The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living (#497)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates), the author of novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and A Widow’s Story. Among her many honors are the National Book Award, the PEN America Award, the National Humanities Medal, the 2019 Jerusalem Prize, and the 2020 Cino Del Duca World Prize for literature.

Joyce 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.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#497: Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living


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Tim Ferriss: Joyce, welcome to the show. I wanted to start with a name that will be familiar, and that’s Jonathan Safran Foer, former student of yours, now a colleague of yours, who also happened to be in my same class, I believe, the class of ’99, at Princeton as an undergrad. And you wrote him a letter, perhaps his parents at some point. But the way that he recalls it, there’s a specific line that I wanted to ask you about, and we can take it any direction you would like. And the line is this. Quote: “You appear to have very strong and promising talent, coupled with that most important of writerly qualities,” comma, “energy.” And he then, later, has come to strongly agree with that. “And man, is she right. Energy is the most important writerly quality.” Could you expand on what you mean by that?

Joyce Carol Oates: I think it’s sort of self-evident. We need a good deal of energy to be creative. We need a good deal of spirit and optimism. I think of it as kind of positive delusions, or illusions, about the worth of what we’re doing. I was reading a biography of Walker Evans, this very distinguished early 20th century photographer. He would be asked why is he doing this or who’s his audience. He said that he wasn’t thinking of that. He was thinking of the pleasure of the camera and seeing where it led him. And I think that’s true of all creative effort, that’s there a spirit or a flame that leads us somewhere to tell a story. It could be an entire novel, to paint a painting of something extraordinary that’s never been done before.

And beyond that is just the feel. That is, the sheer pleasure in creativity, which is energy. And the opposite of that, I think, is being interrupted many times in situations, professional or familial, where one is interrupted and one’s energy is drained off in different directions so that we don’t have the concentration that we need. That is really the great enemy of creativity.

Tim Ferriss: If we’re looking at — maybe “enemies” wouldn’t be the right label in the way that I’m going to use it, but obstacles, as some would-be writers perceive them. I’d like to speak to getting started. So, a writer friend of yours, I think with the initials LM, you describe as having remarked that she’d like to be married, and not get married. In other words, and I’ll take some liberty here, but not to find the perimeter, the parameters, go through the growing pains of those first few years, but to be settled in the existence of being married. And you likened that to creative projects and writing. How do you overcome the difficulties, or advise that students overcome the difficulties, in starting a given writing project? You could choose the genre.

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I think we’re all very different. Some people have a good deal of energy and excitement in the beginning. And they can stay up all night long working on a novel, writing a complete short story. I think as we get older, we guard our energy differently. We don’t stay up all night working but parcel it out in a more reasonable way. So it does depend upon who the person is. I have writing students who have a good deal of energy, but I have others who’ve been working on one project for some time. And so they’re focusing their energy. But as I said, the great adversary is being interrupted and distracted. So distraction is our main adversary right now, I think, in contemporary America, in the world of the Internet and cellphones. At the moment we have a kind of toxic political situation that’s very draining of goodwill. So all these distractions make it difficult to concentrate.

Tim Ferriss: When you look back at your own creative process, I’ve read — I don’t know if it was in The Paris Review. It could’ve been, or elsewhere. A series called “The Art of Fiction” that you need the title, and I want to say last line, before you begin writing. Was that true? Or is there any truth to that? Was there, at some point?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes. I need to see the ending of the novel. I need to see it in a cinematic way, to envision it. And then I usually have some words to go with that. I really need a beginning and an end, and I need a title. The title is what brings it all together. It’s like a triangular shape. So the title will give you a sense of what the totality is. The beginning, obviously is — the precipitating factor of the story should be in the first line, and then everything is a consequence of that. And then the ending is the ending. You’re moving toward that ending from page 19 or 99 or 199. You’re moving toward that inexorable ending. So you have a destination. That is an ideal way of writing. It may not be possible for everybody. Some people, like E.L. Doctorow, my friend, Ed Doctorow, he said that he never knew how his novels were going to end. He thought it was like a car trip. He was driving along a road. He didn’t really know where he was going. But I’m not like that.

Tim Ferriss: How much do you think about structure? So if you have the beginning and the end, and the title, even if it’s a placeholder — I guess two questions. Do the titles often change after you’ve decided upon what you think it might be? And then the second is, how do you think about, or how much do you think about, the structure, once you have those initial points in place?

Joyce Carol Oates: The title could definitely be changed. It would probably be an equivalent title, something that was the same tone and the same symbolism, but maybe a completely different word. I have changed titles a few times. Ideally, if you have the title first, then you have a vision. So until you work out the structure of a long work, it’s not a good idea to begin it. However, I have begun, and I have made mistakes that I had to correct as I went on. Much of writing, like all art, I think, is exploratory. We don’t always know what we’re going to do. But ideally, if you have an outline and a sense of where you’re going, it’s much easier. I spend a lot of time running and walking. Every day I go walking, or I love to run. And when I’m running, I think of my writing in structural terms, have a spatial sense. So if I don’t go running every day, my writing doesn’t work as well. It really depends upon this kinetic release of energy.

