The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art

Overview

A tribute to the brilliant craftsmanship of one of our most distinguished writers, providing valuable insight into her inspiration and her method

Joyce Carol Oates is widely regarded as one of America's greatest contemporary literary figures. Having written in a number of genres ? prose, poetry, personal and critical essays, as well as plays ? she is an artist ideally suited to answer essential questions about what makes a story striking, a ...

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Overview

A tribute to the brilliant craftsmanship of one of our most distinguished writers, providing valuable insight into her inspiration and her method

Joyce Carol Oates is widely regarded as one of America's greatest contemporary literary figures. Having written in a number of genres — prose, poetry, personal and critical essays, as well as plays — she is an artist ideally suited to answer essential questions about what makes a story striking, a novel come alive, a writer an artist as well as a craftsman.

In The Faith of a Writer, Oates discusses the subjects most important to the narrative craft, touching on topics such as inspiration, memory, self-criticism, and "the unique power of the unconscious." On a more personal note, she speaks of childhood inspirations, offers advice to young writers, and discusses the wildly varying states of mind of a writer at work. Oates also pays homage to those she calls her "significant predecessors" and discusses the importance of reading in the life of a writer.

Oates claims, "Inspiration and energy and even genius are rarely enough to make 'art': for prose fiction is also a craft, and craft must be learned, whether by accident or design." In fourteen succinct chapters, The Faith of a Writer provides valuable lessons on how language, ideas, and experience are assembled to create art.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Prolific novelist, playwright, and poet Oates has collected 12 previously published essays about the craft of writing, plus an interview regarding her novel Blonde. The topics covered range from coping with failure as an artist to the inspiration derived by reading others' writing. The award-winning writer draws insight from various writers' diaries, especially that of Virginia Woolf, regarding unsuccessful attempts at evaluating one's own writing. Although her intention is not to write an autobiography, she does incorporate personal anecdotes, particularly those about childhood readings, attending a one-room schoolhouse, and her in-home study. Except for the introduction and an initial half-page essay, no new material has been included in this collection. While this may disappoint some Oates fans, those desiring to know more about this versatile writer or those who aspire to write will find the essays instructive, albeit they are more general than those found in how-to-write manuals. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060565541
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/14/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 148,832
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Table of Contents

Introduction
My Faith as a Writer 1
District School #7, Niagara County, New York 3
First Loves: From "Jabberwocky" to "After Apple Picking" 13
To a Young Writer 23
Running and Writing 29
"What Sin to me Unknown ..." 37
Notes on Failure 51
Inspiration! 75
Reading as a Writer: The Artist as Craftsman 93
The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism 127
The Writer's Studio 137
Blonde Ambition: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates 143
"JCO" and I (After Borges) 153
Acknowledgments 157
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First Chapter

The Faith of a Writer
Life, Craft, Art

Chapter One

As a child I took for granted what seems wonderful to me now: that, from first through fifth grades, during the years 1943–1948, I attended the same single-room schoolhouse in western New York that my mother, Carolina Bush, had attended twenty years before. Apart from the introduction of electricity in the early 1940s, and a few minor improvements, not including indoor plumbing, the school had scarcely changed in the intervening years. It was a roughhewn, weatherworn, uninsulated woodframe building on a crude stone foundation, built around the turn of the century near the crossroads community of Millersport, twenty-five miles north of Buffalo and seven miles south of Lockport. I loved my first school! -- so I have often said, and possibly this is true.

In late August, in anticipation of school beginning immediately after Labor Day in September, I would walk the approximate mile from our house, carrying my new pencil box and lunch pail, to sit on the front, stone step of the school building. Just to sit there, dreamy in anticipation of school starting; possibly to enjoy the solitude and quiet, which would not prevail once school started.

