is it a paragraph? What does knowing the end look like concretely? It's pretty definite. It's like knowing you get in your car and you go to drive to San Francisco and you want to go to San Francisco, you don't want to wind up in Salt Lake City or somewhere in Montana, you're aiming your vehicle for a destination. So it's just sensible to plan that ahead of time. If we look at then charting this path and going from point A beginning to ultimately Z the end, San Francisco, like you said, when you have an initial draft, I've read that you're strongly in favor. This is quote, strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is or certainly should be an art in itself.
An unabashed love of revision. (17:31)
How do you describe the revision process to students? Well, I think a revision is so much fun. It's so exciting. To me, the first draft is like material. And then the second draft, the revision is my use of that material. And so subsequent revision, I revise all the time. I'm revising a novel now. I don't even know how many times I've gone through it. I tend to write the first chapters over and over and over again. And the second chapter is over again. Then as I go on, then the novel, I get more momentum. So I'm going forward a little more fluently. But yet when I come to my desk in the morning, I definitely always revise what I did the day before. And then I get a little momentum moving forward again. But the revision is really like 99% of art, I think. There have been very few artists who don't revise or visual artists may make sketches. They may do several variants of the same scene. And apart from a very small number of composers, just could compose sort of in their heads like Mozart. And I guess Chopin sometimes. But then Chopin would work on what he had. He would work on it anyway and revise it. But I think Mozart was probably the most spontaneous creator. But almost nobody's like that. I mean, Beethoven worked very hard revising. And just about everybody that I've ever heard of. Let's speak to the revision process. I would love to hear in more specifics if you're able what you're looking for, what you're looking to take out when you revise. And it is, I'm sure, second nature at this point to the extent that maybe it's hard to describe. But I'll give an example. Some authors or writers look to say first of all, most remove anything that is confusing. They could be confusing, right? Or that is unclear. Or they ask proofreaders to help them and ask them to indicate if they had to cut 10% or 20% what they would cut. That's involving other people.
Realism versus surrealism in writing and the unconscious (20:08)
But in your case, when you sit down to revise, could you walk us through any of the lenses you use to look at that draft or the questions you ask yourself as you're going through? Is there any level of specifics that you might be able to offer? Well, it does depend upon the manuscript. For instance, if I'm working in a Gothic mode or a surreal mode, it's a different voice from sociological realism. Sometimes my writing is social realism. And everything in the novel is authentic. It really happened in some way. If you go to that city, you can walk around and see those streets. There's a certain pleasure in that verisimilitude of the actual world. James Joyce, who was in many ways a surrealist writer, nonetheless, he believed in the beauty and sanctity of the actual so that one can walk and double and sort of walk through the day of Ulysses. And that's one way of writing. There's a poetry in realism. There's a beauty in just in things as they are. However, half of our, maybe more than half of our lives are spent in dreams and the unconscious. So that's a surreal landscape. Every night we sleep and the perimeters of realism are dissolved with great extravagant energy, I think, and all sorts of images and improbable things sweep into our minds when we're dreaming. So I like to write in a surreal mode too. And if I'm revising the book of fiction at surreal, I consider that so very exciting because each time I sit down to write or to revise, I will get some goldings, some nudging, some hints, something surfacing from the unconscious so that a sentence that may be relatively simple by the time I revise, it might be a full page long because something else is pushing at it or pulling at it. It's like an octopus with many, many legs or limbs or arms or anyway, the pull of the unconscious, I think, is very powerful. And the more we can let that fuel what we're doing, the more potent it is. Also, the more enjoyable for the writer.