Tim Ferriss: Could you speak more to that? Is it an active thinking about or considering of the writing? Or is it moving the body and letting, thematically, loosely, let’s just say, in the case of structure, pointed consciousness just bubble up in the process of moving? Could you just speak to running and walking? Because I know it seems to have been a huge part of your life.

Joyce Carol Oates: What about you? Are you a runner?

Tim Ferriss: I used to run. I used to run. I do a lot of walking. So I walk, and swim, and bike. I try to walk at least a few hours a day. So I walk a lot.

Joyce Carol Oates: That’s the same. I live in a semi-rural area. There’s a hill near where I live, a country road. At the top of the hill, I’ve gotten so many ideas. I run over there. That’s about a mile, or maybe mile and half. So it’s like, up waiting for me on top of that hill will be some idea. Now, that’s obviously a mystical, superstitious notion on my part. Yet it seems to happen quite often. So if I’m stuck trying to work out a plot at my desk — I’m sitting right now at my desk. I really can’t work it out here. I have to go somewhere else, preferably up the big hill. And I need to be alone with my thoughts.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about once you have set foot into this exploratory process of writing. Even if you have some landmarks laid out ahead of time, let’s just say the beginning and the end — actually, before I hop to that, I’m going to ask you about revision. But when you say you have an idea of where it ends, or you know the ending, is it just a concept? Is it finished prose? Is it a finished page? Is it a paragraph? What does knowing the end look like, concretely?

Joyce Carol Oates: It’s pretty definite. It’s like knowing you get in your car, and you’re going to drive to San Francisco. And you want to go to San Francisco. You don’t want to wind up in Salt Lake City or somewhere in Montana. You’re aiming your vehicle for a destination. So it’s just sensible to plan it ahead of time.

Tim Ferriss: If we look at, then, charting this path, and going from point A, beginning, to ultimately Z, the end — San Francisco, like you said. When you have an initial draft, I’ve read that you’re strongly in favor, this is quote: “strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is, or certainly should be, an art in itself.” How do you describe the revision process to students?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I think of revision as so much fun. It’s so exciting. To me, the first draft is like material. And then the second draft, the revision, is my use of that material.

Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joyce Carol Oates: So subsequent revision, I revise all the time. I’m revising a novel now. I don’t even know how many times I’ve gone through it. I tend to write the first chapters over and over and over again, and the second chapters over again. Then, as I go on in the novel, I get more momentum, so I’m going forward a little more fluently. But yet when I come to my desk in the morning, I definitely always revise what I did the day before, and then I get a little momentum moving forward again. But the revision is really like 99 percent of art, I think. There’ve been very few artists who don’t revise. Visual artists may make sketches. They may do several variants of the same scene.

And apart from a real, very small number of composers, just could compose in their heads, like Mozart and, I guess, Chopin sometimes — but then Chopin would work on what he had. He would work on it anyway and revise it, but I think Mozart was probably the most spontaneous creator. But almost nobody’s like that. I mean, Beethoven worked very hard revising. Just about everybody that I ever heard of.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s speak to the revision process. I would love to hear, in more specifics if you’re able, what you’re looking for, what you’re looking to take out, when you’re revising. And it is, I’m sure, second nature at this point, to the extent that maybe it’s hard to describe. But I’ll give an example. Some authors or writers look to, say, first and foremost, remove anything that is confusing, that could be confusing, right, or that is unclear. Or they ask proofreaders to help them, and ask them to indicate, if they had to cut 10 percent or 20 percent, what they would cut. That’s involving other people. But in your case, when you sit down to revise, could you walk us through any of the lenses you use to look at that draft, or the questions you ask yourself as you’re going through? Is there any level of specifics that you might be able to offer?

Joyce Carol Oates: It does depend upon the manuscript. For instance, if I’m working in a gothic mode or a surreal mode, it’s a different voice from sociological realism. Sometimes my writing is social realism, and everything in the novel is authentic. It really happened in some way. If you go to that city, you can walk around and see those streets. There’s a certain pleasure in the verisimilitude of the actual world. James Joyce, who was in many ways a surrealist writer, nonetheless he believed in the beauty and sanctity of the actual, so that one can walk in Dublin and walk through the day of Ulysses. And that’s one way of writing. There’s a poetry in realism. There’s a beauty just in things as they are. However, maybe more than half of our lives are spent in dreams and the unconscious, so that’s a surreal landscape. Every night we sleep, and the perimeters of realism are dissolved with great, extravagant energy, I think. All sorts of images and improbable things sweep into our minds when we’re dreaming. So I like to write in a surreal mode, too.

And if I’m revising a work of fiction that’s surreal, I consider that so very exciting. Because each time I sit down to write or to revise, I will get some goading, some nudging, some hints, something surfacing from the unconscious, so that a sentence that may be relatively simple, by the time I revise, it might be a full page long because something else is pushing at it or pulling at it. It’s like an octopus with many legs, or limbs, or arms. Anyway, the pull of the unconscious, I think, is very powerful. And the more we can let that fuel what we’re doing, the more potent it is. Also the more enjoyable for the writer.

