It's been 52 years since Joyce Carol Oates published her first book, a short story collection titled By the North Gate. Since then, Oates, now 77, has written over 40 novels and countless poems and short stories, and she has been honored with the National Book Award and even Pulitzer Prize nominations.
BuzzFeed recently had the chance to speak with Oates about the art of writing. Since the author has seen great literary success that most writers aspire to achieve, we asked her for advice. Here's what she had to say:
BuzzFeed: What do you wish you knew about writing when you first started?
Joyce Carol Oates: I wouldn't really want to change much about my early life as a writer. I think that I envy my younger self because I used to write a whole draft of a novel and then go back and rewrite it. Today, I do a lot of revising as I go along and that seems to be more painful and arduous. I think my younger self could actually help me now; I need some tips from my younger self. I’m working on a novel now and it seems like I’ve been working on it for years because it's been going so slowly. It used to be that I could at least write a chapter in a week and then I would rewrite it. Now I’m almost revising every paragraph, then I go back and do the whole page, then I’ll go back to the beginning of the chapter. It's a slow process, almost like putting a mosaic together or weaving things in and out, whereas before it felt more like galloping on a horse and then creating the manuscript. For some reason I’ve become more attuned to the individual sentence and reworking the sentences. I’m not sure why that happened.
Do you think that's because now you're a highly established author and people read your work more carefully?
JCO: No, it’s more about my personality changing. I’m not very conscious of anybody reading my work; I never think about that. Each work has its own integrity. If you’re writing a short story, the story’s probably going to be about 25 pages long with a certain density and lyricism. You can’t write it too fast, because that’s how long it takes. So, the important thing is the integrity of that work. Now, a shorter story, something like a delightful little thing by Donald Barthelme, is sort of like a flame; you light the match and it burns — it’s really quick. Something like that is usually three pages long, and you wouldn’t want to take three months to work on that because that’s not appropriate. But if you’re taking an ambitious subject — like a novel about two families going through a tough time for 10 years or 12 years or so — it takes a long time, sort of spiritually and emotionally, just to grasp that. I think that’s one of my problems: I’m trying to fully realize each paragraph but then not make it too long. There’s always breaks and editing, so I’m going forward then taking some steps back, but before I would just go forward and then go back to the beginning and do the whole thing over again. I recommend to my students that they do the whole thing quickly and then revise, that they not write the way I do. But everybody I know writes the way I do. It has something to do with the computer.
What tools do you use to write? Do you use a computer, notebook, typewriter, iPhone, etc.?
JCO: I do a lot of writing in longhand, lots of scenes and a lot of notes. The computer has changed everything, though. If James Joyce had used the computer to work on Finnegan’s Wake, he might still be working on it because there’s no end; you always do just a little more. It took him seven years to do Ulysses, but then when he got the galleys he increased it by one-third with his notes in the margins. We can see the madness that technology allows to flourish.
So you use a combination of techniques?
JCO: The notes come first and since I travel a lot, I take notes by hand. At first the notes are just for me, but after a while I’ll put them together into an outline, and then I type them onto a computer. I can basically have a whole novel on the computer. If I’m working on a specific page, I still have the whole novel there so I can scroll through and see the end. I always have the end written. As I’m touching base with the ending every day, I’m wondering how I can eventually get there.
Do you write the end first?
JCO: Yes. I write the end, or the last sentence, first. Even if I don't physically write it down, I always at least know how the story ends.
Where is your favorite place to write?
JCO: I could almost write anywhere. I need to look out a window. I liked writing where I lived down in the West Village. That was very nice; we had a large apartment with three bedrooms, so we had a lot of windows everywhere. When I lived in Berkeley I also had a view of the San Francisco Bay.
What did you write with that view?
JCO: I was working on this never-ending novel. The title is The Book of American Martyrs. I guess you could say it’s somewhat timely, it’s about the abortion bans. One family is very pro-life and they’re evangelical Christians — I’m very sympathetic with them, I’m not being satirical. Then the other family is pro-choice, and there's also an abortion doctor. The story's about how they all interact with the assassination of that doctor who’s sort of a hero. The two families come together in this way but they’re still in this completely realized world. It's a challenge.
What’s the best piece of advice another writer gave to you?
JCO: Most writers just complain.
Do you ever talk about your different writing processes with other authors?
JCO: You know, it’s like two cats. If cats could talk, they would talk about food or something. When I talk to Margaret [Atwood], it's usually about endangered species, birds, and things like that. But I don’t usually talk about writing process with other writers. My friend Edmund White and I commiserate together because it’s hard to be a writer and nobody else wants to hear it.
How do you know when a story is truly finished?
JCO: Oh, you can tell. I work on something over a period of time, and it’s particularly evident when the work is done when I'm writing a poem. I’m doing some narrative poems, not often but I do them; you can read it over and over again and scroll through it on the computer. You can read it in three minutes and can tell if it’s a little long or if it needs more development. Overall, I think it’s about intuition. My students seem not to know when things need to be enhanced. Young writers need a little nudge. My students usually have a good beginning and good ending, but there’s nothing in the middle. They'll say, "Oh! I thought it was done." And I'll have to say, "Nope, it’s not done. You need more in the middle." It's hard to learn things like pacing and structure.
Do you ever struggle with writer’s block?
JCO: I struggle with something; I’m not sure if it’s writer’s block. Writer’s block doesn’t exist, except it’s a very expensive block in Park Slope where all these writers live and it’s really expensive. Instead, I’d call it frustration or slowness. I think I have a lot of interruptions in my life. That’s the best advice to give a writer or an artist: Be in some place where you’re not interrupted. That could even mean internal interruptions, too. Get to some physical and mental place where you’re not going to be interrupted.
Joyce Carol Oates referenced American author Donald Barthelme's short stories. An earlier version of this post misstated that she named Jean-Jacques Barthélemy.