Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

05 March 2008

A depressing evening with Joyce Carol Oates

“Life sucks, and then you die.”

Joyce Carol Oates did not quote metal band Cerebral Fix when she spoke at the University of California at Riverside on 8 February 2008, but her words clearly echoed the band’s sentiment. In her talk, titled “The Writer’s (Secret) Life,” she discussed the life a writer’s fans don’t see, a life of boredom, rejection, marginalization, and even psychopathology. In fact, she argued that isolation was at the core of creativity.

Jeepers. I had hoped she would speak on feeding creativity or structuring the writing day or balancing writing and other work.

Anyway, she discussed writers who were emotionally wounded as children by their parents’ rejection, such as the Brontë sisters, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, and Samuel Clemens. She then moved on to writers who were driven by hate. Ernest Hemingway loathed his mother, she said; Eugene O’Neill loathed his father, and Patricia Highsmith hated both her parents. Oates listed Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor as other writers motivated by hate.

Next came people who had extraordinary success early, only to flame or fizzle out. These included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, and Harper Lee, whom Oates quoted as saying, “When you are on top, there’s nowhere to go but down.” Oates wrapped up by discussing rejection.

In answering a question from the audience, Oates said that she had written some children’s books so that she could write happy endings. One can’t have simple happy endings in adult books, she said.

I left the talk frustrated that she was content to merely list miserable people who were writers and writers who earned their misery through writing and never got to the heart of the matter: Is it necessary to be miserable to be a writer?

I don’t think so. Certainly, creative people see the world differently, often more realistically, and life without rose-colored glasses can be tough. Certainly, many artists discover truth the hard way, through pain, illness, mistreatment, depression, or drugs or alcohol. Certainly, artists often cannot integrate fully into society, not only because they see the world uniquely but also because their world view, expressed through their art, may alienate or frighten others.

But so what? Outcasts don’t have to be lonely; they can make friends with other outcasts. Counseling (sometimes aided by psychiatric drugs) can help people play the hand life has dealt them. Creative people can transform their pain and achieve meaning in their lives by writing, painting, composing, photographing, quilting, gardening, cooking . . . . or doing all of the above.

You can’t stop misery from knocking at your door. You don’t have to invite it in and give it a bedroom.

That’s my take. What’s yours?


Next week's blog post: an interview with Carleen Brice about her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey.


Sustenance Scout said...

Shauna, I have to admit I've always been fascinated by JCO for various reasons (including her ties to my hometown of Syracuse NY), but now I have to admit maybe it's best I didn't make it to the AWP Conference as planned in NYC earlier this year since she was one of the featured speakers! As for the creativity-depression link, I completely believe it exists but that creativity also holds the link to coping and escaping for so many artists. The creative mind is a bright and wonderful thing that often has a dark and often devastating--and probably necessary--side. Love and humor and family of one sort or another represent powerful antidotes that keep many on track, as do counseling and meds. Whatever works! K.

virtual nexus said...

Shauna - called in to thank you for the surprise comment on photoblog.
Appreciated it.

Eynsford is definitely a peaceful place. (Bit too quiet round here
most of the time, actually!)

Thanks for this post. I probably ought to have heard of Oates but haven't - definitely sounds like she has a depressive worldview and a number of unsorted issues from what you've said.

I think there is a fairly obvious link between mood disorders and creativity, but that doesn't necessarily mean all writers are unstable. Strikes me most writers have to be pretty well balanced these days to cope with the demands of modern publishing!

Take care, Shauna.
Kay R. Jameson's 'Touched with Fire' throws some light on the relationship between bipolar and creativity if you've not come across it.

cs harris said...

I suspect it's true that people with truly happy childhoods aren't as likely to seek refuge in books, aren't as likely to engage in constant introspection, etc. But I love her comment that an "adult" book can't have a happy ending! Novels take a focused look at one pivotal point in a person's life, and "happy" endings are just as "real" and often more profound than the misery "literary" writers love to heap on us. Samuel Clemens took his parents' rejection and used it to fuel wonderful books that have enchanted and cheered millions. So there, JCO!

Charles Gramlich said...

Creativity and imagination are what saved me from lonliness, bitterness, despair, and psychopathology. I do admit that in my early days, I wrote poetry out of despair, but that wasn't true for my prose. I agree with Candice on happy endings as well. They are just as legitimate in the art of fiction as the negative one.

Rae Ann Parker said...

JCO's argument that isolation is at the core of creativity is interesting. I know each writer's process is different. I seem to work best at home at my desk, but after a few days I am clamoring to get down to my local coffee shop to talk to friends (writers and others). So I guess I can only take limited chunks of isolation.

Shauna Roberts said...

SUSTENANCE SCOUT, I agree completely about love and humor and family being powerful antidotes.