Tim Ferriss: Jumping back to Jonathan Safran Foer for a moment, in — it’s on a website called Identity Theory. It probably appears elsewhere. He mentioned that you gave him a reading list. And I don’t expect you to be able to remember necessarily the exact books or pieces of work that you recommended that he read, but do you have any recollection of how you chose what you did?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, as I remember, when Jonathan was very young — he may have just have been a freshman at Princeton. He was already an experimental writer and artist. As you probably know, his first book was his Joseph Cornell compendium which he brought together, which is most unusual for a young person, to bring together work by older people. Most young writers write their first novel, which is very autobiographical. But Jonathan did not do that. He went in a slightly different way. So I saw in him an experimental personality. And I’m like that myself. But most young writers should not be experimenting. They should just write what they want to write. They may want to write about their parents. They may want to write about their girlfriend or boyfriend, something in the first person that’s funny, that’s droll or witty. They may want to write some satire. But by no means should they try to be experimental, because they’re not ready for it. Whereas Jonathan, I think, was never really that interested in replicating the actual world. He was more interested in experimenting with the medium of writing, which is words.

Now I know that later on he has written much more realistic, even — he’s done autobiographical work. He’s written pretty transparently, I think, about his own life, and about his marriage and family life. He has done different kinds of writing. But because he had an experimental personality, I probably gave him Kafka to read. I don’t remember exactly what it would’ve been.

Tim Ferriss: I want to stick with Jonathan, just one more question, and then move into some different areas. Jonathan also mentioned, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you were the first person to take him seriously, and that you recognized there was such a thing as his writing, his work, so to speak, right? That he had a work, a body of work, in development. That had never occurred to him. When did you personally first have that feeling about your own writing?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, about my own writing?

Tim Ferriss: About your own writing.

Joyce Carol Oates: No. I probably never had that feeling. I did have teachers who singled me out and said very nice things to me. And I had a professor at Syracuse who even wrote a letter to my parents. And because he did that, I did that for Jonathan also. I always remembered that. It was a very short, beautiful letter. It just said, “Joyce is a born writer, and she should be encouraged.” I can’t remember the details of it, and I don’t know if the letter even exists anymore. I hope it’s somewhere. So I thought that I would do that. When Jonathan came along, I wrote to his parents. Now, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but mimicked that original letter. So maybe Jonathan will write a letter, or has written. Maybe it’s a tradition we should carry on, but not overdo. I have not actually done it since. Just once.

Tim Ferriss: That’s quite an honor to bestow upon Jonathan. He’s a very skilled writer. 

As I understand it, and please correct me if I’m getting the details here wrong, but your first book was published in 1963. By the North Gate, which is a collection of short stories. Was that impactful or important to you? Or was just the act of writing, and the fact that you are so continuously writing, more engaging, more important, than that type of milestone would be for many writers? How did that affect you, if at all?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, of course, it was very profound. I was just a very young writer. I had had a number of stories in the Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Awards. So I had been published in magazines, and then some of the stories were anthologized. So the next step would be a book. And it came when I was about — I don’t know. I was about 22 years old, I think, when I received notice that my manuscript had been accepted. So I called my husband at the time, Ray Smith, and told him about this. He was at a university, and I was at home. And I was absolutely disbelieving. I mean, I was so happy. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t hardly believe it. It was, of course, a milestone. It’s tremendously encouraging. I had been encouraged earlier, in preceding years, by various publications, or winning an award, or something. So I had been encouraged. I try to encourage younger writers, too. I’ve endowed a number of awards, fiction awards, at different universities, for young writers.

Tim Ferriss: How do you encourage young writers in your classroom? And that might sound like a strange question, but you’ve had a lot of trial and error, or maybe just lots of trial. I don’t know. Maybe it’s mostly success. You’ve certainly been able to, I’m sure, test a lot of things in the classroom. You’ve been able to see what students go on to do, or how they gravitate to the craft of writing or not. What’ve you found most important, or impactful, in terms of cultivating and encouraging young writers?

Joyce Carol Oates: Most writers who are in my workshop have already been writing for a while. Especially at NYU, they’re graduate writers, graduate students. So they know what they’re doing, and they have a project, and they have their own stories, based on their own lives, experience, imagination. I’m a good reader. I mean, I’m a sympathetic reader and editor for what they’re writing. I don’t tell them what to write. We have a workshop situation where everybody critiques a submission for the day. Everyone has an opinion. We have a conversation. So it really isn’t just a professor. I have opinions, and everybody else does, too. So that a writer, a young writer, might feel, “Well, they liked what I wrote, but they didn’t quite understand it.” Or, “They thought it should be longer.” Or, “They thought it was too long.” So kind of consensus of editorial suggestions in a typical writing workshop. I mainly see my role as being a very sympathetic and careful reader.

Tim Ferriss: What does it mean to be a sympathetic reader?