(Perhaps no one recalls pencil boxes? They were of about the size of a lunch pail, with several drawers that, slid out, revealed freshly sharpened yellow "lead" pencils, Crayola crayons, erasers, compasses. Lunch pails, which perhaps no one recalls either, were of about the size of pencil boxes but, unlike pencil boxes, which smelled wonderfully of Crayolas, lunch pails quickly came to smell awfully of milk in Thermos bottles, overripe bananas, baloney sandwiches, and waxed paper.)

The school, more deeply imprinted in my memory than my own child-face, was set approximately thirty feet back from a pebble-strewn unpaved road, Tonawanda Creek Road; it had six tall, narrow windows in its side walls, and very small windows in its front wall; a steeply slanting shingleboard roof that often leaked in heavy rain; and a shadowy, smelly, shed-like structure at the front called the "entry"; nothing so romantic as a cupola with a bell to be rung, to summon pupils inside. (Our teacher Mrs. Dietz, standing Amazon-like in the entry doorway, rang a hand bell. This was a sign of her adult authority, the jarring noise of the bell, the thrusting, hacking gesture of her muscled right arm as she vigorously shook it.) Behind the school, down a slope of briars and jungle-like vegetation, was the "crick" -- the wide, often muddy, fast-moving Tonawanda Creek, where pupils were forbidden to play or explore; on both sides of the school were vacant, overgrown fields; "out back" were crudely built wooden outhouses, the boys' to the left and the girls' to the right, with drainage, raw sewage, virulently fetid in warm weather, seeping out into the creek. (Elsewhere, off the creek bank, children, mostly older boys, swam. There was not much consciousness of "polluted" waters in those days and yet less fastidiousness on the part of energetic farm boys.)

At the front of the school, and to the sides, was an improvised playground of sorts, where we played such improvised games as "May I?" -- which involved "baby --" and "giant-steps" -- and "Pom-Pom-Pullaway" which was more raucous, and rougher, where one might be dragged across an expanse of cinders, even thrown down into the cinders. And there was "Tag" which was my favorite game, at which I excelled since I could run, even at a young age, out of necessity, fast.

Joyce runs like a deer! certain of the boys, chasing me, as they chased other younger children, to bully and terrorize us, and for fun, would say, admiring.

Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz's desk was also positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship.

Mrs. Dietz, of course, had mastered the art of penmanship. She wrote our vocabulary and spelling lists on the blackboard, and we learned to imitate her. We learned to "diagram" sentences with the solemn precision of scientists articulating chemical equations. We learned to read by reading aloud, and we learned to spell by spelling aloud. We memorized, and we recited. Our textbooks were rarely new, but belonged to the school district and were passed on, year after year until they wore out entirely. Our "library" was a shelf or two of books including a Webster's dictionary, which fascinated me: a book containing words! A treasure of secrets this seemed to me, available to anyone who cared to look into it.

My earliest reading experiences, in fact, were in this dictionary. We had no dictionary at home until, winner of a spelling bee sponsored by the Buffalo Evening News, when I was in fifth grade, I was given a dictionary like the one at school. This, like the prized Alice books, remained with me for decades.

My early "creative" experiences evolved not from printed books, but from coloring books, predating my ability to read. I did not learn to read until I was in first grade, and six years old, though by this time I had already produced numerous "books" of a kind by drawing ...

The Faith of a Writer
Life, Craft, Art
. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Educational, but still a wonderful read.

    I thought this memoir of Joyce Carol Oates life and career was just a wonderful piece of literature. The twelve essays were given in such a way that I could easy understand. The essays explore Ms. Oates' driving force in her career as a writer. These essays are very educational for aspiring authors and even for those folks like me that just want to learn about a great writer such as Ms. Oates. There were detail discussion by the author on her daily life; her creative condemnation sessions and many others.

    Overall, I thought the book was fantastic and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to my friends.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2010

    Wonderful encouragement to all writers

    The book provides a wonderfully fresh perspective on the craft and art of writing and is a great read for all writers or aspiring writers. This book is not about the technical aspects of writing or how to achieve specific publication goals.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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