The Faith of A Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

Just finished reading The Faith of A Writer by Joyce Carol Oates. I read this little book on writing over a long period of time. I’d get caught up in other interests and set it aside for weeks, then pick it up again and read for a half hour, then set it down again. What I like most about this book is that it isn’t just about her experience as a writer, but about our experience as writers. Oates is well-read and informed about the lives of “important” authors of the literary canon and she is adept at literary analysis. Her book is filled not only with her own personal reflection on her life as a writer, but with reflections on the lives and work of other writers. She does this all to get at the important questions of the HOW and WHY of writing. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book with my comments.

“Most of us fall in love with works of art many times during the course of our lifetimes. Give yourself up in admiration, even in adoration, of another’s art. (How Degas worshipped Monet! How Melville loved Hawthorne! And how many young yearning, brimming-with-emotion poets has Walt Whitman sired!) If you find an exciting arresting, disturbing voice or vision, immerse yourself in it. You will learn from it.” (Oates 26)
Liz’s Comment: What writers have you immersed yourself in? I’m not just talking read a book or two and thought, wow that’s good writing, but read everything you could get your hands on– shared the lines you like best with anyone who would listen, even carried those same lines around in your book bag, fingering them between thumb and index finger like a peasant rubbing a lamp in hopes that your wish will be granted. Some of the writers I’ve fallen in love with at different points in my life include: Whitman, Dostoyevsky, Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Dorris Lessing, E.E. Cummings, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Madeline L’Engle.

“Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be.” (Oates 29)
Liz’s Comment: Yes! Me too. When I come home from a good run, often the first thing I do is look for pen and paper.

“Writer’s and poets are famous for loving to be in motion. If not running, hiking; if not hiking, walking.” (Oates 30)

Liz’s Comment: Me too!

“I’m a writer absolutely mesmerized by places; much of my writing is a way of assuaging homesickness, and the settings my characters inhabit are curcial to me as the characters themselves. I couldn’t write even a very short story without vividly “seeing” what it’s characters see.” (Oates 35)

Liz’s Comment: Use this as a writing prompt. Fully sketch out or describe a place. Then set some characters in that space and see what happens.

“The writer carries himself as he would carry a precarious pyramid of eggs, in danger of failing at any moment, and shattering on the floor in an ignoble mess.” (Oates 61)

Liz’s Comment: Love this simile. ☺

“That the writer labors to discover the secret of his work is perhaps the writer’s most baffling predicament, about which he cannot easily speak: for he cannot write the fiction without becoming, beforehand, the person who must write that fiction: and he cannot be that person, without first subordinating himself to the process, the labor, of creating that fiction, which is why one becomes addicted to insomnia itself, to a perpetual sense of things about to fail, the pyramid of eggs about the tumble, the house of cards about to be blown away.” (Oates 64)

Liz’s Comment: I do feel that I must write and am happiest when I’m writing or when I’ve just completed a piece. When I go too long without having written, I fall into a kind of depression that sometimes I don’t recognize at first as the withdrawal that it is. I might have been an alcoholic like my father or a food addict like my mother if I hadn’t started writing.

“It [inspiration] can be like striking a damp match again, again, again: hoping a small flame will leap out, before the match breaks.” (Oates 76)

Liz’s Comment: Right on.

“Is there any moral to be drawn from this compendium, any general proposition? If so, it’s a simple one: Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer; but if you hope to become a writer, you much read.” (Oates 110)

Liz’s Comment: Amen!

“The story’s theme is like a bobbin upon which the thread of the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin, the thread would fly loose.” (Oates 120)

Liz’ Comment: Right on.

“To have a reliable opinion about oneself, one must know the subject, and perhaps that isn’t possible. We know how we feel about ourselves, but only from hour to hour; our moods change, like the intensity of light outside out windows. But to feel is not to know; and strong feelings will block knowledge. I seem to have virtually no opinion of myself. I only publish work that I believe to be the best that I can do, and beyond that I can’t judge. My life, to me, is transparent, as a glass of water, and of no more interest. And my writing, which to far too various for me to contemplate, is an elusive matter, that will reside in the minds (or as Auden more forcefully says, the guts) of others, to judge.” (Oates 136).

Liz’s Comment: This struck me as a healthy perspective, especially considering the cataloguing of tortured writers that preceded this passage. I hope that if I got to the place where I spent much time obsessing over how good I was or wasn’t, I’d quit writing all together and take up something else—like scrap booking, for instance. I tirelessly revise my work, but I do not confuse the work with the woman. This is a case where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.


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