“‘Give up Samuel Beckett! Go on and do something else! You won’t find a single reader for your work!’
And yet Samuel Beckett, and someone like Kafka, and other great writers, create the audience. “
How to Tell A Story
by Iris Monica Vargas
The sunrays stream forlornly – the river of light bounded by the silky drapes of the window it crosses. A woman sits at the elegant mahogany table that lies in front of the window. Her face is poorly made up, in the manner of a women or a girl who knows little about cosmetics. Her makeup is dry, and in some areas darkened, like mud. And when Joyce Carol Oates wakes up, she is agitated, her heart “beating very hard.” Oates cannot shake the girl’s eyes from her mind.
“That’s where the idea of mud on her face came from,” said Mrs. Oates, referring to the dream that hunted her since, and which triggered “Mudwoman”, her latest novel released this year (2012). “I had no idea where her image came from, but there was a sense that this person was a mirror of this agitation I was feeling then. And I woke up that morning and I thought ‘who was that?’ and ‘what are the circumstances that drove her to that room?’”
That was 2006. “It took all these years to think about this, kind of contemplating who this person might be.”
Mrs. Oates spoke to an audience at First Parish Church in Harvard Square on the evening of the 30th of March. She spoke about the book and its underlying premise: “It’s not just about a person having a breakdown, which I think is tragic, and in a way not uncommon. It’s very much about a person putting herself together after the breakdown, and coming up.” And she also answered questions from her audience. She prefaced the Q&A section by saying, “You can ask me about anything, really. It doesn’t have to be about my writing.” Her audience’s selection was clear, however: her writing. Nobody wanted to miss the opportunity to discuss the subject with Mrs. Oates.
Joyce Carol Oates is like few, both in trajectory and in humility. She addresses her audience with respect, encouraging emerging writers like few other seasoned practitioners of the craft choose to do. And such behavior is humbling considering her record. In 73 years of life she has produced 56 novels, 30 collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, in addition to book reviews, plays, essays, and nonfiction works on literary subjects such as Emily Dickinson’s poetry and James Joyce’s fiction.
As an emerging writer, I have always been intrigued about the process of telling stories. Specifically, how do different writers come up with the ideas for their works? (Or how do these ideas “chase” them into being.) Oates’ “Mudwoman” arose from a particularly intense dream. But what else assists a writer in selecting a subject matter? I am curious about the process of authorizing oneself to write about a subject of interest. So I asked Joyce Carol Oates: Do you think it requires a certain arrogance from the part of the writer to think that her/his subject of interest is important or will be appealing to others; or is it a matter of following one’s heart wherever it takes one regardless of whether or not someone else, a future reader, will care? What follows is her response.
JCO: Are you a writer?
Me: Yes! (Funny fact: in my mind, I recalled a delay in delivering such answer, but upon listening to my recording, I realize I had offered my “Yes!” rather quickly and emphatically. Interesting to realize…)
JCO: ‘cause it sounds like a question that a writer would ask – self tormenting. (audience laughs)
I always wonder about that… writers so idiosyncratic like David Foster Wallace or Cormac McCarthy, or even a painter like Jackson Pollock… they are so idiosyncratic and extreme… You know, you think, ‘well, who is going to be the audience for Samuel Beckett?’ If you read his early work, you’d yell ‘Give up Samuel Beckett! (audience laughs) Go on and do something else! You won’t find a single reader for your work!’ And yet Samuel Beckett, and someone like Kafka, and other great writers, create the audience. Like Jackson Pollock, for example, he sort of created the audience for his work. Before them there wasn’t any audience for that work because the work didn’t exist! That’s in contrast to conventional and traditional writing where you always have an audience. You always have an audience for a romance story like the women writers were writing in 19thcentury America, for example. They sold many many more copies of their books than Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and Poe – because they already had an audience. But I guess I would rather be that kind of idiosyncratic writer, like David Foster Wallace or Samuel Beckett or Cormac McCarthy. I would rather be a writer that was someone unusual who maybe doesn’t have a popular appeal. I think that maybe we can’t help it. We write about what we have to write about.
As a writer working to develop my own voice in a world with tendencies to bully everything and everyone into a bland song, Oates’ words are encouraging. But the previous sentence is not nuanced enough to express what her opinion makes me feel. If I could just authorize myself to say what I want to say, maybe I, too, could be a Wallace or a Beckett. Maybe you, dear reader, could be too. You see, it’s not about Wallace or Beckett or Oates, or wishing to be like them: it’s about telling your story. And perhaps that is the essence of my question, and the meat of her answer, and exactly how to tell a story.