Nabokov, Alice Munro, John Irving, and Jonathan Safran Foer (22:49)
Jumping back to Jonathan, Safran Fower for a moment, it's on a website called Identity Theory. It probably appears elsewhere. But he mentioned that you gave him a reading list. And I don't expect you to remember necessarily the exact books or pieces of work that you recommended that he read. But do you have any recollection of how you chose what you did? Well, as I remembered, when Jonathan was very young, he made just a better freshman at Princeton. He was already an experimental writer and artist. As you probably know, his first book was Joseph Cornell Compendium, which he brought together, which is most unusual for a young person to bring together, work by older people. Most young writers write their first novel, which is very autobiographical. But Jonathan did not do that. He went in a slightly different way. So I saw in him an experimental personality. And I like that myself. But most young writers should not be experimenting. They should just write what they want to write. They may want to write about their parents, they might write about their girlfriend or boyfriend, and something in the first person that's funny, you know, that's drole or witty. They may want to write some satire. But by no means should they try to be experimental because they're not ready for it. Whereas Jonathan, I think, was never really that interested in replicating the actual world. He was more interested in experimenting with the medium of writing, which is words. Now, I know that later on, he has written much more realistic. He's done autobiographical work. He's written pretty transparently, I think, about his own life and about his marriage and family life. So, I mean, he has done it in different kinds of writing. But because he had an experimental personality, I probably gave him some, I probably gave him Kafka to read. I remember exactly what it would have been. I want to stick with Jonathan, just one more question, and then move into some different areas. But Jonathan also mentioned, and I'm paraphrasing here, that you were the first person to take him seriously, and that you recognized there was such a thing as his writing, his work, so to speak, that he had a body of work and development that had never occurred to him. When did you personally first have that feeling about your own writing? All about my own writing? About your own writing. No, I probably never had that feeling. I did have teachers who singled me out and said very nice things to me, and I had a professor at Syracuse, who even read a letter to my parents. And because he did that, I did that for Jonathan also. I always remember that it was a very short, beautiful letter, just that Joyce is a born writer, and she should be encouraged. I can't remember the details of it, and I don't know if the letter even exists anymore. I hope it's somewhere. So I thought that I would do that, you know, when Jonathan came along, I wrote to his parents. Now, I don't remember exactly what I said, but mimicked that original letter. So maybe Jonathan will write a letter or has written. Maybe it's just something we should, a tradition we should carry on, but not overdue. So I have not actually done it since. Just one. It's quite an honor to bestow upon Jonathan. He's a very skilled writer. Just a quick thanks to one of our sponsors, and we'll be right back to the show. This episode is brought to you by Shipstation. The holiday season is fast approaching, and we know the people will be buying more stuff online than ever before. All of these trends to e-commerce have been accelerated due to COVID and much more. If you're an e-commerce seller, are you ready to meet the demands of record-breaking online shopping season? Be ready with Shipstation. Shipstation.com is the fastest, easiest, and most affordable way to manage and ship your orders. In just a few clicks, you're managing orders, printing out discounted shipping labels, and getting your products out fast. Happy holidays for you and your customers. Shipstation takes the hassle out of holiday shipping. No matter where you're selling on Amazon, Etsy, your website via Shopify or other platforms, Shipstation brings all of your orders into one simple interface. Shipstation works with all of the major carriers, USPS, FedEx, UPS, even international. You can compare and choose the best shipping solution every time, and you can access the same postage discounts that are usually reserved for large Fortune 500 companies. It's no wonder that Shipstation is the number one choice of online sellers. And right now, my listeners, that's you guys, can try Shipstation free for 60 days when you use offer code TIM. Just go to the homepage, shipstation.com, click on the microphone at the top of the homepage and type in TIM-T-I-M. That's it. Go to shipstation.com, then enter offer code TIM.
Gaytals first book age 22 and the power of encouragement (28:10)
Shipstation.com, make ship happen. As I understand it, you're, and please correct me if I'm getting the details here wrong, but your first book was published in 1963 by the Northgate, which was a collection of short stories. Was that impactful or important to you, or was just the act of writing and the fact that you are so continuously writing, more engaging, more important than that type of milestone would be for many writers. How did that affect you if at all? Oh, of course, it was very profound. I was just a very young writer. I had had a number of stories in the best American short stories and the old Henry Awards. So I had been published in magazines, and then some of the stories were anthologized. So the next step would be a book, and it came when I was about, I don't know, I was about 22 years old, I think, when I received notice that my manuscripts had been accepted. So I called my husband at the time, Ray Smith, and told him about this. He was at university, and I was at home, and I was absolutely disbelieving. I mean, I was so happy. I was overwhelmed. I could hardly believe it. And it was, of course, a milestone. It's tremendously encouraging. I had been encouraged earlier in preceding years by various publications or winning an award or something. So I've had been encouraged. I tried to encourage younger writers, too. I've endowed a number of awards, fiction awards at different universities for young writers.