Joyce Carol Oates: I’m not critical or judgmental. I’m on the side of the writer. I want to see what they’ve done. In other years, in decades past, there were male professors who told women writers that their subject matter wasn’t literary. I mean, even well-known women writers who went on to become famous and win a Pulitzer Prize, they were discouraged by some of these remarks. Now, I would never make it. I would never think it, and I would never say those things. I don’t consider anything not a subject for fiction, if it’s treated well. I try to get writers to write about what they really care about.

Tim Ferriss: I read a beautiful line from you describing a certain aspect of your creative process. This is from the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, Number 72. “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood.’ In a sense, the writing will create the mood.” And you continue to say, later in that same paragraph, “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes … and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” Could you expand on any of this? I mean, I think it’s pretty well put. But I know that there are a lot of people who feel they need to get themselves into the mood to write. Is there anything else you could add to this?

Joyce Carol Oates: No. I definitely feel that you create your mood by working. And I have a work ethic. I come from a part of the world where people did work rather than just talk about it. And so if you feel that you just can’t write, or you’re too tired, or this, that, and the other, just stop thinking about it, and go and work. Life doesn’t have to be so overthought. You don’t have to wait to be inspired. Just start working. Particularly, I think, first go for a long run and a nice walk, and think about what you’re going to do, come home, and start working. But try not to be interrupted. That’s the problem. Most people are living in families, or they’re living with a partner, and the other person has a schedule and expectations. And while you may love your family, they can be the ones who drain you of energy.

For women, that’s always been a problem. Women are nurturing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But women find it very hard to say no. Women writers are always being asked to do things pro bono, to volunteer their time, to do different things, to read manuscripts, to be on committees, and so forth. And the instinct is really to say yes. I say yes on lots of these things. If you’re a careful custodian of your own time, like Philip Roth, for instance, or Flaubert, you would never give away a whole lot of your time. Philip Roth would never — he wouldn’t do one 100th of the things that I do. He was too smart. He knew how to guard his own privacy.

Tim Ferriss: Do you tend to work on multiple projects at a time? I’ve heard you describe being immersed in a project, and as soon as you finish a novel, you get assaulted by all of these new ideas. Do you ever work on multiple projects at the same time?

Joyce Carol Oates: No. I usually focus all my energy on one project. But I’ve been working on a novel right now. But I’m taking a little time off to write a review of a biography for The TLS, and I’m also writing an introduction to a new edition of Dostoevsky’s short stories. So I’m taking time off from the novel. And then, if I’m doing copyediting for — I mean, going through a copyedited manuscript for another book that’s coming out, I’ll take a week off from my novel to work on that.

Tim Ferriss: Part of the reason I ask is, I came across a comment in The Guardian. And this is not only in The Guardian. This is certainly something I’ve come across a few different times when doing homework for this conversation. And that is something along the lines, in different places, the quote, “I don’t have any anxiety about writing. Not really. It’s such a pleasure, and our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering.” That’s from The Guardian. Could you speak more to that? Again, I know it’s self-evident on one hand, but also an uncommon contrast to a lot of lamentations and descriptions of anxiety around writing by other people. Difficulties writing, writer’s block, et cetera. Could you expand on not having anxiety around writing?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I just don’t have it. If I did, I don’t think I would want to be a writer. I would have tremendous anxiety if I were a performing artist, like a pianist, and I had to give a recital. I would be overwhelmed with anxiety, or at least I think I would be. I suppose by practicing every day, by playing three or four hours every day, you get to a point where the technique is just totally, totally internalized, and you don’t have to think about it. And I would be anxious if I were an athlete, competing with other athletes, right, in real time, with people watching you. I would find that immensely anxiety-provoking. But writing, or painting and drawing, these arts are done on our own time. You can take as long as you want. Nobody’s watching you. Nobody cares, either. And it’s a very different medium. As I said, I find it anxiety-producing to even imagine playing piano in front of an audience.

I did that once. I took piano lessons for quite a while, for about 11 years. I would be the student who played the piano when the students marched into the assembly in my middle school. And so I actually did this, and it wasn’t too bad. But being on a stage, performing in front of people who know the music, I would just find that overwhelmingly terrifying.

Tim Ferriss: Is it the real time? That’s my dog barking in the background, if you can hear that. But is it the real-time nature of that, the necessity to deliver in front of an audience in real time, versus being able to take your time, without people really necessarily paying attention or caring? Is that the largest distinction between those two?

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes. But some pages in my novels I’ve rewritten so many times. So there would not be any one time that anyone could watch anything like that. I think when really good, professional musicians are playing, they’ll probably replicate what they’ve done before. I know actors, almost exactly and precisely, do the same performance night after night. It’s internalized in their brains, and they just have to go through it another time. But with writing, every time I look at a page, I can revise it. There has to come an end to this. Eventually you just have to stop doing it. But in theory, James Joyce could still be working on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake because he was like that. He was experimental. And every morning you wake up with some new ideas. You could write another novel. A whole different novel would come out of your mood that morning. But we can’t allow ourselves to do that. That’s just too fantastical.

