Princeton Weekly Bulletin April 5, 1999

Total pleasure

Oates says teaching provides "a privileged space" in her demanding life as a writer

By Caroline Moseley


Joyce Carol Oates
(photo by Mary Cross)


I always wanted to be a teacher," says Joyce Carol Oates, Berlind Professor in the Humanities. Happily for Princeton students, she has managed to realize that "earliest dream" of teaching, while at the same time becoming one of America's most celebrated writers.

She has taught creative writing here since 1978 to students she characterizes as "industrious, bright, imaginative and inventive."

In her creative writing workshops, she says, "My pretense is that all of us are editors for a magazine that publishes high quality fiction. We have accepted a manuscript, and now we're going to improve it. We talk about each student's work while the student listens, and at the end he or she can ask questions."

Fiction in different modes

Lately, Oates has been using a textbook she created based on her own teaching experience, Telling Stories: An Anthology For Writers (1998).

"I suggest that students look upon fiction in different modes," she says, beginning with "miniature narratives." Students read such short pieces as Chekhov's "The Student" or Katherine Mansfield's "The Wind Blows," and then write short pieces themselves. "A student who couldn't write a 20-page story," Oates points out, "may write a very good two-page story." Students also look at early stories by famous writers, such as Kafka's first published story ("The Judgment") or a story Carson McCullers wrote at the age of 17 ("Wunderkind"). The aspiring writers thus "see what some of these famous authors were doing at the age the students are now," says Oates.

She is uncomfortable with the concept of teaching "creative writing," as if writing were opposed to other forms of expression. "You can be creative in many different ways," she says. "Writing is one form of creativity and has a certain visible consequence, but there are many other kinds of creativity that don't have that visual manifestation."

And while "all people are creative," Oates "wouldn't pick someone out of a crowd and say, 'I insist that you write.'" The students in Princeton's creative writing classes "are allowed in by application. They're all already writing," she says. "This is something they want to do."

A privileged space

Teaching does not distract Oates from her literary pursuits but rather provides "a privileged space, a sacred space" of intellectual refreshment and psychic ease, she says. "My relationship to writing is very tense. I'm obsessive about my writing. I keep trying to get it right. What is the ideal pacing of the chapter? What are the dominant images? What's the best language to express this particular drama? It's like having a knot that's terribly tangled, and you're trying to untangle it."

This "state of complete anxiety" dissipates, however, when she enters the classroom, which is "a total pleasure." There, Oates thinks "only about my students. I take up their work and try to deal with their literary problems very thoroughly, as if they were bits of my soul."

Teaching is "a sort of spiritual commitment," she says, "very beneficial to the person who does the teaching as well as to the students. I think I was born to teach."

Extensive corpus

Whether because of or despite her "obsessiveness about writing," Oates has produced an extensive corpus of works. She has written some 40 novels and novellas (some under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith), as well as innumerable stories, essays, poems and reviews. Still, she does not regard herself as especially prolific. "I don't think I have any more time in my day than anyone else," she says. "Basically, I'm just doing my work." Her most recent publication is The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque (1998).

Oates's literary reputation takes her on the road a fair bit these days. She writes in longhand, "So I write everywhere. I do a lot of work on airplanes; I write in motels and hotels. I come back from a trip with stacks of notes. Then I take them to a typewriter and elaborate somewhat, make more of a scene from the notes."

The typewriter of choice has "a little memory" but no screen. A disaffected computer user, Oates found herself at one time "hypnotized by my word processor. I was working 12 hours a day. I felt I could probably work forever, like one of those rats whose brain has been stimulated in a particular place. I needed to get back to a more old-fashioned way of writing." Now, with her "scribbles" and typewriter, "I can look out the window and feel more human. I'm very happy with that."

American epic

Oates is currently at work on "a long novel. It has a chokehold on me now. It will be over 1,000 pages, the longest novel I've written." She expects to trim it somewhat during revision, a process she regards as "polishing--it is a great pleasure." Called "Gemini: An American Epic," the book will be about "the childhood and girlhood and womanhood of the person we know as Marilyn Monroe."

For the novel Oates has done "a lot of research into the politics and culture of the 1950s. There are so many things to keep in mind--characters, context. I guess that's why writing is so absorbing. It's a complete world."

She is particularly interested in Monroe "because I want to write about acting, about what kind of person becomes an actor." Actors are the opposite of writers, she believes: "An actor is completely dependent upon an audience to define her or himself, whereas a writer can conceivably write and never show it to another person. An actor is dependent upon the audience to complete her or himself. I think it has to do with being wounded in childhood, as Marilyn Monroe was."

Oates grew up in Lockport, NY, attended Syracuse University and earned a master's degree in English at the University of Wisconsin. A trustee of the Guggenheim Foundation, she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. Named Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in 1988, she has also taught at New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.