How to foster young writers (30:04)
How do you encourage young writers in your classroom? And that might sound like a strange question, but you've had a lot of trial and error, or maybe just lots of trial. I don't know. Maybe it's mostly success. You've certainly been able to, I'm sure, test a lot of things in the classroom. You've been able to see what students go on to do or how they gravitate to the craft of writing or not. What have you found most important or impactful in terms of cultivating and encouraging young writers? Most writers who are in my workshop have already been writing for a while, especially at NYU, they're graduate writers, graduate student. So they know what they're doing, and they have a project, and they have their own stories based on their own lives experience, imagination. So I'm a good reader. I'm a sympathetic reader and editor for what they're writing. I don't tell them what to write. We have a workshop situation where everybody critiques a submission for the day. Everyone has an opinion. We have a conversation. So it really isn't just a professor. I have opinion, and everybody else does too, so that a writer, a young writer might feel well. They liked what I wrote, but they didn't quite stay in there, or they thought it should be longer, or they thought it was too long. It's a kind of consensus of editorial suggestions in a typical writing workshop. I mainly see my role as being a very sympathetic and careful reader. What does it mean to be a sympathetic reader? Well, I'm not critical or judgmental. I'm on the side of the writer. I want to see what they've done. I mean, in other years, like in the decades past, there were male professors who told women writers that their subject matter wasn't literary. I mean, even had a well-known women writers who went on to become famous, and when the Pulitzer Prize, they were discouraged by some of these remarks. I would never think that, and I would never say those things. I don't consider anything that subject for fiction if it's treated well. I try to get writers to write about what they really care about.
Be a sympathetic reader and work begets mood (32:31)
I read a beautiful line from you describing a certain aspect of your creative process, and this is from the parish review, the Art of Fiction #72. "One must be pitiless about this matter of mood, in a sense the writing will create the mood." You continue to say later in that same paragraph, "I've forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I felt my solace, then as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes, and somehow the activity of writing changes everything." Could you expand on any of this? I think it's pretty well put, but I know that there are a lot of people who feel they need to get themselves into the mood to write. Is there anything else you could add to this? No, I definitely feel that you create your mood by working, and I have a sort of work ethic. I come from the part of the world where people did work rather than just talk about it. If you feel that you just can't write, or you're too tired, or this, that, and the other, just stop thinking about it and go and work. Life doesn't have to be so overthought. We don't have to wait to be inspired. Just start working, particularly, I think first go for our long run and a nice walk, and think about what you're going to do. Come home and start working, but try not to be interrupted. That's the problem. Most people are living in families, or they're living with a partner, and the other person has a schedule and expectations, and while you may love your family, they can be the ones who drain your of energy. For women, that's always been a problem. Women aren't nurturing. There's nothing wrong with that, but women find it very hard to say no. Women writers are always being asked to do things pro-bono, to volunteer their time, to do different things, to read manuscripts, to be on committees, and so forth. The instinct is really to say yes, and I say yes to lots of these things, but it's really, if you are careful, custoding of your own time, like Philip Roth, for instance, or Flowbear, you would never give away a whole lot of your time. Philip Roth would never, he wouldn't do one hundredth of the things that I do. He was too smart. He knew how to take care of you, to guard his own privacy.
Working on multiple writing projects (34:58)
Do you tend to work on multiple projects at a time, or when you're immersed, I've heard you describe being immersed in a project, and as soon as you finish a novel, you get assaulted by all of these new ideas. Do you ever work on multiple projects at the same time? No, I usually focus on my energy on one project, but I'm working on a novel right now, but I'm taking a little time off to write a review of a biography for the TLS, and I'm also writing an introduction to a new edition of Dostoevsky's short stories, so I'm taking time off from the novel. And then if I'm doing copy editing for, I've been going through a copy edited manuscript for another book that's coming out, I'll take a week off from my novel to work on that. Part of the reason I ask is I came across a comment in the Guardian, and this is not only in the Guardian, this is certainly something I've come across a few different times when doing homework for this conversation, and that is something along the lines in different places.
Why Gay has no anxiety around writing, compared to playing piano on a stage (35:49)
The quote, "I don't have any anxiety about writing." Not really. It's such a pleasure, and our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering. That's from the Guardian. Could you speak more to that? Again, I know it's self-evident on one hand, but also an uncommon contrast to a lot of lamentations and descriptions of anxiety around writing by other people, difficulties writing, writer's block, etc. Could you expand on not having anxiety around writing? Well, I just don't have it. If I did, I won't think I would want to be a writer. I would have tremendous anxiety if I were performing artists like a pianist, and I had to give a recital. I would be overwhelmed with anxiety. At least I think I would be. I suppose by practicing every day, by playing three, four hours every day, you'll get to a point where the technique is just totally internalized, and you don't have to think about it. I would be anxious if I were an athlete competing with other athletes in real time with people watching. I would find that immensely anxiety provoking, but writing or painting or drawing, these arts are done on their own time. You can take as long as you want. Nobody's watching you, nobody cares either. It's a very different medium. As I said, I find anxiety producing to even imagine playing piano in front of an audience.
