The Faith of a Writer: An Introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, 2003

F4832272-91D4-4FB9-890D-01CD03D76689Writing is the most solitary of arts. The very act of withdrawing from the world in order to create a counter-world that is “fictitious”—“metaphorical”—is so curious, it eludes comprehension. Why do we write? Why do we read? What can be the possible motive for metaphor? Why have some of us, writers and readers both, made of the “counter-world” a prevailing culture in which, sometimes to the exclusion of the actual world, we can live? These are questions I’ve considered for much of my life, and I’ve never arrived at any answers that seemed to me final, utterly persuasive. It must be enough to concede, with Sigmund Freud in his late, melancholy essay Civilization and Its Discontents, that “beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.”

Each of these essays, written over a period of years, represents a distinct facet of writing to me. Obviously, the so-called creative impulse begins in childhood, when we are all enthusiastic artists, and so I’ve included several essays about childhood experiences and predilections. 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 of this art as a craft. Without craft, art remains private. Without art, craft is merely hackwork. The majority of the essays deal with this issue, most explicitly in “Reading as a Writer: The Artist as Craftsman” which focuses upon several works of fiction in analytic detail. Young or beginning writers must be urged to read widely, ceaselessly, both classics and contemporaries, for without an immersion in the history of the craft, one is doomed to remain an amateur: an individual for whom enthusiasm is ninety-nine percent of the creative effort.

Because writing is solitary, and yet an art, we can “learn” something about it; though fuelled by the unconscious, we can make ourselves “conscious” and even rather canny—to a degree. Certainly we can learn from others’ mistakes, not only our own. We can be inspired by others’ inspirations. In the essays “Notes on Failure,” “Inspiration!” and “The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism” I’ve suggested a commonality of psychological/ aesthetic issues perhaps unsuspected by the individual writers (Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf among others) who saw themselves, as most of us do, as solitary in their efforts. And there is the eerie dislocation of identity that all writers come to feel, especially with time: that we both are, and are not, our writing selves (“ ‘JCO’ and I”).

When did you know that you were going to be a writer? is a question writers are frequently asked. To me, the very question is a riddle, unanswerable. My instinct is to shrink from it: the assumption that I think of myself as a “writer” in any formally designated, pretentious sense. I hate the oracular voice, the inflated self-importance of the Seer. Bad as it is to encounter it in the world, it’s worse to encounter it in oneself!

The spirit of The Faith of a Writer is meant to be undogmatic, provisional. More about the process of writing than the uneasy, uncertain position of being a writer. In my life as a citizen as in my life as a writer I have never wished to raise any practice of mine into a principle for others. Underlying all these essays is my prevailing sense of wonderment at how the solitary yields to the communal, if only, sometimes, posthumously. 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. Out of the solitariness of the individual this culture somehow emerges, variegated, ever-alluring, ever-evolving.

Joyce Carol Oates
March 2003

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