Joyce Carol Oates – essay/ review

Joyce Carol Oates, The Faith of a Writer. Life, Craft, Art, Ecco, 2004, pages 158, $ 11.95

The Flake the Wind exasperate

More eloquently lie

Than if escorted to it’s Down

By Arm of Chivalry. Emily Dickinson 

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.  Henry Miller 

“To write is to invade another’s space, if only to memorialize it; to write is to invite angry censure from those who don’t write, or who don’t write in quite the way you do, for whom you may seem a threat. Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment”. Unfortunately, the previous words written by the American author Joyce Carol Oates are not the delirium of a paranoid mind but – simply – the truth. Moreover, they contain an important advice: who discovers to be gifted for writing or for a particular kind of art, must first of all learn how to protect himself or herself from the attacks of predators, and from insults and punitive expeditions executed by frustrated and mediocre persons (sometimes even by successful ones), never forgetting that the worst assaults come from so-called friends. In a few words, the creative person must think up the best way to avoid psychological damages, if not even physical ones. Then, he must find out the best way to bear failure, the external and inner refusal to recognize the value of his or her work. Sadly, an artistic coming out – the public and clear admission of being a writer or an artist – is often welcomed with that kind of enthusiasm reserved to a responsible for a genocide. 

The one just discussed is the essential lesson that a would-be artist must absolutely learn before any other worry. And it is true especially for the writing and figurative arts, which in the collective imaginary own an exoteric aura and provoke unutterable feelings, also because generally they are considered detached from the mainstream culture. Indeed, as Oates claims during an interview with Fernanda Pivano, the majority of her literary effort is concentrated on searching the consequences of violence upon the victims, instead of focusing on the violent act itself and, in The Faith of the Writer, these elements are strictly linked to the development of an authorial point of view. The whole book is in fact a collection of advices and suggestions coming from a precise analysis of some famous or less known books, and from the specific solutions found and applied by the American writer to face issues occurred during her own writing activity. 

“One is born not to suffer but to negotiate with suffering, to choose or invent forms to accommodate it”, writes Joyce Carol Oates in a passage which does not sound so different from the negotiation with the dead and the shadows, theorized by Margaret Atwood in her essay about writing and being a writer. Between mania for writing and writing, amateurs and writers, hobby and art, there is an ocean of discipline, concentration and commitment called craft, an architectural and building activity which can reveal itself a powerful opportunity to control and transcend pain. “Power is only Pain/ Stranded, thro’ Discipline”, says Emily Dickinson, one of the authors mentioned by Oates. Writing is not a confession and more generally creating art does not heal the wounds but, in certain cases, it may be transformative like getting over a nightmare after having shaped it properly. Thus, some people dedicate their energy to literature or art to face and manage personal suffering, generated by dark experiences as well as by the gift itself and the reactions of the world towards it. Persons who have been “chased by tormentors (…), sexually molested or threatened”, could become creative survivors expressing rage, sorrow, hope and strength. And, in particular, “a woman should acknowledge her hurt, her anger and her hope of ‘justice’; even a hope for revenge might be a good thing, in her work if not in her life”. 

To fulfill the objective, Oates suggests to “write your heart out. Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject. Your ‘forbidden’ passions are likely to be the fuel for your writing”. For this reason the author stresses that, in an artistic work, the skill to arouse deep emotions in a wide spectrum of nuances – thanks to a personal inner richness – is more relevant than the choice of the subject. Every matter has an inward dignity and an artist can exalt it through his passion, with the gift (the talent) and by means of his mastery of the medium (style and rhythm). A rough and approximate selection of the possible subjects and a recognition of priorities is the first step, but then the buried selves of the creative person must overcome the superficial level of the work to give it richness and fascination “in defiance of external circumstances”. Because, according to Joyce Carol Oates, the writer and the artist fight to compensate the sense of emptiness coming from the feeling of being exiles on earth: “the artist is born damned, and struggles through his (or her) life to achieve an ever-elusive redemption, by way of art”. 

