Telling stories, I discovered at the age of 3 or 4, is a way of being told stories. One picture yields another; one set of words, another set of words. Like our dreams, the stories we tell are also the stories we are told. If I say that I write with the enormous hope of altering the world – and why write without that hope? – I should first say that I write to discover what it is I will have written. A love of reading stimulates the wish to write – so that one can read, as a reader, the words one has written. Storytellers may be finite in number but stories appear to be inexhaustible. For many days – in fact for weeks – I have been tormented by the proposition that if I could set down, in reasonably lucid prose, the story of ”the making of the writer Joyce Carol Oates,” I might in some rudimentary way be defined, at least to myself. Stretched upon a grammatical framework, who among us does not appear to make sense? But the story will not cohere. The necessary words will not arrange themselves. Of the 40-odd pages I have written (each, I should confess, with the rapt, naive certainty, At last I have it) very little strikes me as useful. The miniature stories I have told myself, by way of analyzing ”myself,” are not precisely lies; but, since each contains so small a fraction of the truth, it is untrue. Each angle of vision, each voice, yields (by way of that process of fictional abiogenesis all storytellers know) a separate writer-self, an alternative Joyce Carol Oates. Each miniature story exerts so powerful an appeal (to the author, that is) that it could, in time, evolve into a novel – for me the divine form, the ultimate artwork, toward which all the arts aspire. Consequently this ”story” you are reading is an admission of failure, or, at the very most, a record of failed attempts. If knowing oneself is an alphabet, I seem to be stuck at A, and take solace from the elderly Yeats’s remark in a letter: ”Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”
One of the stories I tell myself has to do with the dream of a ”sacred text.” Perhaps it is a dream, an actual dream: to set down words with such talismanic precision, such painstaking love, that they cannot be altered – that they constitute a reality of their own, and are not merely referential. It is one of the enigmas of our craft (so my writer friends agree) that, with the passage of time, how becomes an obsession, rather than what: It becomes increasingly more difficult to say the simplest things. Content yields to form, theme to ”voice.” But we don’t know what voice is.
The story of the elusive sacred text has something to do with a childlike notion of omnipotent thoughts, a wish for immortality through language, a command that time stand still. What is curious is that writing, the act of writing, often satisfies these demands. We throw ourselves into it with such absorption, writing eight or 10 hours at a time, writing in our daydreams, composing in our sleep; we enter that fictional world so deeply that time seems to warp or to fold back in upon itself. Where do you find the time, people ask, to write so much? But the time I inhabit is protracted; my interior clock moves with frustrating slowness.
The melancholy secret at the heart of all creative activity (we are not talking here of quality, that ambiguous term) has something to do with our desire to complete a work and to perfect it – this very desire bringing with it our exclusion from that phase of our lives. Though a novel must be begun, often with extraordinary effort, it eventually acquires its own rhythm, its own voice, and begins to write itself; and when it is completed, the writer is expelled – the door closes slowly upon him or her, but it does close. A work of prose may be many things to many people, but to the author it is a monument to a certain chunk of time: so many pulsebeats, so much effort.
– Joyce Carol Oates