Tim Ferriss: How do you decide when something is done or when you need to stop? Because you could just continue, otherwise, indefinitely.

Joyce Carol Oates: I try to use common sense. I’m going through a novel now that I’ve gone through probably 10 times. It’s in the computer, so I go through, I scroll through it, and I’m still changing it and changing sentences. I’m taking out paragraphs. I’m moving things around. But this has got to be the last time because the novel’s coming out in August. I’ve been working on it for a year, off and on. And it has metamorphosed quite a bit from the beginning. The main structure was always there, and the main characters, but the sentences always change. But I’ll be done with that by Monday, so then I’ll send that to my editor. And I’m not going to change that anymore.

Tim Ferriss: Looking at 10 tips of yours for writing — I believe these were originally tweets at one point. And it’s, I mentioned, a list of 10. I want to ask about a few of these. And if any of these are incorrect, please correct me. Number one is, “Write your heart out.” Number four is, “Keep in mind Oscar Wilde,” quote, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” And then it goes on. But could you explain why the Oscar Wilde quote?

Joyce Carol Oates: About sincerity? Well, he — 

Tim Ferriss: Yes.

Joyce Carol Oates: He’s being funny. I think he’s recoiling against the kind of deadpan, overwhelming, boring rectitude that one encountered in the Victorian world, where literature was seen as a vessel for ethics and for morality. So a lot of preaching. There used to be a good deal of preaching and didacticism in prose fiction. And he was probably relating to that. So that kind of sincerity is just — it’s just very boring. I mean, one doesn’t want to hear much of that. Literature should be interesting. I think it should be dramatic, and characters should be colorful and unusual, and each sentence should be as original as possible. And then, “Write your heart out” is something that Bernard Malamud said. I’m really quoting him. It’s just write. Write, and write, and write. Don’t hold back.

So, Joyce, I would love to ask you about a few more of these, and then we can move on. The number three in this top 10 list is, “You are writing for your contemporaries, not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity.” Could you expand on that, please?

Joyce Carol Oates: This is probably aimed for people who were English majors and who were reading the great classics. If you’re reading Paradise Lost, or the great plays of Shakespeare, or Middlemarch, or Ulysses, you’re overwhelmed. And those audiences also no longer exist. So you are writing for your own time. You’re writing for your own generation usually, maybe people a little older than you are and then people younger than you are. But basically the audience that revered Paradise Lost is long gone. So this probably doesn’t even have to be told to people in the year 2021. That’s mainly it, that you’re writing for your own time. Sometimes people are writing to impress a parent. Sometimes people are trying to be outstanding and distinguished to impress someone who is not even living any longer. Could be your parent. People have many unconscious motives, but those can be impediments. And I think there’s a natural voice.

Tim Ferriss: If you think back on your own experience as a writer, are there any impediments, short-lived or long-lived, that come to mind for you?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I think I was a little self-conscious in the beginning to write very freely and openly because my parents would read what I wrote. So I may have been a little inhibited, but I definitely tried to overcome that or to ignore it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to be a writer. But I did begin writing under different names. One name was J.C. Smith. I had married Raymond Smith, so I used J.C. Smith as a name for a while, and then was J.C. Oates, which not necessarily a woman, kind of androgynous person. And finally just settled on Joyce Carol Oates, though for a while I had a couple of pseudonyms, but they were women’s names.

Tim Ferriss: And why did you decide to use the pseudonyms? Was that to preempt any type of criticism directed at you? Was it a creative exercise? Did it give you more liberty in your own mind to push to the edges? Why did you use those pseudonyms?

Joyce Carol Oates: The first pseudonym was Rosamond Smith. And I had probably been writing about 20 years. So I wanted to embark upon a new voice, with a different focus. These were more suspense novels, rather like movies, cinematic in movement and structure, without much exposition or background, not as much description. Each chapter was like a scene in a movie, moving forward. These were tonally different. And so I just wanted to have an outlet for a sort of imaginative writing that wasn’t so much in the mainstream, or my usual writing, my conventional or whatever my own writing is. It’s a little more maybe mainstream, and this was more like suspense, psychological suspense novels.

Tim Ferriss: Number eight on this top 10 list. This’ll be the last one on the list I’d love to hear you expand on, and it is, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist, but is reading someone else.” What does “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader” mean to you?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I think it’s pretty self-evident. Just there’s an integrity to the work. You have to express the work, and you shouldn’t be curtailing it or shaping it to impress some person.

Tim Ferriss: So when you write, you do not have any reader in mind. It is a creative process for you and you alone?

Joyce Carol Oates: The work itself has its own integrity. You have to express the work. Each work is different. I mean, if you think of one novel of mine, they’re really quite different from one another. They’re tonally different, and the voices tend to be different. But they’re different in each novel, so there would be no way that I could be writing for one audience. I’m not really thinking of an audience. Can you suggest any one novel of mine that you’ve read that you might have a particular question about the tone or the voice? Because I can’t think so much in abstract terms.

