Joyce Carol Oates, Leatherface & an Owl Walk Into a Bar…

The most discouraging thing I’ve ever heard in regards to an author’s writing process came from one of my favorites, Joyce Carol Oates. After I read her book Expensive People it was the first time I ever remember being hooked on the author of what I was reading. Needing to read more of what she’d written. Before, if I liked a book I’d read it again. and again. and again. But by the time I picked up Expensive People I was learning to like they way something was written.

On Halloween of last year, maybe the year before, she came to Butler promoting her latest (at the time) book The Gravedigger’s Daughter. After she spoke and read she opened up the floor to questions. One student asked about her writing process; how she did what she did. Every writer has a process of some sort, whether it’s a lack of one (o hai! *waves enthusiastically*) or a strict schedule or a need for absolute quite or just the right music playing. I was curious to hear the answer, especially given how prolifically she publishes. No really, go look. Homegirl has mad skillz. Yes, I just called Joyce Carol Oates homegirl. I’m sure she’d love it.

Her answer to the question? Something to the effect of “I just go for a run and everything just sorts itself out.” I’m pretty sure my face looked something like this:


That’s your big secret – your process? You run. And everything just magically unfolds for you? These are the words of wisdom you’re going to impart on a room full of English majors? Run.

Now, I’m not a runner. I think anyone who runs voluntarily without someone behind them in a mask made of human skin, a chainsaw or at the very least a sizable rock is batshit crazy. In fact, you’re going to be hard pressed to get me to run even then. If Leatherface is behind me with a chainsaw? I’m surrendering. I’m turning around, waving my theoretical (hypothetical?) white flag and I’m probably going to give him a hand in his quest to wear my skin. Because I? Am a giver. None of this shriek and run and fall and look behind me and scramble to get up only to fall again all while homeboy Villain Walks his way to me like he’s on one of those moving sidewalks they have at airports but without the awkward dismount at the end.

So really? Running? REALLY? Now, I’m not going to call shenanigans on this for a couple of reasons. A) It’s fraking Joyce Carol Oates. Clearly she knows a thing or two about the written word and getting published. Actually, that’s really all I have in way of reasons.

My point here, and I do have one, is that now that I’m writing again I’ve been thinking more about my own process. Please know that I am using that term loosely. The majority of my “process” is concentrated on getting myself to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys to word doc, as it were everyday. For four years at Ball State I listened to some of the most talented writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting in class with say over and over again: You have to write. You have to. There is no way around this. Even if it’s crap. Even if it’s the most terrible stringing together of words you’ve ever seen in your life you have to put it down. You have to get the crap down so you can get to the good stuff. And after I got over the glee of learning that I was not the only one who had a hard time writing, that I was sitting in a roomful of writers who also struggled to do the one thing we were all there to do, I agreed. Logically it made sense. But I didn’t listen. I rarely do. I am the phrase “she has to learn the hard way” personified. I do. I so do. And the hard way for me has just been not writing, going so long without that thing that I love. I thought that because I didn’t have it all figured out in my head, or I didn’t have any idea of where a thought, an anecdote, a faint whisper of an idea might go that I didn’t need to write it down. I very much like to know everything about any given subject before I do it. Whether it’s an interview, or going to a party or writing, I need to know everything I can, figure out what’s the norm, how should I react, dress, etc. I forgot that part, the biggest part of what I love about writing is the discovery of where the unknown will go. I let myself become lazy and complacent. But now we’ve rediscovered each other, writing and me. And I’m sitting here going “It could have been like this the whole time?! Stupidstupidstupid.” Because this post here? I had no idea where I was going. All I knew what that I had this ridiculous bit of advice from Joyce Carol Oates. So I sat down, I didn’t go for a run, and I just wrote and well, here we are.

And by this point y’all are probably all look! A teal deer!


9 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates, Leatherface & an Owl Walk Into a Bar…

  1. scgreen says:

    If I only enjoyed running. If only my asthma didn’t try and kill me while I ran. Then I might try Oates’s “process”.
    As for me, I aim to get a certain amount of words out for the day. Be it journal, blog, novel, short story, simple stream-of-conscience writing. As long as I do that, I struggle LESS than I would have. I’ve tried your method of avoiding the writing. It doesn’t work. Just made it that much harder to get back to it.
    In any case, good luck with the writing.

    • justshireen says:

      I’m sure I’ll eventually get to the word count or at least time specific part of my writing, but for now just writing anything even just a little bit each day is good for me.

      Thanks for the well wishes!

    • justshireen says:

      No, but I will park myself and a pitcher mimosas in a hammock at the finish line and cheer you on! *mwah*

  2. I think what most writers are saying when they discuss their ‘process’ is that we all have some type of activity that triggers us to focus, even if that activity simply allows us to disconnect with what we’re doing and move our concentration more into our minds in order to explore the story. That’s probably what running allows her to do; for the time that she’s running she’s living inside her head processing.

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