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 …”

Lamott on writing

To write about writing is an odd business.  As with George Orwell’s essay Why I Write (one I commented on a few days back), to do it profitably requires a level of self-awareness, even vulnerability, that few are prepared to risk.   What’s more, to write about one’s own writing can end up being more self-indulgent than anything genuinely empowering of others.  That said, the few who do it well do it very well.  The North American writer Anne Lamott is one of those.

Lamott is a gifted writer … disarmingly honest, often funny and always real. The giveaway is just how easy she makes it look. Which, of course, it’s not. Her popular autobiographical Travelling Mercies is one the most captivating spiritual memoirs I’ve read.

This book, Bird by Bird, is her reflection on writing. There so much that’s good in what she says. If you are at all interested in writing, either as observer or participant, it’s well worth your time.

Some quotes out of context:

On the value of writing:

‘ … publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed to tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.’

On the spirituality of books:

‘ … for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that our of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.’

On the blight of perfectionism:

‘ … perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force … Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.’

On the vulnerability that good writing requires:

‘ … you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in–then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.’