Writing Factors And Tips
The difference between playing music onstage and writing (37:49)
I did that once. I took piano lessons for quite a while for about 11 years, and I was playing. I would be the student who played the piano when the students marched into the assembly in my middle school. I actually did this, and it wasn't too bad. Being on a stage performing in front of people who know the music, I always just find that overwhelming and terrifying. Is it the real time that's my dog barking in the background if if you can hear that? Is it the real-time nature of that, the necessity to deliver in front of an audience in real time versus being able to take your time without people really necessarily paying attention or caring? Is that the largest distinction between those two? Oh, yes. But some pages in my novels, I've rewritten so many times. There would not be any one time that anyone could watch anything like that. I think when really good professional musicians are playing, they're probably replicating what they've done before. I know actors almost exactly and precisely do the same the same performance night after night. It's internalizing their brains, and they just have to go through it another time. But with writing, every time I look at a page, I can revise it. There has to come an end to this. Eventually, you just have to stop doing it. But in theory, James Joyce could still be working on Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, because he was like that. He was experimental. And every morning, you wake up with some new ideas, and you could write another novel. The whole different novel would come out of your mood that morning. But we can't allow ourselves to do that. That's just too fantastical. How do you decide when something is done or when you need to stop, because you could just continue otherwise indefinitely? I try to use common sense. I'm going through a novel now that I've gone through probably 10 times. It's in the computer. So, I go through, I scroll through it, and I'm still changing sentences. I'm taking out paragraphs, I'm moving things around. But this has got to be the last time because the novel's coming out in August. So, the time is that I've been working at it for a year off and on, and it has metamorpho is quite a bit from the beginning. The main structure was always there, and the main character is but the sentences always change. But I'll be done with that by Monday so that I'll send that to my editor. And I'm not going to change that anymore.
The meaning behind Joyce's list of ten writing tips (40:51)
I'm looking at 10 tips of yours for writing. I believe these were originally tweets at one point. Like I mentioned, a list of 10. I want to ask about a few of these. And if any of these are incorrect, please correct me. Number one is write your heart out. Number four is keep in mind Oscar Wilde. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. And then it goes on. But could you explain why the Oscar Wilde quote? About sincerity? Well, he's being funny. I think he's requiring against the kind of deadpan overwhelming boring rectitude that one encountered in the Victorian world where literature was seen as a vessel for ethics and for morality. So, it's a lot of preaching. There used to be a good deal of preaching and didacticism in prose fiction. And he was probably relating to that. So, that kind of sincerity is just very boring. I mean, one doesn't want to hear much of that. Literature should be interesting. I think it should be dramatic and characters should be colorful and unusual. And each sentence should be as original as possible. And then write your heart out is something that Bernard Mulliman said. I'm really quoting him. It's just right, you know, right and right and right and don't hold that. So, Joyce, I would love to ask you about a few more of these.
Why you're writing for your contemporaries (not posterity) (42:30)
And then we can move on. The number three in this talk 10 list is you're writing for your contemporaries and not for posterity. If you're lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity. Could you expand on that, please? This is probably aimed for people who were English majors and who were reading the great classics. You know, if you're reading Paradise Lost or Great Place of Shakespeare or Middle March or Ulysses, you're overwhelmed. Those audiences also no longer exist. So, you're writing for your own time. You're writing for your own generation usually. Maybe people a little older than you are and then people younger than you are. But basically, the audience that revered Paradise Lost is long gone. So, this probably doesn't even have to be told to people in your 2021. That's mainly it. That you're writing for your own time. Sometimes people are writing to impress a parent. Sometimes people are trying to be outstanding and distinguished to impress someone who's not even living any longer. It could be a parent. You know, people have many unconscious motives. But this can be impediments. And I think there's a natural voice.
