The Faith of a Writer

Full Title: The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, ArtThe Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (2003)
Number of Pages: 155
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I bought this book: I purchased the book on Amazon after attending the author’s reading at Books Inc. She had read from her recent memoir, A Widow’s Story, about the unexpected death of her husband of forty-six years.  I had been looking for a non-fiction book to read, so when I searched for her other works on Amazon and read the title of this book, I thought it perfect for this time in my life.
ISBN: 0-06-056553-5

Like a Moth to a Flame

The book’s title identifies an issue that comes up from time to time for me: Having faith in my writing, faith that my stories are worth telling, faith that my craft is working.  I use the word craft instead of art because, as Flannery O’Connor said, ‘art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand.’  And for me, the concept of craft is less daunting, because it encompasses both the creative process and the completed work.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “We begin as loners, and some of us are in fact congenitally lonely; if we persevere in our art, and are not discouraged in our craft, we may find solace in the mysterious counter-world of literature that transcends artificial borders of time, place, language, national identity.” (p.xiii)

4. “Without craft, art remains private.  Without art, craft is merely hackwork.” (p.xii)

3. “It seems reasonable to believe that failure may be a truth, or at any rate, a negotiable fact, while success is a temporary illusion of some intoxicating sort, a bubble soon pricked, a flower whose petals will quickly drop.” (p.52)

2. “Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others at a distance, as ‘work’.  Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely you will create anything of substance.” (p.24)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Success is distant and illusory, failure one’s loyal companion, one’s stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for, otherwise, why write? The impulse can be made to sound theoretical, and even philosophical, but it is no doubt, as physical as our blood and marrow.” (p.73)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: inchoate (adjective)

Definition (Source: 1) not yet completed or fully developed, rudimentary; 2) just begun, incipient; 3) not organized, lacking order: an inchoate mass of ideas on the subject
Synonyms: amorphous, elementary, embryonic, formless, immature, imperfect, inceptive, incipient, nascent, preliminary, rudimentary, shapeless, unfinished, unformed, unshaped
Origins: 1530s; from Latin ‘inchoatus’, from the past participle of ‘inchoare’; to begin; originally ‘to hitch up’
As in: “Since writing is ideally a balance between the private vision and the public world, the one passionate and often inchoate, the other formally constructed, quick to categorize and assess, it’s necessary to think this art as a craft.” (p.xii)

New Word: palliative (adjective)

Definition (Source: serving to palliate, relieving without curing
Synonyms: antidotal, counteracting, curative, disciplinary, reformatory, rehabilitative, remedial, restorative, therapeutic
Origins: 1540s; from French ‘palliatif’  (14c.); from Middle Latin ‘palliatus’ (see palliate); as a noun, recorded from 1724
As in: “Sexual abuse seems to us the most repellent kind of abuse, and it’s certainly the abuse that nourishes a palliative amnesia.” (p.34)

New Word: tessellated (adjective)

Definition (Source: 1) of, pertaining to, or like a mosaic; 2) arranged in or having the appearance of a mosaic, checkered
Synonyms: decorate, inset, trim, veneer
Origins: 1690s; from Late Latin ‘tessellatus’ made of small square stones or tiles; from ‘tessella’ small square stone or tile, diminutive of ‘tessera’ a cube or square of stone or wood; perhaps from Gk. ‘tessera,’ neut. of ‘tesseres’
As in: “Joyce, Proust, and Green glimmer yet in Updike’s tessellated style, along with Vladimir Nabokov, a later discovery.” (p. 103)

New Word: concatenation (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) the act of concatenating; 2) the state of being concatenated; connection, as in a chain; 3) a series of interconnected or interdependent things or events
Synonyms: chain, connecting, continuity, integration, interlocking, link, linking, nexus, series, succession, uniting
Origins: Circa 1600; Late Latin ‘concatenationem’ (nom. ‘concatenatio’) a linking together; noun of action from ‘concatenat-’; pp. stem of ‘concatenare’ to link together
As in: “But the fiction can’t be extricated from the commentary, except at the risk of reducing it to a mere concatenation of events lacking a spiritual core.” (p.120)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Oates writes about her earliest literary influences. When she was a young girl she’d read Poe. She doesn’t reveal her exact age, only that she was still in grade school.  Although she struggled with his stories’ language and themes, she saw them as windows into the adult world. I remembered having a similar feeling as a kid, of being aware I was outside of a larger, more dangerous adult reality.  But I hadn’t thought of books as being a sort of backstage pass into my parents’ world.  It makes sense to me now.  I didn’t read any of Poe’s works until I was in high school. I can’t imagine being able to absorb his themes in grade school. His stories left me feeling disturbed, his creepy characters haunting me for days after, but in a strangely satisfying way. It was the same feeling I had after reading Oates’ short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? for the first time.