In general, to write and to make art are not considered real professions until the achievement of a full success and, during the search for an individual voice, many artists can experiment financial problems and negative emotions. About this matter, Joyce Carol Oates reassures the aspiring artist stating that “what begins in childlike wonder and curiosity becomes, with the passage of time, if we persist in our devotion (or delusion), a ‘calling’; a ‘profession’”. For Joseph Conrad writing is a “conversion of nervous force” into words, while Ernest Hemingway imagines a “grace under pressure”. But, for non-writers and non-artists, who is creating is an idler and a parasite on society or, on the other hand, he is seen as an enigmatic magician, with the consequence of a lack of support in both circumstances. The wait for success can fuel creativity and the act of creating is a sort of challenge against society and even towards the creator’s balance: “a young man is afraid of his demon and puts his hand over the demon’s mouth sometimes and speaks for him. So I have tried to let the demon say his say, and to remove the passages where the young man intruded”, affirms D. H. Lawrence in a quotation offered by Joyce Carol Oates. The demon belongs to the buried selves of the artist. Invisible, impalpable or hardly interpretable by the others, at the same time it also belongs to the whole society which, through art, can free itself from hidden and latent fears. The artist is a fearful and fearless negotiator who makes compromises with suffering, shadows and dead/ evergreen presences.

“When one finds the ‘voice’ of a novel, the ‘voice’ becomes hypnotic, ravishing, utterly inexplicable. (…) Something not us inhabits us; something insists upon speaking through us”: an aspect of the writing activity that really reminds an exoteric experience and partially justifies the magical aura attributed to the writer. To write or to create something totally new on the basis of one’s imagination, is not so far from being possessed by an external presence who wants to enter the world of human beings with an increasing force, hammering at the artist for his surrender to the creative inspiration. Living a sort of trance, who creates must accept this aspect of the work which can be sometimes an exasperating one and pushes him until the boundaries of a universe where he decodes images as mediums normally do.

In this existential horizon, the faith mentioned in the title of Oates’s book is the psychophysical energy and the intimate power to bear long series of attacks (repetita juvant): assaults; insults; punitive expeditions; blackmails; personal pain; fear of failing; harsh self judgment; struggle to find out an individual voice and style; the lack of redemption; charges of being an idler or a parasite on society; solitude; economical problems; overstimulation on nerves and oscillating pressures by the creative demon; anguishes and anxieties of being possessed by the work… To bear all this, Oates suggests very quietly and resolutely: “don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and ‘yearning’”, because the satisfaction of being creative will compensate any kind of frustration; because writing and creating will give the force to accept the efforts and the tiring aspects of fighting for the affirmation of one’s own art. 

But something in The Faith of a Writer looks really strange. Joyce Carol Oates offers a number of examples chosen among the masters of literature striving against the aforementioned problems. They are Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner and so on… Coming to herself, the writer informs the readers that “I seem to have virtually no opinion of myself. I only publish work that I believe to be the best 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”. If at a glance this consideration seems artificial and even arrogant, trying to deepen the argument until its background reasons, it is possible to suppose that, through her writing life, Joyce Carol Oates wants to give birth to a literary placenta where she recreates a clone of her peaceful and trouble-free parental environment: “one’s parents’ home, where all is safe and controlled”. Or, following another option included in the book, it can be a case of amnesia: “sexual abuse seems to us the most repellent kind of abuse, and it’s certainly the abuse that nourishes a palliative amnesia”. Stubbornly and in a creative manner, Joyce Carol Oates goes ahead with her projects, as she teaches in this essay and as every reader can deduce from her prolific (a word that sounds ‘bizarre’ to her) career. More than seventy books in which the worst sentiments and existential implications are bravely faced and dissected, often dealing with the ghosts of the American society. “The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure”, is one of her summarizing aphorism. An affliction that maybe she turns into her huge creativity. And so, if we don’t know what Oates did in her private life to repair supposed damages, it is sure that her literary production – simply – is a form to execute justice and to accomplish revenge.

Pamela Pioli 2010


With Joyce Carol Oates I end my book Sulla scrittura, sulla vita ( On Writing, On Life).


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