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.