LectureHop: Joyce Carol Oates On Revision
Written by Bwog Staff
Intrepid Lecture Hopper Anna Kelner headed to Philosophy this blustery February evening to hear Joyce Carol Oates speak about the process of revision, a part of The Creative Writing Lecture Series at the School of the Arts.
The cups of wine, the plaid, the audience taking notes on Moleskine journals: the School of Arts clearly hosted the Joyce Carol Oates: Revision lecture, a talk geared towards graduate students laboring over their Ulysses. As a second-year fiction student introduced Oates rattled off the author’s many accomplishments–she has published over fifty novels, plays, and collections of poetry and essays, is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prizes multiple times–a clear affinity between Oates and her literary listeners emerged.
Oates acknowledged her specialized audience when she opened by admitting conspiratorially that, “being writers, we love to talk about craft.” Far from discussing her famed penchant for the modern Gothic novel, Oates spoke about her craft itself, stressing the importance of uninhibited writing. She works as quickly as possible to “get everything out” in longhand, preferably on an airplane. With her trademark humor, Oates led her audience through her mental process; “I’m looking out to see if the flames have started on the wings of the plane yet” she quips, “and they aren’t quite visible yet, and then I think, ‘I’ll finish this chapter before the plane crashes.’”
Oates also shared a chapter detailing Ernest Hemingway’s suicide from her collection Wild Nights, which features stories about the deaths of writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. The excerpt, fraught with descriptions that penetrate Hemingway’s ravished body and turbulent thoughts, demonstrated the benefits of Oates’ intuitive writing style. The author claimed that writing is “trying to express what is inexpressible”; by capturing Hemingway’s final, desperate moments, she “tried to express what he couldn’t.”
The audience demonstrated their literary know-how during the question and answer, when many students asked Oates to expand on the specifics of her loose writing process. Even after professing her admiration for Hemingway, the king of terse sentences and buried meaning, she encouraged students to abandon their self-conscious style and reveal their true selves on the page. Oates sounded as though she was lecturing a class of her own students when she cautioned, “the fear of being sentimental, the fear of being too obvious, is a fear writing students have. I say, be self-evident, be obvious, and we’ll tell you if you’re being too obvious.”
Oates ended on the same intimate note by leaving her listeners with humor rather than further sage advice. “When I walked in and saw the full room, I was shocked,” she said. “I thought everyone would have the sense to stay home on such a cold night.”