Cover image for The faith of a writer : life, craft, art
The faith of a writer : life, craft, art
Oates, Joyce Carol, 1938-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ecco, [2003]

Physical Description:
xiii, 158 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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PS3565.A8 Z467 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A tribute to the brilliant craftsmanship of one of our most distinguished writers, providing valuable insight into her inspiration and her method

Joyce Carol Oates is widely regarded as one of America's greatest contemporary literary figures. Having written in a number of genres -- prose, poetry, personal and critical essays, as well as plays -- she is an artist ideally suited to answer essential questions about what makes a story striking, a novel come alive, a writer an artist as well as a craftsman.

In The Faith of a Writer, Oates discusses the subjects most important to the narrative craft, touching on topics such as inspiration, memory, self-criticism, and "the unique power of the unconscious." On a more personal note, she speaks of childhood inspirations, offers advice to young writers, and discusses the wildly varying states of mind of a writer at work. Oates also pays homage to those she calls her "significant predecessors" and discusses the importance of reading in the life of a writer.

Oates claims, "Inspiration and energy and even genius are rarely enough to make 'art': for prose fiction is also a craft, and craft must be learned, whether by accident or design." In fourteen succinct chapters, The Faith of a Writer provides valuable lessons on how language, ideas, and experience are assembled to create art.

Author Notes

Joyce Carol Oates was born on June 16, 1938 in Lockport, New York. She received a bachelor's degree in English from Syracuse University and a master's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin.

She is the author of numerous novels and collections of short stories. Her works include We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, Bellefleur, You Must Remember This, Because It Is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart, Solstice, Marya : A Life, and Give Me Your Heart. She has received numerous awards including the National Book Award for Them, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature. She was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her title Lovely, Dark, Deep. She also wrote a series of suspense novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. In 2015, her novel The Accursed became listed as a bestseller on the iBooks chart.

She worked as a professor of English at the University of Windsor, before becoming the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. She and her late husband Raymond J. Smith operated a small press and published a literary magazine, The Ontario Review.

(Bowker Author Biography) Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most eminent and prolific literary figures and social critics of our times. She has won the National Book Award and several O. Henry and Pushcart prizes. Among her other awards are an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Lifetime Achievement Award, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Lifetime Achievement in American Literature.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Few can match Oates in the breadth, depth, and passion of her literary experiences and expertise. In her newest and most confiding essay collection, she generously shares the private side of her story-steeped life, musing over the one-room schoolhouse in rural New York State she so loved, the now cellular influence of Alice in Wonderland, and the nearly symbiotic connection between running and writing ("Joyce runs like a deer!" she recalls a boy exclaiming, a memory not as benign as it might seem, given the brute intentions of her pursuers). Art is a mystery, born most often of pain, Oates attests as she shrewdly and beguilingly dissects the quirkiness of inspiration and the unexpected felicity of failure, the enigma of the imagination and the necessity of craft. Gloriously well read and unfailingly curious about those who have shared her obsession, most notably Woolf, Lawrence, James, and Faulkner, Oates is commanding in her knowledge and deeply moving in her candor, such as when she notes that people always ask how she writes so much, rather than why. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 12 short thematic essays and an interview, all previously published, the hyper-prolific author of novels (Blonde), story collections (Faithless), plays (In Darkest America) and poems (Tenderness) examines the writing life, aiming to focus on "the process of writing [more] than the uneasy, uncertain position of being a writer." Oates advises young writers to read widely, takes a nostalgic glance back at childhood influences, waxes poetic on the joys of running and its relation to writing, and tackles the inner trajectories of the creative process. The essays are peppered with anecdotes concerning writers' trials, doubts and influences; these well-selected snippets form the most enjoyable and illuminating aspect of the book. If Oates's own insights don't always live up to the wit and beauty of such quoted authors as T.S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, it may be because she gives herself comparatively little room to wrestle with such broad concepts as inspiration and failure. Oates's suggestion that writers as a breed apart may irritate the "ordinary reader" she refers to (whom, she suggests, might not know that "no story writes itself") and may even make writers uncomfortable (to write, she says, is to "invite angry censure from those who don't write, or who don't write in quite the way you do....Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it"). But Oates obviously understands the faith that writing, that "juncture of private vision and the wish to create a communal, public vision" takes, and young writers especially may find words of wisdom here. (Sept. 26) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