Common creative impediments (43:51)
If you think back on your own experiences as a writer, are there any impediments short-lived or long-lived that come to mind for you? Well, I think it was a little self-conscious in the beginning to write very freely and openly because my parents would read what I wrote. So, I may have been a little inhibited, but I tried. I definitely tried to overcome that or to ignore it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to be a writer. But I did begin writing under different names. One name was J.C. Smith. So, I had married Raymond Smith. So, I used J.C. Smith as a name for a while. And I was J.C. Oates, which is not necessarily a woman, kind of an Androgynous person. And finally, just settled on Joyce Carol Oates. Though for a while, I had a couple of pseudonyms, but they were women. They were women's names. And why did you decide to use the pseudonyms? Was that to sort of preempt any type of criticism directed at you? Was it a creative exercise? Did it give you more liberty in your own mind to push to the edges? Why did you use the pseudonyms? The first pseudonym was Rosamund Smith. And I had probably been writing about 20 years. So, I wanted to embark upon a new voice with a different focus. These were more suspense novels rather like movies, cinematic in movement and structure. Without much exposition or background, not as much description. Each chapter, seen in a movie, moving forward, these were tonally different. And so, I just wanted to have an outlet for a sort of a man to writing that wasn't so much in the mainstream or my usual writing, my conventional, or whatever my own writing is. It's a little more main, maybe mainstream. And this was more like suspense, psychological suspense, novels. Number eight on these top ten lists. This will be the last one on the list that I'd love to hear you expand on. And it is don't try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist, but is reading someone else. What does don't try to anticipate an ideal reader? Well, I think it's pretty self-evident. Just there's an integrity to the work. You have to express the work. And you shouldn't be curtailing it or shaping it to impress some person.
Being a slave to your creative voice vs. an audience (46:34)
So, when you write, you do not have any reader in mind. It is really just a creative process for you and you alone. Well, the work itself has its own integrity. You have to express the work. Each work is different. I mean, if you think of one novel of mine, they're all really quite different from one another. They're totally different and the voices tend to be different. They're different in each novel. So, there will be no way that I could be writing for one audience. I'm not really thinking of an audience. Can you suggest any one novel of mine that you've read that you might have a particular question about the tone or the voice? Because I can't think so much in abstract terms. Sure. Yeah. No, it was more a question of when you work on any given piece if you ever think of who is targeted towards. Not necessarily curtailing your creative boundaries, so to speak. I think of it in contrast to something I know I'm much more familiar with, which is nonfiction. Fiction, I really have no experience with whatsoever, but in the world of fiction, thinking about just as an example, what levels of expertise you assume in your audience as a way of determining how much terminology you need to explain or omit or include to make it compelling. I guess this makes me think of, say, John McPhee writing about geology.
Writing for different audiences. (48:08)
It'd be very easy to lose the reader depending on how close you zoom in on some of the details of something like that. So, it was really just a broader question. Now, let me talk about that. You see, you've just suggested a particular work. He wrote that for The New Yorker. He was working with William Sean, who was an editor who wanted many, many details and everything had to be very authentic. The fact, checking at The New Yorker is famous. They're very, very careful. John McPhee writing for The New Yorker, he would write a certain kind of work. If he were writing for a TV guide or a Time Magazine or The New York Times Book Review, it would have been very different. That's a good example of nonfiction of aiming for a particular market. So, John McPhee would be given the whole issue of The New Yorker for one of his long nonfiction pieces. It was tailored for that magazine. Then they all became books. Some of John McPhee's essays are really classics. They're wonderful. Writing for The New Yorker for him was perfect. Somebody else may be writing for a pulp magazine. One is criticized for having a complex sentence structure. But when John McPhee was writing for The New Yorker and other people write for The New Yorker for nonfiction, and I have written for The New Yorker reviews and essays, you definitely are aiming for a certain kind of reader. But that's a little different from fiction. Fiction is in its own world and has its own voice. And I don't usually think of there being a particular audience for fiction. How do you give assignments or think about giving assignments to students? Well, I can reach in my drawer and look at some of these assignments. I've always given assignments to introductory writers. So, I teach on different levels. I'm teaching advanced fiction at Rutgers this semester. And I taught in a graduate writing program at NYU and they're all older students. But at Princeton, sometimes I have taught introductory writers. So, I give them assignments. They want assignments. They're very happy to have assignments. And the assignments really work very well. I'll see if I can find some and just read some. Perfect. We have a textbook. And so, I assign stories for them to read. And for instance, one assignment is to write, to introduce a character, to read a number of stories which I have assigned. And then the theology might be a story by Margaret Atwood or a story by James Joyce, William Faulkner. And then to write just a page where they're introducing a character. And