I kept wondering through J.C.O.'s talk whether she had any family or friends or social support of any kind. I feared she didn't, given how sad she made the writer's personal life sound.

JULIE, when I was younger, I loved being in the middle of the action in a city. Now that I'm older, I need more peaceful surroundings.

I hadn't heard of Kay R. Jameson's Touched With Fire; thanks for the recommendation. One book I found extremely helpful was The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person's Path Through Depression by Eric Maisel. His Coaching the Artist Within is also excellent, although that one's not about depression.

CANDICE, I thought that was a jaw-dropping statement that adult books can't have happy endings. People can have happy, satisfying lives, so why can't a book be realistic and yet end happily?

Ditto, CHARLES. And now that I've worked through my issues and am a reasonably happy person, I'm just as creative as when I was miserable.

RAE ANN, I think she was talking as much about emotional isolation as social isolation. I too work best at home alone, and being a solitary person, that's part of what I enjoy about writing. But I don't consider myself isolated. You and my other friends are just an email away.

WH said...

A lot to mull over here. I can see where isolation might be part of the equation of being a writer or artist, but only part.

No, it's not necessary to be miserable to be a writer. NY Times best selling author Walker Percy, who haled from these parts, rejected the whole idea of misery feeding art--said it was "posturing" and/or a sign that humanity had the spiritual flu. He believed a good writer could diagnose the malaise of the dysfunctional types that Oates spoke of.

What a downer she must be. No, I agree with you. Don't invite the misery in.

btw, I added you to my link list if that's okay :)

Lisa said...

I don't believe a life of misery is a pre-requisite for a leading a creative life, but I think we have artists can be divided up into groups and the divisions are made based on what the artist is striving to accomplish. In both the visual and literary arts, I believe those most tortured are those who strive do achieve something they believe will be profound and significant and perhaps they seek to create something that reflects in some way on the human condition as they believe it to be.

But those forms are not the only valid forms and therefore, I think that's where the debate comes in. There are those who might say (and being prone to depression at times, I might be one of them) that seeking to discover the truth about humanity and ourselves is lonely, sad and depressing. Some might believe that in the end, we're all alone, that one need only examine a phenomenon like genocide or human apathy or cruelty to believe those things are the true reflection of humanity and that stories about humanity aren't happy ones. At best, those stories might end with hope. I find that being introspective sometimes leads to personal revelation, but rarely are those revelations happy ones. Maybe those kinds of ruminations are the ones that led the writers she mentioned to find their art. Maybe it's what drives her.

But I think it's indicative of a type of art, not the only art and of a type of artist, not all artists. Art and artists are never one size fits all.

No, I don't think misery is a pre-requisite. Quite the opposite, I think perhaps some miserable experience can enrich our understanding of ourselves and others, but it isn't necessary if one is an astute observer of the world around us and that distance from that misery is almost always going to result in a more efficient artist and probably better and certainly more work.

Carleen Brice said...

I totally agree with you. Channel that pain in your work, but being miserable to stay "true to your art" is BS!

Carleen Brice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Farrah Rochon said...

Wow. So, does the fact that I had a pretty decent--dare I say fun--childhood, and lead a happy life mean I'm not a real author? Oh, I also write books with happy endings. There's another knock.

Travis Erwin said...

Sounds like she is seeking to prove the old adage "Misery loves company."

I believe it was Samuel Clemens that said, "A man has to go through a lot of pain to write a good book."

But just because you've seen pain doesn't mean you have to be miserable.

Shauna Roberts said...

BILLY, nice comment from Walker Percy. I don't agree with him entirely—I think one can, and many people do, transmute misery into art. But I agree with the posturing part. It's one thing to use your life experiences to enrich and deepen your writing. It's another to wallow in the bad parts and let everyone know what a martyr you are. It reminds me of medieval holy men who made a display of their holiness by going about with their hair matted and covered in filth and bugs.

LISA, I like your conclusion that distancing oneself from misery can result in more efficient work habits and boost production and quality.

I would argue the nature of humanity is far more complex. Certainly genocide and careless cruelty are far too common and show that as a species we can be truly terrible.

Yet love and duty routinely motivate people to great acts. Three examples. Throughout history, in times of plague and contagion, there were doctors, religious leaders, and family members who did not run away, but cared for the sick and sometimes died themselves in the process. The Underground Railroad helped strangers escape to freedom, even though it was illegal. Sitting on my to-be-read pile is The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, which tells of hundreds of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. As a species, we are also capable of great sacrifice for others.

CARLEEN and TRAVIS, I think you've each condensed it in a nutshell.

Gosh, FARRAH, isn't it good you found out now that you're not a "real" writer, so that you can stop submitting manuscripts to misguided publishers to publish? ;-)

Lana Gramlich said...

