Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Faith of a Writer

The Faith of a Writer is a collection of twelve previously published Joyce Carol Oates essays on writing (1973-2003) and an interview focusing on her Norma Jean Baker novel, Blonde. The essays do not constitute a how-to-write manual (although Ms. Oates does believe that writing skills are a craft that can be taught). Instead, they offer often surprising insights into the world of writing in general, and a rather personal take on how it all works for her personally.

Young writers hoping for inspiration and words of encouragement will find both in the essay entitled “Advice to a Young Writer” in which Oates discusses the mind-set that will help turn aspiring writers into better ones. She advises that they read widely, choosing a favorite author and reading everything written by that author, especially the early work that will likely show that their favorite was probably “groping” for a personal style that only became obvious in later writing. She tells them to write for today, with no concern about what future generations will think of what they write, not to be afraid to expose their deepest feelings, and not to fear being an “idealist.” But perhaps most importantly, she tells aspiring writers not to expect that they will be “treated justly or mercifully by the world.” That may sound obvious to some but, in a world where terrible writers become famous and wealthy while wonderful writers struggle to make a living, it cannot be repeated too often.

But most readers are not aspiring writers despite what we may tell ourselves. For the rest of us, what makes The Faith of a Writer so interesting is the author’s willingness to share some of the secrets known only to those who face a blank page everyday. In effect she answers many of the questions readers always wish they could ask:

  • “When I’m asked, as sometimes I am, when did I know I ‘wanted to be a writer,’ my reply is that I never ‘knew’ I wanted to be a writer, or anything else; I’m not sure, in fact, that I ‘want’ to be a writer, in such simplistic, abstract terms. A person who writes is not, in a sense, a ‘writer’ but a person who writes…” From “Running and Writing”
  • “One is frequently asked whether the process becomes easier, with the passage of time, and the reply is obvious: nothing gets easier with the passage of time, not even the passing of time.” From “Notes on Failure”
  • “Success is distant and illusory, failure one’s loyal companion, one’s stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for otherwise, why write?” From “Notes on Failure”
  • “It is bizarre to me that people think that I am ‘prolific’ and that I must use every spare minute of my time when in fact, as my intimates have always known, I spend most of my time looking out the window.” From “The Writer’s Studio”
  • “Read widely, read enthusiastically, be guided by instinct and not design. For if you read, you need not become a writer, but if you hope to become a writer, you must read.” From “Reading as a Writer”

Those are a few of the quotes that I found particularly meaningful but the twelve essays are filled with other insights and revelations. Perhaps my favorite is one that all book lovers (especially those who “blog” on a regular basis) will appreciate:

  • “…the art of reading hardly differs from the art of writing, in that its most intense pleasures and pains must remain private, and cannot be communicated to others. Our secret affinities remain secret even to ourselves…We fall in love with certain works or art, as we fall in love with certain individuals, for no very clear motive.” From “Notes on Failure”

This little book of essays (about 175 pages) also includes quotes from other writers and insights into their methods and sources of inspiration, something I’ve not touched upon at all. There is much more packed into this fine little collection than one would at first imagine; it has much to offer readers and writers alike.

Rated at: 4.5


  1. Hey, Sam. I recently finished this little gem of a book and it redeemed JCO in my eyes (my only Oates experiences to date were Rape and The Tattooed Girl – the latter scared me a bit). What impressed me especially was how unaffected she seemed, how humble and willing to share her favorites. She’s able to put herself in context, unlike Margaret Atwood who often sounds like she IS the context. By the way, what happened to your blog template!? I haven’t visited for a while but today I thought I was lost. This will take some getting used to!

  2. I'm really happy to see that you enjoyed this one, Martha. Oates has been a favorite of mine since the '80s, but I can easily believe that she is an acquired taste for most readers - and that some never acquire the taste for her brutal fiction.

    As for the blog, I decided to use a wider-screen format that would require less up and down scrolling to read a single article or you hate it?