then at the end of the introduction, they have the character say something. So, that's not really a story. They don't have to worry. They don't have to worry about writing a story. They're just doing something very basic. And then in another assignment, I have them write a piece that's like a memoir. I'm very sure it doesn't have to be a literal memoir. But it's like a memoir, like something that happened when I was six years old, when I was 10 years old last week. Then another assignment which is very difficult for the students. And I often don't give it unless I think the students are up to it. It's a mimicry of prose style. First example is to write a few pages in the style of Hemingway. And then write the same story again, the same material again, in the style of Jack Kerouac. And then finally in the style of HP Lovecraft. Now that's an assignment, as I said, I don't always give because it's demoralizing for some students. They just cannot do it. So I didn't give it recently. I probably gave it a couple of years ago. When I have good students, that's assignments terrific. They really enjoy mimicking Hemingway and writing a little Hemingway short story. And they really enjoy Jack Kerouac. And they find love craft very challenging. But it's sort of like with music, if you have gifted pianists, you could give them assignments and they will do well. Others are just hopeless and demoralized. So I try to measure the assignments according to the aptitude of the students. But then one assignment that I always give, the last assignment in the course will be to write a short story that turns upon moral decision, some ethical or moral decision in somebody's life. And they do very well with that. Young people have a natural moral instinct and they're interested in morality. And they want to know what's right and what's wrong. And I have other assignments too. I mean, many different assignments. And while one of them, I did recently at UC Burke, we read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." And instead of writing a critique of the story, I said, if you want to, you can write a little story from the point of view of one of the characters in the lottery, a minor character. And so they did wonderfully with that. How much of your writing have you, for lack of a better term, thrown away, finished writing could be a short story, could be a poem, could be anything, or never looked at once you finished it, unpublished. I'd come across mention of, I believe you, sort of tucking away or getting rid of a fair amount of at least your early work. Do you have any guess on or commentary on how much of your finished work never gets shown to anyone else? Well, now I probably publish everything that I do. When I was younger and had more material, sometimes I just didn't like something and I would take it out of circulation. Now, in the other room, I could show you a huge stack of short stories. And those are stories that were published in magazines, but I never gathered them into a book. Those go back for years. And maybe one or two of them even won some award, like the Oh, had me award. But I never felt that I really wanted to put them into a hardcover collection for one reason or another. I'm not sure why, but there they are. There are many of them there, I mean, about 300, 400 pages. There are never been published. This is also a segue and really just have a handful of additional questions I could keep going, but I think just a few more would be really fun for me.
Joyce'S Inspirations And Recommendations
Inspired by D.H. Lawrence and Shakespeare. (55:22)
This leads to a question about productivity or it's really a question about a comment that I've read of yours on productivity. And that is productivity. Quote, productivity is a relative matter and it's really insignificant. What is ultimately important is a writer's strongest books. It may be the case that we almost write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones, just as the young writer or put, might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one. Do you have any additional comments on the relationship between volume of writing and enduring quality? Or if you want to take that question in different direction, you could as well. But do you have any thoughts, thoughts to add to that? Well, it's inevitable if a number of books, some books have come to seem traditionally more important than others. That is inevitable. If Deitch Lawrence wrote a good deal, he's a brilliant short story writer, but probably only a few of his short stories tend to be anthologized, over and over, same with Faulkner. And with Hemingway too, Hemingway wrote many, many short stories, but you'll see the same two or three or four stories reprinted quite a bit. There are probably Jane Austen novels that are no pride and prejudice and Emma. And then you get to Mansfield Park, not as many people would read that. Same with Shakespeare, measure for measure, just not as popular as Hamlet. It's not as important a play, but it has wonderful things in it. Try this in cressidos of fascinating play of Shakespeare. But if you're only going to teach two or three plays of Shakespeare, you would not be teaching Troilus and Cressida. You would be teaching Macbeth and Lear and Hamlet and maybe a Thalwell, those are the ones that come to the surface. But the other plays of Shakespeare, I mean, every one of them, even Titus and Dronicus, they have much to them. He is always a very remarkable playwright. So if I've written 50 novels, not all 50 novels are going to be admired by everyone or by anyone, that's just not the way it is. So some things just seem to come to the surface. And maybe there's a perversity somebody might prefer Faulkner's, the Hamlet to Faulkner's the sound and the fury. They might prefer sanctuary to light in August. But again, with Faulkner, he wrote a lot. And some of it is considered the most important writing in American literature in the 20th century, but usually just two or three or four titles. You have an incredible body of work, novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, criticism.
