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The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982 Hardcover – October 2, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Writing is... a drug, sweet, irresistible, and exhausting, writes Oates in this fascinating and significant record of an artist's life. She was 34 when she began this experiment in consciousness, which follows the gestation and writing of many of her most important works. Oates, readers come to realize, is intensely disciplined, exquisitely sensitive, unflaggingly—almost morbidly—introspective, concerned with philosophical issues, attuned to mysticism and acutely responsive to the natural world. Although she abhors being described as prolific, she writes daily, with feverish energy; she herself uses the word obsessed. If a day or two passes when she isn't writing, she feels profound worthlessness. Teaching, she reveals, is a vital component of her well-being, although it often leaves her exhausted. The journal records her relationships with contemporary authors, including Philip Roth, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Gail Godwin, Stanley Elkin, John Gardner and Donald Barthelme. She is candid about her intensely intimate marriage to Raymond Smith, her lack of maternal instinct and the hours she spends at the piano, an obsession almost equal to her writing. Overall, this journal immerses the reader in a complex, searching, imaginative personality—an artist who continues to refine her search for literary expression. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Oct. 2)
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Already famous as a provocative, category-defying writer three decades ago, Oates began keeping a journal, which she referred to as "an experiment in consciousness," in the wake of a "mystical experience." Accordingly, the mysterious way stories and novels come to her is an underlying theme in this exceptionally lucid and affecting chronicle. Johnson, Oates' biographer (Invisible Writer, 1998), has edited with sensitivity entries from the now mammoth journal's first decade. Oates writes about her loving marriage to Raymond Smith, her heart condition, her passion for teaching, and the evolution of her writing process. In 1975, she notes that she wouldn't want to be known as prolific, already sensing the negative response to her volcanic creativity. Few living writers fascinate readers as Oates does, and this generous volume is rich in literary and personal revelations, including Oates' confession of her need to write about her family's hidden past, which culminated, 25 years later, in a tour de force, The Gravedigger's Daughter (2007). The line that best conveys the essence of this American master? "I feel so much." Seaman, Donna
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I feel like telling her to nourish herself physically and to take some time to enjoy the satisfaction of completing a work before planning another. I suppose the agony and the ecstasy is what having an all-consuming talent is about.
Despite the fact that she spends an incredible amount of time on writing, she does enjoy time with her husband, students, friends, music, and nature, making for a somewhat balanced life. Her journals are a very enlightening peek into an ambitious writer's life.
Embarrassed by her prolificacy after being criticized for it, Oates dives into other interests that happen along (piano lessons, playwriting, book reviews, etc.) to try to distract herself from her incessant writing. "My image is of someone obsessively writing and producing and publishing feverishly..." (p.99). She wants very much to write more slowly, to be more "normal," but once she gets going on an idea she is unable to pace herself. "...Notes on "Bellefleur." More from Raphael's point of view. But slowly. Slowly. I want to take months, years, with this..." (p.263). But despite her desire to write this 592 page novel slowly, her first draft would be completed in eight months and the revision completed in another month and a half.
By the time I reached the middle of the book I was fairly certain of her obsessive/compulsive tendency. Her urge/need to write has a stranglehold on her mind, except when she is obsessing on something else (like music). The hunger - so common in her early characters - is nowhere to be found in the Oates of the journal. What I do find is a marked lack of interest in food. Maybe the physical hunger and cravings for food, with which she endows her characters, is her way of exploring these emotions and feelings to find out what she is missing. In Oates, that hunger/longing is manifested in a powerful creative urge. Only when she is actively involved in classroom instruction or visiting with friends and colleagues, can she push her writing voice away from the forefront of her mind. But even then, the voice is not stilled - merely muffled. Her mind is always writing, writing, writing, the words tumbling over one and other, recording themselves, to spill out later at the slightest beckoning. "I have all I can do to contend with the images that rush forth, in the fullness and complexity of my ordinary days" (p251).
This journal is so intimate and soul-bearing, I am repeatedly struck by her generosity in sharing it with us. One wonders why, since she can't possibly need the money or the name recognition. Perhaps it is apologetics for her phenomenal prolificacy (she has written at least 70 books and probably closer to 100) - a need to convince her critics that she labors as hard over her work as any other writer does. Whatever her reason, as a longtime fan, I am grateful for a chance to get the story behind the writer. I closed the book reluctantly and with hope that more decades of her journaling will someday be published.