“Oates goes into detail about her early fascination with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which I recall reading when I was in grade school, but it didn’t have the kind of impact on me as it did on her.   Carroll’s quirky, rhyming prose seemed more fanciful than creepy to me.  But then I remember the summer I turned nine; I found on our family room bookshelf an old, worn book of Grimm’s fairy tales.  While no more fantastical than the Wonderland poems, to me, the worlds of Grimm’s stories were more dangerous, violent and cruel, especially for children.  The Queen of Hearts, essentially a playing card, yelling ‘Off with her head!’ was not nearly as scary or as real to me, as say, a story of two siblings, abandoned by their poverty-stricken parents, wandering lost and starving in the woods and falling prey to a witch with a dietary preference for plump, roasted children.  However, I relate to Oates feeling ‘imbued with an indelible sense of playfulness and morbidity’ (p.19). I remember a similar fascination with Grimm’s more macabre stories.  It fits that writers like Carroll and Poe are among her influences.  She admits many of her works ‘often have an element of the grotesque or surreal’ (p19). Her fiction frequently delves into the darker aspects of human nature with stories of violence, trauma and loss from the viewpoint of victim and villain. My explorations of flawed and amoral characters in my own writing explains why Oates is one of my literary influences.”

“After reading so many books on craft, it’s nice to read a book on other aspects of writing.  Although her essay is titled, To a Young Writer, as a late-blooming writer, I find encouragement in her words.  Her essay, Running and Writing is reminiscent of my own outdoor ritual, which I use to sort out my writing.  My dog and I take long walks almost every day.  I’ll find a spot in the sun for me and a patch of grass for Ginger.  I jot down story ideas, hash out scenes or dialogue, or simply record sensory details of that moment, while Ginger leisurely rolls on her back on the sloping lawn or chases chittering grey squirrels up the nearby copse of trees.”

“According to Oates, I was born damned.  In other words, I really don’t have a choice but to write. She asserts that artists struggle throughout their lives to attain redemption by way of creative expression, because of an innate sense of incompleteness driving them to continually create new works of art. Oates believes the physical creations produced by an artist become part of his or her identity, which explains my anxiety when I send out my stories like little rowboats on unpredictable and indifferent seas.

“While I don’t question my identity as a writer, I do lose faith in my ability to execute the craft successfully. Most of the time, it’s a tug of war between my impulse to write, which feels as tangible and life-affirming as the blood in my veins, and questioning whether or not my stories can emerge, like butterflies out of their cocoons, out of the private and personal realm and into the posterity and permanence of the public world. But what else can I do with these characters and stories running around in my head?  Oates is right. I’m damned to write.”

Notes on Failure doesn’t have the warm and fuzzy reassurance I thought it would have.  Oates cites examples of how authors like D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and William Faulkner failed, only to succeed later because of these earlier failures. She’s basically saying what I already know: rejection is part of the writing process. But this doesn’t lessen the sting when I open my mailbox or email to find another politely worded, rejection notice. It’s nice to get the occasional, personalized note of encouragement, although it amounts to the same thing. My stories, like lost siblings, are still wandering out there, searching for the right homes.”

“In her essay on inspiration, Oates provides examples of what inspired authors like Henry James, John-Paul Sartre, John Updike and Joan Didion to write some of their best works, proving her point that inspiration can come from just about anywhere, if you’re open to it. This seems a bit of an overstatement to me. Most writers I know are constantly looking for ideas to write about. Some of us keep notebooks on hand at all times.  We are opportunists in a way, acutely aware that what’s going on around us, whether it’s at the grocery store, in the park or at the gas station, might be an opportunity for a good story.  One of my own stories was inspired by the simple interaction between a mother and her teenage daughter I observed while seated at an outdoor café.  When my writer friends get together, we’ll update each other about what’s going on in our lives, and inevitably, one of us remarks, ‘You should write about that!’

“I think the concept of receiving inspiration has been overly romanticized.  Sure, I’d love to discover a box of letters or overhear scandalous gossip at a dinner table or even walk the streets of Paris at midnight to inspire my writing.  What writer doesn’t? And who doesn’t want, even crave, that ecstatic burst of luminosity, which generates a new story or jump starts an existing story?  But such moments are rare for me; my process is more the tail wagging the dog.  I just keep writing, even when it feels like a root canal without anesthesia.  Out of the chaotic, random bits of writing, I can usually pull out some promising prose, which will lead me to an inspired phase of writing. Sometimes, all I have are phrases or blocks of writings that are too disparate or too similar.  But after a few days of tedious reworking, a sort of logic and cohesiveness begins to emerge. One thing I learned in grad school – you can’t wait for inspiration to arrive, otherwise nothing will get written. Even a crappy manuscript can be edited, revised or cannibalized for other stories.  But you can’t do any of that with a blank page.  What Oates doesn’t outright say is that most of the time, inspiration comes out of working and reworking the narrative, in laboring over your craft and recognizing the diamonds in the rough.”

“I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to read such a short book.  Some essays took me a couple of nights to get through.  I could blame it on the chamomile tea, the warmth of the blankets or maybe the comfort of my cat curled up beside me, but a few pages into some of her essays, and my eyelids were fighting to stay open.  Her examples of how well-known authors failed, what inspired them to write great works, and how, at the beginning of their careers, they deconstructed and copied other writers they admired, were interesting, but her didactic narratives left me somewhat disengaged. I think I’d have connected more with the book if Oates had focused more on her own experiences, and what she did to develop her chops as a writer, with personal reflections on her approach to inspiration, failure, and self-criticism. One of the later chapters is an interview she did on her novel, Blonde, which provides some glimpses into her writing life and her creative process. By the end, I was left wishing she’d delved deeper into those issues that come up for me as a writer. Maybe topics like inspiration, failure and self-criticism are each just too complex and subjective to cram into a couple dozen pages. Still, the book is well worth the nuggets of advice and affirmations she offers to less experienced writers like me.”

Lisa Abellera

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