Recommended starting points for readers new to Joyce's books. (58:00)
I mean, the list is extensive, the number of publications, even more so. For someone listening, if they have no familiarity with your work, do you have any recommended starting points? I know that you could probably just as easily pick any number of different pieces of your work. But are there any that come to mind offhand as places if people want to get an idea and appreciation for the range of your work? Well, of course, that depends upon what they're looking for. I have a long novel called Blahn, which is about the private life, really, the interior life of Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean Baker, the person who became Marilyn Monroe. But that novel is about 800 pages long. And so some people might feel that's just too long. That's one of my favorite novels of my own. But then I have novellas that are only like 180 pages long. Pursuit is a new novel that came out last year. It's really almost like a novella. It's a short novel. It's probably only about 200 pages. That's a novel that's more like a suspense, psychological suspense novel, so that it's a mystery. And you're not really sure what has happened until the very end. So if somebody might prefer a much shorter novel that's driven by a plot, Blahn, which is about Marilyn Monroe, is not really driven by a plot. It's her life. Her complete life. I've selected details from her life. But the main parts of Marilyn Monroe's life are treated in great detail in that novel. And then I have an album, which is based on my own experience living through the civil disturbance or riot of Detroit in July 1967. So if you read them, you're plunged into Detroit in that era. And it's a family novel. Some people like family novels. And I love family novels myself. And I write them too. Many of my novels are family novels. They're about families and usually starting with the older generation and then ending with the focus on the younger. So it's kind of shift in a novel from one generation to the next generation. And often my novels will end the very final page or paragraph is in the province of the younger, a younger member of a family. We were the Mulvaney's was an Oprah selection. So that's the novel. That's more people have read. We were the Mulvaney's than any other novel in mind because it was an Oprah selection. So it's sort of guaranteed, I think like a million copies will sell in the past. It may not be quite like that now with Oprah's book club. And then I have a novel that's sort of about the Vietnam War. I mean, the different subjects. And I have many short stories that are Gothic like the haunted, haunted short stories, tales of the grotesque, the corn maiden. These are collections of short stories that are surreal or Gothic, horror, literary horror, some of them have won awards for like the Bram Stoker award for literary horror. Are there any particular, whether it's short stories, novels or otherwise, of yours that there's so many elements that go into the publication and release of a book? Sometimes things get just overwhelmed by the news cycle. There could be any number of things happening at any given point in time. Are there any pieces of work that you have published that you are particularly proud of that you wish had received the same or a higher degree of attention? We were the Mulvaney's like you mentioned. That was an Oprah pick and boom, all of a sudden, you've got a dozen reprints of this particular work. Are there any others that you're particularly proud of and wish had slightly greater visibility when people are citing the better known works of yours? Well, that's hard to answer. My novel Middle-Ager romance came out the week of 9/11. So that was a disaster. But there was so much in the world that was really a disaster in a tragedy that somehow books of fiction didn't seem that important at the time. Writing has a way of making its own way somehow.
What does Joyce feel remains to be done? (01:02:43)
I think there's a set of consensus. What remains in your mind to be done? You've done so much. Many people would argue and have argued. Many lifetimes of other writers you've compressed into your own in terms of work. What are the items that remain to be done? Is that just simply not enter your mind as a question? Is it really just continuing with the craft as you have? No, I guess I don't really think in those terms, it's sort of like dreams. We may have had thousands of dreams, but yet when we fall asleep tonight, we'll have a succession of dreams tonight, our waiting. So it somehow doesn't matter that you've had dreams in the past. It's the kind of novelty and originality and the intensity and urgency of the new story, the new dream, the new novel. We always have stories to tell, and we are evolving all the time, and we're discovering things. As we get older, our perspective starts to change. We start losing many people. When you start losing people in your own family and people who are very close to you, your parents help to define you. So when your parents pass away, you start to be a slightly different person. Many people who are older are thinking back over their lives, and they have a new perspective. So they may want to write a memoir. Women who lose their husbands are so traumatized by that. That sometimes led to write memoirs. I wrote a widow story, which I would never have thought. I would never wanted to think I'd be writing, but I did write that. So you were asking who, if somebody wanted to read my writing, where would they begin? Well, some people like memoirs. So I've had two memoirs, widow's story, which is very raw and immediate based on my journal of the first three months of being a widow, which is the most painful grief. It starts to diminish a little bit after that, but never really goes away. And then a more of all full lifetime memoirs, the lost landscape, a writer's story. So I'm looking at my life from the perspective of being a writer, but looking at my parents and the farm that I live in. Many people have read that memoir, and they can identify with it. Well, Joyce, this has been so much fun for me. Thank you for writing your heart out, certainly. I think you exemplify that. And I would love to just ask if there's anything else that you would like to say to those people listening, any closing comments or any requests of my audience, anything at all?
