Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2004
Price: $11.95
ISBN-10: 0060565543
ISBN-13: 978-0060565541

"Art," writes Joyce Carol Oates, "is the highest expression of the human spirit." And while humankind has often struggled to express why it is that art is so very necessary to our spirits (why is art the first course cut in public education when budgets require constraint?), we cannot exist without it. Art is, in great part, our communication with each other, our attempt as social animals to connect, but first and foremost, as Oates goes on to describe, it is our solitary striving to go deep - into ourselves, connecting with our innermost and hidden hearts.

In this collection of essays, Oates, known perhaps more for her amazing ability to be one of the most prolific writers of all time (something she says in one of her essays that she does not quite understand, that is, why she is seen as prolific ... to which point, I urge the author to check out her own list of published works, in and of itself a short book), examines the art and craft of writing. These are not necessarily essays written one to build upon another, but separate and independent pieces, including an interview done with Oates to discuss her fictionalized history of Marilyn Monroe, Blonde.

Included in this collection are biographical essays on how Oates grew up, her childhood and one-room school days, a time of discovery that reading books was entering a new world beyond this one. Fittingly, Alice in Wonderland was the first book that so mesmerized her and has kept its hold on her lifelong. Dropping down the rabbit hole into a world that was a surprise at every turn, where all things were open to re-creation, where one is never quite sure one will be able to return fully to that other reality, is not unlike the life of a writer.

Also, essays on honing the craft prior to the art - and that would always begin, and never end, with reading. Reading and reading, endlessly reading, and she puts an almost equal importance on reading the classics, but no less the not quite classics, such as comic books. All can teach the writer - something about language, something about storyline, something about plot movement and suspense and conflict and resolution. It is not so much what one reads as that one reads.

There are also essays on a writer's space, what it might and should contain, the art of self criticism, the squishy business of inspiration, surely important notes on failure, and others along that vein. Even a piece on running and writing, how Oates finds that much of her writing happens first in her head, long before it reaches paper (she writes her first drafts always in long-hand), and so running seems to be an activity especially conducive to unstringing such creative and transportive trains of thought.

Above all, Oates states, immerse yourself. If writing is about craft first, the learning of grammar and sentence structure (and she is one of those writers who revises as she writes) and other such primary tools, then it enters that ephemeral world of Art - like dropping through the rabbit hole - when one dares to leave this world and fully enter into that one. Immersion. Nothing less.

"I believe that we yearn to transcend the merely finite and ephemeral; to participate in something mysterious and communal called 'culture' - and that this yearning is as strong in our species as the yearning to reproduce the species."

Perhaps because fine art, in any medium, is itself a kind of reproducing the species. And giving it new life.

While this is not my favorite book of writer writing about writing - that spot is reserved for Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, Bret Lott's Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of a Writer's Life, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life - it was satisfying. I found in some ways a kindred spirit, for I, too, prefer a first draft in longhand, revise along the way, feel that writing is like entering a trance not unlike madness, and wrote my first "masterpieces," just as Oates did, even prior to knowing HOW to write. I saw my parents writing, and although I had no idea what those scribbles meant, I was well amused to sit for hours doing the same. Rows and rows of looping and connected lines, containing magic. With a writer's faith that someday, somehow, someone will read my scribbles and sense the magic, too. As did Oates, today as mesmerized by that process as she was as a child. Therein, one suspects, lies the explanation to her ability to be that prolific.

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