Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Joyce Carol Oates’

19 JUNE, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates on What Hemingway’s Early Stories Can Teach Us About Writing and the Defining Quality of Great Art

By:

On the elusive gift of blending austerity of craft with elasticity of allure.

Besides being one of the most influential, beloved, and prolific authors of our time, Joyce Carol Oates is also a person of extraordinary capacity for beholding beauty.

In a recent conversation at The New York Public Library’s excellent Books at Noon series, Oates discussed her journey of becoming a writer and counseled aspiring writers to read Hemingway — who himself had some memorable advice to young writers — not only in order to understand how to craft beautiful literature but also to understand how art, more broadly, enchants the human soul:

The early stories of Hemingway are very wonderful for young writers because they’re beautifully crafted, almost skeletal — there’s nothing extraneous in them. They look easy, and they’re not easy… When you read early Hemingway stories, you’re reading very fluidly — and when you’re all finished, you’re not sure what it means… It’s somewhat like a riddle, so you read it again.

And that’s, I think, what art is — art makes us go back to it a second or third time. It seems as if it’s accessible, but maybe it’s not so simple.

What a great addition to history’s finest definitions of art and an exquisite articulation of what art does for our psyche.

Complement with Hemingway himself on writing, knowledge, and the dangers of ego, then see this perpetually updated collection of notable wisdom on writing.

Find Oates’s own beautifully crafted books here and help support The New York Public Library here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 MAY, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates on Wonder, Consciousness, and the Art of Beholding Beauty

By:

“How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, and scientists, private as they are, are often reminders not only of their humanity but of our own, brimming with deeply and widely resonant insights on our shared struggles and yearnings. Such is the case of The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library) — a chronicle of Oates’s characteristically self-reflexive, sometimes self-conscious, but always intensely intelligent and perceptive meditations on literature and life.

One of her most beautiful reflections, penned on a cold December morning in 1977 — a pivotal time in Oates’s life, shortly before her 40th birthday and a few months prior to her admission into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — falls somewhere between Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Snowed in at her home in Windsor, Oates contemplates the “blue wild snow-glaring world outside” and marvels:

How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look.

She watches a “puffy-feathered female cardinal” rustle in the bush outside the window, picking at the bright red berries in a coat of her own colorful plumage as “the male hits the eye like a sudden manifestation of grace, or even of God.” Witnessing this whimsical vignette, Oates pauses to consider her very capacity — our human capacity — to behold such beauty:

Queer, in fact maddening, to think that “beauty” in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist. For though the birds and other creatures “see” one another they don’t, I assume, “see” beauty. And what of certain mollusks that secrete extraordinarily beautiful shells which they themselves never see, since they have no eyes; how on earth can one comprehend that phenomenon…?

…The patterns exist in our mind’s eye, in our human calculating consciousness. Yes, but: they do exist, they are quite real, one is surely not deluded in assuming that seashells do have exquisite patterns. And what is their purpose? Not for camouflage, certainly. In fact they stand out, their colors and designs are so striking.

She ends with a “tentative conclusion” that echoes young Virginia Woolf and shares in Richard Feynman’s awe at the glory evolution, considering the marvels of our consciousness:

All of nature, all of the given “world,” is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it. But all of creation participates. Is this a sentimental notion, is it perhaps romantically far-fetched? I really don’t think so: it’s the only possible conclusion. And that certain creatures evolved their forms of beauty before the world actually had eyes… before it had any “eyes” at all… seems to me evidence (poetic if nothing else) that evolution, or whatever is meant by evolution, already included the highest form of consciousness at the very start: anticipated it, I mean.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates is a richly rewarding read in its entirety. Complement it with Oates’s 10 tips on writing and her exploration of the divided self of the creative person.

For more beloved writers’ diaries, peek inside those of Anaïs Nin, Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Sontag.

Photograph of Joyce Carol Oates by Marion Ettlinger

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

20 JANUARY, 2014

The Creative Cleft: Joyce Carol Oates on the Divided Self and the “Diamagnetic” Relationship Between Person and Persona

By:

“No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The ‘artist’ can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to ‘art.’”

“I am more interested in human beings than in writing … more interested in living than in writing,” Anaïs Nin wrote when graciously declining being profiled in Harper’s Bazaar in 1946, an act of resistance against the tendency of such cultural reportage to flatten out a creative person into a static, one-dimensional self rather than a vibrant human being full of conflicting dualities. In fact, we now know, thanks to modern psychology, that the notion of unchanging personality is a myth, just as we know that the left brain vs. right brain divide is scientifically misleading and the cultural polarities we subscribe to are psychologically toxic. But perhaps one of the greatest divides that we humans, woven of inner contradictions as we are, have to grapple with is that between person and persona, our private and public self, the inner world and its outer expression — and hardly any species of human is more chronically bedeviled by this drudging duality than the writer.

In Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library) — the same superb Borges-inspired 1995 volume that gave us famous authors’ hand-drawn self-portraits and the story of Edward Gorey’s pseudonyms — comes a remarkable meditation on the subject from Joyce Carol Oates, in a short essay titled “‘JCO’ and I” and prefaced by her own collaged self-portrait.

'JCO'

Oates begins:

It is a fact that, to that other, nothing ever happens. I, a mortal woman, move through my life with the excited interest of a swimmer in uncharted waters — my predilections are few, but intense — while she, the other, is a mere shadow, a blur, a figure glimpsed in the corner of the eye. Rumors of “JCO” come to me thirdhand and usually unrecognizable, arguing, absurdly, for her historical existence. But while writing exists, writers do not — as all writers know.

Noting that she always beholds photographs of her likeness with “faint bewilderment,” Oates urges the reader not to be deceived about the difference between the likeness and the self, and adds a poignant meditation on the odd cultural tendency to turn a living writer’s persona into taxidermy while the arrow of time carries the person along the trajectory of human life:

“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?

Oates considers the notion of art as something external to the individual, something that inhabits him or her rather at random, and adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.

It would be misleading to describe our relationship as hostile in any emotional sense, for she, being bodiless, having no existence, has no emotions: We are more helpfully defined as diamagnetic, the one repulsing the other as magnetic poles repulse each other, so that “JCO” eclipses me, or, and this is less frequent, I eclipse “JCO,” depending upon the strength of my will.

Oates returns to the central divide between the likeness and the self:

And so my life continues through the decades…not connected in the slightest with that conspicuous other with whom, by accident, I share a name and likeness. The fact seems self-evident that I was but the door through which she entered — “it” entered — but any door would have done as well. Does it matter which entrance you use to enter a walled garden? Once you’re inside, and have closed the door?

For once, not she but I am writing these pages. Or so I believe.

Who’s Writing This? is excellent in its entirety. See more authors’ meditations on the subject here.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.