Tim Ferriss: Sure. Yeah. No, it’s more a question of when you work on any given piece, if you ever think of who it is targeted towards. Not to necessarily curtail your creative boundaries, so to speak. I think of it in contrast to something I know, I’m much more familiar with, which is nonfiction. Fiction I really have no experience with whatsoever. But in the world of fiction, thinking about, just as an example, what levels of expertise you assume in your audience, right, as a way of determining how much terminology you need to explain, or omit, or include to make it compelling. This, I guess, just makes me think of, say, John McPhee writing about geology. Right? It’d be very easy to lose the reader, depending on how close you zoom in on some of the details of something like that. So it was really just a broader question.

Joyce Carol Oates: No, let me talk about that. You see, you’ve just suggested a particular work. He wrote that for The New Yorker. He was working with William Shawn, who was an editor who wanted many, many details. And everything had to be very authentic. And the fact-checking at The New Yorker is famous. They’re very, very careful. So John McPhee, writing for The New Yorker, he would write a certain kind of work. If he were writing for TV Guide, or Time Magazine, or The New York Times Book Review, would’ve been very different. That’s a good example in nonfiction of aiming for a particular market. So John McPhee would be given the whole issue of The New Yorker for one of his long nonfiction pieces. And it was tailored for that magazine. And then they all became books, and some of John McPhee’s essays are really classics. I mean, they’re wonderful. So writing for The New Yorker, for him, was perfect. Somebody else may be writing for a pulp magazine, and one is criticized for having a complex sentence structure.

But when John McPhee was writing for The New Yorker, and other people write for The New Yorker, nonfiction — and I have written for The New Yorker, reviews and essays. You definitely are aiming for a certain kind of reader. But that’s a little different from fiction. Fiction is in its own world and has its own voice. And I don’t usually think of there being a particular audience for fiction.

Tim Ferriss: How do you give assignments or think about giving assignments to students?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I can reach in my drawer and look at some of these assignments. I’ve always given assignments to introductory writers. I teach on different levels. I’m teaching advanced fiction at Rutgers this semester. And I taught in the graduate writing program at NYU, and they’re all older students. But at Princeton, sometimes I have taught introductory writers. So I give them assignments. They want assignments. They’re very happy to have assignments. And the assignments really work very well. I’ll see if I can find some and just read some.

Tim Ferriss: Perfect.

Joyce Carol Oates: We have a textbook. And so I assign stories for them to read. And for instance, one assignment is to introduce a character, to read a number of stories, which I have assigned, in an anthology, might be a story by Margaret Atwood, a story by James Joyce, William Faulkner, and then to write just a page where they’re introducing a character. And then, at the end of the introduction, I have the character say something. So that’s not really a story. They don’t have to worry. They don’t have to worry about writing a story. They’re just doing something very basic. And then, in another assignment, I have them write a piece that’s like a memoir, very short. It doesn’t have to be a literal memoir. But it’s like a memoir, like something that happened. “When I was six years old, when I was 10 years old,” or, “Last week.”

Then another assignment, which is very difficult for the students, and I often don’t give it unless I think the students are up to it. It’s a mimicry of prose style. First example is to write a few pages in the style of Hemingway, and then write the same story again, the same material again, in the style of Jack Kerouac, and then, finally, in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. Now that’s an assignment, as I said, I don’t always give because it’s demoralizing for some students. They just cannot do it. I didn’t give it recently. I probably gave it a couple years ago. When I have good students, that assignment’s terrific. They really enjoy mimicking Hemingway and writing a little Hemingway short story. And they really enjoy Jack Kerouac. And they find Lovecraft very challenging. But it’s sort of like with music. If you have gifted pianists, you could give them assignments, and they will do well. Others are just hopeless and demoralized.

I try to measure the assignments according to the aptitude of the students. But then one assignment that I always give, the last assignment in the course, will be to write a short story that turns upon moral decision, some ethical or moral decision in somebody’s life. And they do very well with that. Young people have a natural moral instinct, and they’re interested in morality. And they want to know what’s right and what’s wrong. And I have other assignments, too. I mean, many. I have many different assignments.

One of them I did recently at UC Berkeley, we read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. And instead of writing a critique of the story, I said, “If you want to, you can write a little story from the point of view of one of the characters in The Lottery, a minor character.” And so they did wonderfully with that.

Tim Ferriss: How much of your writing have you, for lack of better term, thrown away? Finished writing. Could be a short story. Could be a poem. Could be anything. Or never looked at once you finished it. Unpublished. I come across mention of, I believe, you tucking away or getting rid of a fair amount of, at least, your early work. Do you have any guess on, or commentary on, how much of your finished work never gets shown to anyone else?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, now I probably publish everything that I do. When I was younger and had more material, sometimes I just didn’t like something, and I would take it out of circulation. Now, in the other room I could show you a huge stack of short stories. And those are stories that were published in magazines, but I never gathered them into a book. Those go back for years. And maybe one or two of them even won some award, like an O. Henry Award. But I never felt that I really wanted to put them into a hardcover collection, for one reason or another. I’m not sure why. But there they are. There are many of them there. Probably about 300, 400 pages that have never been published.