As Oates argues, writing takes inspiration-and an awful lot of craft. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Faith of a Writer Life, Craft, Art Chapter One As a child I took for granted what seems wonderful to me now: that, from first through fifth grades, during the years 1943-1948, I attended the same single-room schoolhouse in western New York that my mother, Carolina Bush, had attended twenty years before. Apart from the introduction of electricity in the early 1940s, and a few minor improvements, not including indoor plumbing, the school had scarcely changed in the intervening years. It was a roughhewn, weatherworn, uninsulated woodframe building on a crude stone foundation, built around the turn of the century near the crossroads community of Millersport, twenty-five miles north of Buffalo and seven miles south of Lockport. I loved my first school! -- so I have often said, and possibly this is true. In late August, in anticipation of school beginning immediately after Labor Day in September, I would walk the approximate mile from our house, carrying my new pencil box and lunch pail, to sit on the front, stone step of the school building. Just to sit there, dreamy in anticipation of school starting; possibly to enjoy the solitude and quiet, which would not prevail once school started. (Perhaps no one recalls pencil boxes? They were of about the size of a lunch pail, with several drawers that, slid out, revealed freshly sharpened yellow "lead" pencils, Crayola crayons, erasers, compasses. Lunch pails, which perhaps no one recalls either, were of about the size of pencil boxes but, unlike pencil boxes, which smelled wonderfully of Crayolas, lunch pails quickly came to smell awfully of milk in Thermos bottles, overripe bananas, baloney sandwiches, and waxed paper.) The school, more deeply imprinted in my memory than my own child-face, was set approximately thirty feet back from a pebble-strewn unpaved road, Tonawanda Creek Road; it had six tall, narrow windows in its side walls, and very small windows in its front wall; a steeply slanting shingleboard roof that often leaked in heavy rain; and a shadowy, smelly, shed-like structure at the front called the "entry"; nothing so romantic as a cupola with a bell to be rung, to summon pupils inside. (Our teacher Mrs. Dietz, standing Amazon-like in the entry doorway, rang a hand bell. This was a sign of her adult authority, the jarring noise of the bell, the thrusting, hacking gesture of her muscled right arm as she vigorously shook it.) Behind the school, down a slope of briars and jungle-like vegetation, was the "crick" -- the wide, often muddy, fast-moving Tonawanda Creek, where pupils were forbidden to play or explore; on both sides of the school were vacant, overgrown fields; "out back" were crudely built wooden outhouses, the boys' to the left and the girls' to the right, with drainage, raw sewage, virulently fetid in warm weather, seeping out into the creek. (Elsewhere, off the creek bank, children, mostly older boys, swam. There was not much consciousness of "polluted" waters in those days and yet less fastidiousness on the part of energetic farm boys.) At the front of the school, and to the sides, was an improvised playground of sorts, where we played such improvised games as "May I?" -- which involved "baby --" and "giant-steps" -- and "Pom-Pom-Pullaway" which was more raucous, and rougher, where one might be dragged across an expanse of cinders, even thrown down into the cinders. And there was "Tag" which was my favorite game, at which I excelled since I could run, even at a young age, out of necessity, fast. Joyce runs like a deer! certain of the boys, chasing me, as they chased other younger children, to bully and terrorize us, and for fun, would say, admiring. Inside, the school smelled smartly of varnish and wood smoke from the potbellied stove. On gloomy days, not unknown in upstate New York in this region south of Lake Ontario and east of Lake Erie, the windows emitted a vague, gauzy light, not much reinforced by ceiling lights. We squinted at the blackboard, that seemed far away since it was on a small platform, where Mrs. Dietz's desk was also positioned, at the front, left of the room. We sat in rows of seats, smallest at the front, largest at the rear, attached at their bases by metal runners, like a toboggan; the wood of these desks seemed beautiful to me, smooth and of the red-burnished hue of horse chestnuts. The floor was bare wooden planks. An American flag hung limply at the far left of the blackboard and above the blackboard, running across the front of the room, designed to draw our eyes to it avidly, worshipfully, were paper squares showing that beautifully shaped script known as Parker Penmanship. Mrs. Dietz, of course, had mastered the art of penmanship. She wrote our vocabulary and spelling lists on the blackboard, and we learned to imitate her. We learned to "diagram" sentences with the solemn precision of scientists articulating chemical equations. We learned to read by reading aloud, and we learned to spell by spelling aloud. We memorized, and we recited. Our textbooks were rarely new, but belonged to the school district and were passed on, year after year until they wore out entirely. Our "library" was a shelf or two of books including a Webster's dictionary, which fascinated me: a book containing words! A treasure of secrets this seemed to me, available to anyone who cared to look into it. My earliest reading experiences, in fact, were in this dictionary. We had no dictionary at home until, winner of a spelling bee sponsored by the Buffalo Evening News , when I was in fifth grade, I was given a dictionary like the one at school. This, like the prized Alice books, remained with me for decades. My early "creative" experiences evolved not from printed books, but from coloring books, predating my ability to read. I did not learn to read until I was in first grade, and six years old, though by this time I had already produced numerous "books" of a kind by drawing ... The Faith of a Writer Life, Craft, Art . Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.