Parting advice. (01:05:37)
Well, if you are, if anyone is listening as a writer, I think you basically just have to do a lot of reading and read what you like to read and read for pleasure. And often, it's a good idea to read a number of books by the same writer. Like when I was in high school, I just fell in love with Faulkner, and I read virtually everything with Faulkner. So I was like the only person in my age group who was reading Faulkner, but that really helped me immeasurably. Later on, I went through a DH Lawrence phase, a nebokov phase. I read a lot of Hemingway. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf. There's sort of like phases that you go through. If you're a writer, that's very natural and very good. Just go out and buy all the paperback, you know, of Virginia Woolf and just spend a few months reading Virginia Woolf. It will change your life completely. I love that. That is excellent advice. I'm doing that with Barry Lopez right now. It's just incredible. Yeah, just recently passed away, but what an amazing, amazing, amazing human being, an amazing writer. Joyce, I really, I did not have the opportunity to interview him. I actually read of Woolf's and Men, which so impressed me. And I then started to look into reaching out to him. And I found out he was in hospice and he passed away just a week into my reading of Woolf's and Men just a few weeks ago. Yeah, that's so sad. How old was he? He was, I'm not going to hazard a guess. I mean, he wasn't, he wasn't extraordinarily young because I know that, I mean, he must have, I'm just imagining that he was probably my age when he published of Woolf's and Men in, I want to say 1978, I'm 43 now. So, so he wouldn't have been, yeah, I think he would have been older, but I believe, believe it was cancer, I can't recall the cause, but just getting acquainted with Barry and reading, I'm about to start his memoir, what you might consider a memoir. It's really wonderful. I mean, I do feel like reading his collected works could really change how not, not just how I view the craft of writing, but how I look at life, just the lens through which I look at life. And your work has done that for many people as well. So I want to thank you for that. Thank you. Yeah, that's what we all hope for. Yeah. Okay, well, goodbye.
Fill in the Blank Fridays. (01:08:31)
Yeah, thanks so much, Joyce. Hey guys, this is Tim again, just a few more things before you take off. Number one, this is Phybullet Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me? Would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday that provides a little morsel of fun before the weekend? And Phybullet Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I've found or that I've been pondering over the week. That could include favorite new albums that I've discovered, it could include gizmos and gadgets and all sorts of weird shit that I've somehow dug up in the world of the esoteric as I do. It could include favorite articles that I've read and that I've shared with my close friends, for instance. And it's very short. It's just a little tiny bite of goodness before you head off for the weekend. So if you want to receive that, check it out. Just go to 4hourworkweek.com. That's 4hourworkweek.com. I'll spell it out and just drop in your email and you will get the very next one.
And if you sign up, I hope you enjoy it. This episode is brought to you by Express VPN. I've been using Express VPN all the time, constantly, since the summer of 2019. And I find it to be a super reliable way to make sure that my data are secure and encrypted without slowing down my internet speed whatsoever. You don't even notice that it's on. It's one of the best VPNs on the market and it couldn't be easier to set up. Their flow, their sign up flow is actually incredible and I encourage everyone just to check that out. All you need to do is download the Express VPN app on your computer or smartphone and then use the internet just as you normally would. You click one button in the Express VPN app to secure 100% of your network data. One of the many reasons I use AVPN is that free-to-access sites, all sorts of sites that you use every day, make their money by tracking your searches or video history and effectively everything you click on. And then they sell this valuable data onto others. When you use Express VPN, you anonymize much of your online presence by hiding your IP address. That makes your activity more difficult to trace and sell to advertisers. Express VPN also encrypts 100% of your data to protect you from hackers and assorted bad guys on the internet. So if you're on hotel Wi-Fi or public Wi-Fi, coffee shop Wi-Fi, whatever, this is what I use. So it's finally time to take back your online privacy at expressvpn.com/timp by visiting my special link. You'll get an extra three months of Express VPN service for free. Again, that's expressvpn.com/timp. One more time, expressvpn.com/timp to protect your data today.
Closing Remarks And Sponsors
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