Tim Ferriss: This is also a segue. And really I just have a handful of additional questions. I could keep going, but I think just a few more would be really fun for me. This leads to a question about productivity. Or it’s really a question about a comment that I’ve read of yours on productivity. And that is, quote, “Productivity is a relative matter, and it’s really insignificant. What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones, just as the young writer or poet may have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one.” Do you have any additional comments on the relationship between volume of writing and enduring quality? Or if you want to take that question in a different direction, you could as well. But do you have any thoughts, thoughts to add to that?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, it’s inevitable. If a number of books, some books have come to seem, traditionally, more important than others. That is inevitable. D.H. Lawrence, who wrote a good deal — he’s a brilliant short story writer. But probably only a few of his short stories tend to be anthologized over and over. Same with Faulkner. And with Hemingway, too. Hemingway wrote many, many short stories. But you’ll see the same two, or three, or four stories reprinted quite a bit. There are probably Jane Austen novels that are — Pride and Prejudice, and Emma, and then you get to Mansfield Park. Not as many people would read that.

Same with Shakespeare. Measure for Measure, just not as popular as Hamlet. It’s not as important a play. But it has wonderful things in it. Troilus and Cressida is a fascinating play of Shakespeare. But if you’re only going to teach two or three plays of Shakespeare, you would not be teaching Troilus and Cressida. You would be teaching Macbeth, and Lear, and Hamlet, and maybe Othello. Those are the ones that come to the surface. But the other plays of Shakespeare, I mean, every one of them, even Titus Andronicus, they have much to them. He is always a very remarkable playwright. So if I’ve written 50 novels, not all 50 novels are going to be admired by everyone or by anyone. That’s just not the way it is. So some things just seem to come to the surface. And maybe there’s a perversity. Somebody might prefer Faulkner’s The Hamlet to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. They might prefer Sanctuary to Light in August. But again, with Faulkner, he wrote a lot, and some of it is considered the most important writing in American literature in the 20th century. But usually just two, or three, or four titles.

Tim Ferriss: You have an incredible body of work. Novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, criticism. I mean, the list is extensive, the number of publications even more so. For someone listening, if they have no familiarity with your work, do you have any recommended starting points? I know that you could probably, just as easily, pick any number of different pieces of your work, but are there any that come to mind offhand as places, if people wanted to get an idea, an appreciation, for the range of your work?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, of course, that depends upon what they’re looking for. I have a long novel called Blonde, which is about the private life, really the interior life, of Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean Baker, the person who became Marilyn Monroe. But that novel is about 800 pages long, and so some people might feel that’s just too long. That’s one of my favorite novels of my own. But then, I have novellas that are only like 180 pages long. Pursuit is a new novel that came out last year. It’s really almost like a novella. It’s a short novel. It’s probably only about 200 pages. That’s a novel that’s more like a psychological suspense novel, so that it’s a mystery, and you’re not really sure what has happened until the very end. So if somebody might prefer a much shorter novel that’s driven by a plot, Blonde, which is about Marilyn Monroe, is not really driven by a plot. It’s her life, her complete life. I’ve selected details from her life, but the main parts of Marilyn Monroe’s life are treated in great detail in that novel.

And then I have Them, which is based on my own experience living through the civil disturbance or riot of Detroit in July, 1967. So if you read Them, you’re plunged into Detroit in that era. And it’s a family novel. Some people like family novels. And I love family novels myself, and I write them, too. Many of my novels are family novels. They’re about families, and usually starting with the older generation and then ending with the focus on the younger, just kind of shift in the novel from one generation to the next generation. And often my novels will end — the very final page or paragraph is in the province of a younger member of a family. We Were the Mulvaneys was an Oprah selection. So that’s the novel that more people have read We Were the Mulvaneys than any other novel of mine because it was an Oprah selection. That sort of guaranteed, I think, like a million copies will sell, in the past. It may not be quite like that now with Oprah’s Book Club.

And I have a novel that’s sort of about the Vietnam War. I mean, they’re different subjects. And I have many short stories that are gothic, like the Haunted short stories, Tales of the Grotesque. The Corn Maiden. These are collections of short stories that are surreal or gothic. Horror, literary horror. Some of them have won awards like the Bram Stoker Award for literary horror.

Tim Ferriss: There’s so many elements that go into the publication and release of a book. Sometimes things get just overwhelmed by the news cycle. There could be any number of things happening at any given point in time. Are there any pieces of work that you have published that you are particularly proud of, that you wish had received the same or a higher degree of attention? Right? So you have We Were the Mulvaneys, like you mentioned. That was an Oprah pick, and boom, all of a sudden you’ve got a dozen reprints of this particular work. Are there any others that you’re particularly proud of, and wish had slightly greater visibility when people are citing the better-known works of yours?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, that’s hard to answer. My novel, Middle Age: A Romance came out the week of 9/11. So that was a disaster. But there was so much in the world that was really a disaster and a tragedy that somehow books of fiction didn’t seem that important at the time. But writing has a way of making its own — it makes its own way somehow, I think. There’s a sort of consensus.

