Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, on this day in 1938. Some speculate that Oates, one of the most prolific writers in literary history–117 books published, with more announced–may have hypergraphia, “the midnight disease.” There is no doubt that the writing bug bit early and hard. She says she began making picture stories at age three, “complicated narratives” often created on the backs of her father’s sheets of sandpaper. She remembers getting at age eight the gift of Alice in Wonderland from her grandmother, and feeling “the excitement of being taken along with Alice, who talks to herself continually, just like you.” When her grandmother bought her a typewriter, Oates now fourteen, began “consciously training myself by writing novel after novel.” She wrote some dozen of them, she estimates, all thrown away as soon as completed. There were a few boys and parties at Syracuse University, but mostly there was getting top grades, and the typewriter. Classmates estimate a novel a semester; sorority sisters gave her the room most able to muffle the all-night clickity-clack.
There are bursts of all-night writing in A Widow’s Story, Oates’s just-published, grief-driven chronicle of trying to cope with the sudden death of her husband after forty-eight years of marriage. The following passage reflects on her visit to her doctor–her insomnia worsening, her weight down to 103–who offers sleeping pills to “get you through these difficult weeks”:
Weeks! I can’t envision anything shorter than a decade. My nocturnal life has become the Jersey Turnpike of insomnia.
But do I want a prescription for sleeping pills? No!
I am afraid of becoming addicted to sleeping pills. I think that I am deathly afraid.
I envision myself as the very archetype of the drug addict–raw trembling need, insomnia raging most nights like wildfire.
And of course I am alone. Who’s to know how many pills I take, how late I sleep?–my fantasy, which I have shared with no one, and will share with no one, is to take a pill to sleep, and when waking take another pill to sleep, and when waking take another pill to sleep, and when waking…how long this might continue, I have but mild curiosity.
Like a flashlight’s beam shining out into the night–you see the length of the beam. Beyond that, you can’t know.
Beyond that, better not to know.
It’s shocking then that my voice calmly replies yes thank you, Doctor.
For of course I want these pills. As one intent upon assembling a cache of powerful pills, I want all the pills I can get.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.