Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Out: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 - 1982

It’s impossible to write about Oates’ diverse, almost bewilderingly large, and steadily growing oeuvre without expressing astonishment at her productivity. But more significant are her intensity and artistry, spirit and intelligence, deep commitment to truth, and receptivity to discovery and mystery. Since she turned 34 thirty-four years ago, Oates has not only written myriad published works, she has also kept a journal that is now surpassing 4000 single-spaced typewritten pages in length. Greg Johnson, Oates’ biographer (Invisible Writer, 1998), has edited the entries from the first decade with great sensitivity, sustaining a narrative arc and focusing on passages in which Oates chronicles how she works and reveal the forces that compel her.

Oates was already famous as a provocative, category-defying writer and a National Book Award winner for them (1969) when she began her journal. But what inspired what she describes at the outset as “an experiment in consciousness,” was a “peculiar experience,” a “mystical experience” that occurred in 1970 and continued to haunt her in 1973. Much of this volume, in fact, consists of Oates’ musings on the power of the unconscious, the inexplicable, and the intrusion of forces beyond the self. Again and again, stories and novels intrude upon her, push at the gates and prowl the edge of her mind. Here are explanations of her phenomenal creativity.

Oates is so lucid, so intent on explaining her writing process to herself, so fluent in her observations of the world at-large, both human and natural, the reader feels privileged to have access to such a thoughtful chronicle, such revealing disclosures. Oates also writes of her close and loving marriage to Raymond Smith, her heart condition, her love of teaching, and how she protects her privacy and establishes a “pattern of living” that enables her to write. She observes that you can’t force fiction. She analyzes all the elements that go in to a novel, and declares that “the novelist must be on the side of life.”

And how poignant this is: in 1975, Oates writes that she wouldn’t want to be known as prolific; she has already sensed the negative response to her stream of books. And yet, soon after she writes, “I don’t care: I want to write what I want to write.” She records a “burning eagerness to work.” She exclaims, "At times I feel that I could write endlessly, scarcely rising to the surface to eat, or even breathe.” Writing is “voluptuous.” But Oates is driven. As this volume draws to a close, Oates writes of her long-submerged feelings about her family’s hidden past, and her discomfort with the great divide between her lovely, successful life, which she often expresses gratitude for, and the dire deprivation her family endured. Here are the stirrings of the desire to understand, to inhabit, to bring back to life her family’s lost world. And she did so, 25 years later in The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which is based on her grandmother’s story, and a stunning and very recent revelation: her grandmother was Jewish.

Oates' journal begins with a transformation and a new way of
writing, and it ends with another opening, another deepening of her artistic calling. Oates is not merely prolific. She is ravenous for words, stories, truth. Her work will stand as a monumental exploration of the American psyche, the collective unconscious, the parameters of literature, and one woman’s complex inheritance.

The one line among many powerful statements that illuminates Oates the most: “I feel so much.”

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