Tim Ferriss: For you, what remains, in your mind, to be done, when you’ve done so much? Many people would argue, and have argued, many lifetimes of other writers you’ve compressed into your own, in terms of work. For you, what are the items that remain to be done, if any? Or does that just simply not enter your mind as a question? Is it really just continuing with the craft as you have?

Joyce Carol Oates: No. I guess I don’t really think in those terms. It’s sort of like dreams. We may have had thousands of dreams, but yet when we fall asleep tonight, a succession of dreams tonight are waiting. So it somehow doesn’t matter that you’ve had dreams in the past. It’s the kind of novelty, and originality, and the intensity and urgency of the new story, the new dream, the new novel. And we always have stories to tell. And we are evolving all the time. And we’re discovering things.

As we get older, our perspective starts to change. We start losing many people. When you start losing people in your own family, and people who have been close to you — your parents help to define you, so when your parents pass away, you start to be a slightly different person. And many people who are older are thinking back over their lives, and they have a new perspective, so they may want to write a memoir. Women who lose their husbands are so traumatized by that that they’re sometimes led to write memoirs. I wrote A Widow’s Story, which I would never have thought, I would never have wanted to think I’d be writing, but I did write that.

So, you were asking, if somebody wanted to read my writing, where would they begin? Well, some people like memoirs. So, I’ve written two memoirs, Widow’s Story, which is very raw and immediate, based on my journal of the first three months of being a widow, which is the most painful grief. It starts to diminish a little bit after that, but it never really goes away. And then, more of a full lifetime memoirs, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Story, looking at my life from the perspective of being a writer, but looking at my parents and the farm that I lived on. Many people have read that memoir, and they can identify with it.

Tim Ferriss: Well, Joyce, this has been so much fun for me. Thank you for writing your heart out, certainly. I think you exemplify that. And I would love to just ask if there’s anything else that you would like to say to those people listening, any closing comments or any requests of my audience? Anything at all.

Joyce Carol Oates: If anyone is listening is a writer, I think you basically just have to do a lot of reading, and read what you like to read, and read for pleasure. Often it’s a good idea to read a number of books by the same writer. When I was in high school, I just fell in love with Faulkner, and I read virtually everything of Faulkner. So I was like the only person in my age group who was reading Faulkner. But that really helped me immeasurably. Later on, I went through a D.H. Lawrence phase, a Nabokov phase. I read a lot of Hemingway. I read a lot of Virginia Woolf. The sort of phases that you go through. And if you’re a writer, that’s very natural and very good. Just go out and buy all the paperbacks of Virginia Woolf, and just spend a few months reading Virginia Woolf. It will change your life completely.

Tim Ferriss: I love that. That is excellent advice. I’m doing that with Barry Lopez right now, who — 

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, he’s wonderful.

Tim Ferriss: Just incredible. Yeah. Just recently passed away, but what an — 

Joyce Carol Oates: I know.

Tim Ferriss: What an amazing, amazing, amazing human being and amazing writer. Joyce, I really — 

Joyce Carol Oates: [crosstalk 01:16:34]?

Tim Ferriss: I did not have the opportunity to interview him. I actually read Of Wolves and Men, which so impressed me, and I then started to look into reaching out to him, and I found out he was in hospice. And he passed away just a week into my reading Of Wolves and Men, just a few weeks ago.

Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah. That’s so sad. How old was he?

Tim Ferriss: He was — I’m not going to hazard a guess. I mean, he wasn’t extraordinarily young, because I know that — I’m just imagining that he was probably my age when he published Of Wolves and Men, in I want to say 1978. I’m 43 now. I think he would’ve been older, but I believe, believe it was cancer. I can’t recall the cause. But just getting acquainted with Barry, and reading — I’m about to start his memoir, or what you might consider a memoir, and it’s really wonderful. I mean, I do feel like reading his collected works could really change, not just how I view the craft of writing, but how I look at life, just the lens through which I look at life. And your work has done that for many people as well. So I want to thank you for that.

Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you. Yeah, that’s what we all hope for. Yeah. Okay, well, goodbye.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Thanks so much, Joyce.

Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you.

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One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living (#497)”

  1. Hello Tim,
    I enjoyed this episode and the episode with Steven Pressman immensely. I am just writing to say I hope you will try writing some fiction. I am not a writer myself, but I do make things. And I have had success with them. I have an audience, and they expect and enjoy a certain thing I create. I have the business of my dreams…creative, automated. BUT I know the midlife stuck-ness feeling. It’s freaking awful. The wisdom of Mr Pressman – now is the time the hero can rest, the artist can bloom– was profound. JCO’s observation about energy was, too.

    I really enjoy your talent at asking questions, and your curious nature. I enjoy the shows. I guess I wanted to give a gift back and say…you can do it, and I hope you’ll take that risk, write that fiction. Or…if there is something else the Artist wants to do, do it.