“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.”
— Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) is 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.
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Want to hear another episode with a master of memoir? Listen to my conversation with award-winning author Mary Karr in which we discuss curiosity and presence as a solution to fear, the role spirituality plays in maintaining her sobriety as a former atheist, coping with and expressing the aftermath of trauma, what she wished she’d known about therapy when she was younger, and much more.
SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE
- Connect with Joyce Carol Oates:
Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.
- In Joyce’s estimation, what is the most important “writerly” quality? On the obverse side, what does she consider to be the biggest obstacle to creativity?
- What does Joyce suggest to novice writers for overcoming the obstacles to creativity they’ll inevitably encounter?
- Why does Joyce need to envision the end of a novel and its title before she can really begin writing it? How does her process differ from that of her friend, the late E.L. Doctorow?
- Once Joyce has her title and ending in place to write toward, does she ever change them along the way?
- How does physical activity fit into Joyce’s creative process?
- How fleshed out is a typical ending before the rest of the writing begins in earnest, and what does Joyce’s revision regimen look like? How does she decide what stays and what goes?
- When the writer Jonathan Safran Foer was a student of hers, how did she select what she considered to be essential reading for this budding talent?
- Jonathan says Joyce was the first person to take him seriously as a writer. But what was the catalyst that allowed her to begin taking herself seriously as a writer?
- When By the North Gate was published in 1963, Joyce had already been featured in magazines and won awards for her writing. How important did that first book feel as a personal milestone at the time?
- As “a sympathetic and careful reader,” how does Joyce encourage young writers in her classroom?
- On overcoming writer’s block with a strong work ethic, and why a lot of women seem to struggle with treating the time it takes to create something as a valuable commodity.
- Does Joyce work on multiple projects at once, or does she commit to just one at a time?
- Joyce has said on numerous occasions that she’s one of the rare and lucky writers who doesn’t suffer anxiety around writing. Why does she think this is, and does this apply to all creative endeavors? What would make her anxious?
- As someone who could see new ways to revise a draft upon every inspection, how does she decide when enough is enough and a piece of writing is ready for prime time?
- Why is an Oscar Wilde quote about sincerity included in Joyce’s 10 tips for writing?
- Why does Joyce feel it’s important to write for one’s contemporaries over writing for the sake of posterity? Can Joyce recall any impediments that have stood in the way of her own ability to follow this advice?
- If Joyce believes a writer shouldn’t try to anticipate an ideal reader, who is she writing for? How does one stay true to this sentiment when writing for a publication with a particular kind of audience?
- What kind of writing assignments could one of Joyce’s students expect to take on? What kind of assignment might she bring out to challenge her more advanced students, and how might it differ from something she’d assign a class of younger people?
- How much of Joyce’s own work has she discarded before sending it to an editor or just removed from circulation?
- On productivity: what does Joyce feel is the relationship between quantity and enduring quality of one’s work?
- Of her own prolific body of work, what might she suggest first to someone who wants to get acquainted with it? Are there any she wishes could have been released with the same high profile treatment as We Were the Mulvaneys when it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club?
- For someone who’s already written what would take most authors several lifetimes to accomplish, what’s still on Joyce’s list?
- A final word of advice to writers and aspiring writers, and other parting thoughts.
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