Oates on Writing

OK, so it was on the clearance table for $6. For the title alone I thought it was worth the money. The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art is a collection of essays by the North American author Joyce Carol Oates, each one previously published in other places. Most of it I happily read, though some parts with more care than others.

In the essay To a Young Writer, Oats offers the following:

“Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.”

“Your ‘forbidden’ passions are likely to be the fuel for your writing.”

“Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; … Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely that you will create anything of substance.”

“Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances, and compare yourself to others among your peers! Writing is not a race. No one really ‘wins.’ The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.”

“Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read.”

In Inspiration!, Oates quotes writer James Joyce from a letter to his brother Stanislaus:

“There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do … to give people a kind of intellectual or spiritual pleasure by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own … for the mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.”

And this rather too convicting aside from her essay The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism:

“The strain of trying always to write beautifully, with originality, with ‘exultant’ force can be self damning, paralyzing. There is both vanity and humility in the despair of the perfectionist …”


  1. Yep. Oates talking about forbidden passions really hits home. When I’m least in control of what I’m doing and not thinking “My that is certainly inappropriate of me to say” then my writing tends to be very, very good.


  2. Hi Simon,
    “Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read.”
    As a writer, I feel everyone wants me to read widely, and all I want to do is read very, very narrowly, without apology: only what is the very best, only what will make my writing the very best…
    Jen 🙂


    1. Follow your own writer’s nose, I reckon Jen. For a long time I felt guilty for not having read the ‘great books’ that others determined essential to an aspiring writer. Now when I walk into a bookshop or library, I pick up the books that I would want to read, or perhaps those I would like to have written. Reading should not be about ‘shoulds’, for writers or readers. Thanks for dropping by!


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