I was a much more prolific artist when I was at the lowest point in my life. Once therapy moved me past a lot of the pain, the art just up & vanished. Sure, I could force myself to paint after that, but it wasn't fun, I wasn't engaged in the work & I didn't like the outcomes. Maybe writing's different (& of course, all people are different,) but misery was like high octane gasoline to my art.

virtual nexus said...

Shauna, thankyou for the recommendations. The name Maisel rings a bell; I'll look out for it.

That title might be Touched by Fire -
(Milton quote?). The address at the top has excellent quilts, if you've not come across it.

Bernita said...

I'm with Farrah and the assumption that only angst leads to true creativity and if one is reasonably balanced one is not a real writer.
That position assumes pain is a permanent condition and that those who do not make their problems part of their condition/a current element of their existence have never experienced tragedy and come out the other side.

Sphinx Ink said...

Interesting post, Shauna. I think JCO's view that adult books can't have happy endings must reflect her own life experience. As C.S. Harris said, happy endings are as possible, and as realistic, as unhappy ones.

I agree that misery and pathology can fuel creativity--witness the many artists and writers have been unhappy, even disturbed. However, happy people can be, and are, creative.

I seem to recall reading, or trying to read, one of JCO's books many years ago. I don't think I finished it, possibly because the people in it were conspicuously miserable. I like books with happy or at least optimistic endings.

Therese Fowler said...

This is so interesting...

I saw JCO when she was promoting her latest novel last fall, and she was quite upbeat about the writing life.

Count me in as another writer who is not an unhappy, hate-filled individual. I have low moments, and have been through some tough times, but depression and misery just don't stick to me. And I don't need to be in those low times in order to be creative--good thing, or I wouldn't be a working writer today.

My approach as an author is to access the lows in order to inform my characters' experiences as-needed.

And obviously not all adult fiction has to end in despair! God, what a misleading statement.

Shauna Roberts said...

Sorry, everyone, for taking so long to reply. We had a houseguest, and after he left, I had computer problems to work out.

LANA, sorry to hear that you're in the same boat as J.C.O. in that misery was helpful to your art. I hope you can find a way to be happy and creative at the same time. I suppose it depends on the meaning being an artist has for a person. If it's a means of self-treatment for depression, then perhaps being less depressed makes the art less meaningful and less fun.

JULIE, thanks for the quilt link!

BERNITA, good point. Some people move through tragedy in a way something like the five stages of grief, while sometimes some people get stuck at a stage and stay there. I think people who haven't seen others experience tragedy are sometimes not sure what to do when it hits them.

SPHINX INK, good to see you. I too want a book with a satisfying ending. Books in which the main character is buffeted this way and that by Fortune's wheel and never takes charge of their destiny and ends up just as bad off as they were at the beginning leave me cold. I'd read more "literary fiction" if such plots occurred less often.

THERESE, I was surprised to hear that when you saw J.C.O., she was upbeat about the writing life! Perhaps her talk here came at a bad time in her life. She certainly looked frail and sad.

Sidney said...

I think pain and despair are very much fuel for writing, but you're right, you don't have to wallow in it. I think in most cases writers are introverts and that helps make them write, but introverts can have friends and can reach out to others.

Shauna Roberts said...

SIDNEY, I agree completely. And I would add that joy and love are also fuel for writing, because one needs to know the full spectrum of human emotions to write good characters, not just the down side of existence.

Steve Malley said...

Hi Shauna!

Check out JCO's Faith of a Writer. In its pages, Ms Oates has lots more positive things to say about the writing life. Lots.

And in her crime fiction (as Lauren Graham), 'happy' endings abound. Hero/heroine survives, bad guys get it in the neck. Happy!

That said, I can see a kernel of truth to what Ms Oates said: writing a book is a long and solitary process, inherently antisocial. Sure, you can go right out to dinner and dancing after the day's writing is over, but you still gotta spend that time with butt in seat.

And that time spent is, for me, seldom comfortable. I spend those hours with memories and imagination radically darker than my current, idyllic life.

Shauna Roberts said...

That's good to know, STEVE. I never would have guessed from her talk that any of her adult books had happy endings. When you're doing tattoo or other art, do you find yourself just as uncomfortable as when you're writing?

Steve Malley said...

I have done. Tattooing is more of a craft for me, using drafting an painting skills to make someone happy and put food on the table. There's not much of *me* in it.

But drawing and painting, yeah. Any of my work that involves a narrative slice of the human experience picks up joy and pain. And to be honest, that discomfort is one gauge I use to make sure my work is telling the truth.

Shauna Roberts said...

That's interesting, STEVE. For me, discomfort is a signal that I've shied away from truth. Hitting the mark makes me feel fulfilled or satisfied.