My Heart Laid Bare

Celebrated Author Joyce Carol Oates to Grace UC Berkeley Campus


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As the author of more than 50 novels, 20 short story collections and a diverse canon of work that ranges from poetry to children's books, Joyce Carol Oates can be a bit intimidating. However, not stopping anytime soon, Oates will continue her prolific career with a lecture, entitled "A Writer's (Secret) Life: Rejection, Woundedness, and Inspiration" on February 10th in the Sibley Auditorium, with a follow-up panel discussion on February 11th in the Maude Fife Room. As the Avenali Chair in the Humanities, Oates will be the latest in a long line of illustrious writers, from Seamus Heaney to Maurice Sendak, invited to speak about their craft. For Oates in particular, that speech will tackle the intimate connection between writing and one's personal life.

In a recent e-mail interview with Oates, she stated that "writers and artists always draw heavily upon their personal history." As a writer herself, she insists on the need to create from the emotional depths of one's own personal experience. For Oates, this statement could not be more pertinent considering that her lecture is in anticipation of the February 15th release of her latest work, "A Widow's Story: A Memoir" - a work which explores the traumatic loss of her husband of nearly 50 years in 2008.

During the process of recounting this acutely private experience, Oates found the experience vastly different from that of fiction writing. For her, fiction requires a logical relationship from beginning to end whereas, a memoir "springs from the 'present-tense'" and "has an air of the breathless and not-yet-determined about it."

So, instead of calculating a narrative in retrospection, Oates assembled her journal entries from the time of her husband's death. On sleepless nights, she would turn to these private entries in an effort to deal with the maelstrom of emotions accompanied by abject grief. The results were a mixed bag.

Often frightening, but sometimes refreshingly hopeful, her everyday accounts became a means of "clarifying what appears, to the superficial glance, to be be chaotic and without form or purpose." Memoir, for her, made sense out of the tragic disorder of her husband's death.

And, for Oates, this clarity is what the memoir, as a work of writing, should aim for. According to her, memoir should be about truth as opposed to the metaphor employed in fiction. However, these lines between fiction and truth become blurred upon closer inspection.

Though the description of her memoir seems imbued with the internal intimacy of her mind, she intentionally distances herself by creating the character of "the Widow" framed by her own "interjected italicized lines ... to suggest a voice-over from a future time." In effect, the two voices of the Widow and the narrator are created to represent Oates' singular experience - a duality which transposes itself upon her professional career.

Not only an esteemed author, but also a distinguished professor, Oates thinks of herself as "both a solitary person and also a person who enjoys meetings others." Unlike the average writer who might prefer the secluded life to the social, she is drawn to a double persona - one that is both "solitary and communal." It is a somewhat paradoxical lifestyle, but one which mirrors the dichotomy of Oates' writing.

Since 1963, her works have come to be associated with a strong penchant for graphic violence. Whether it is children being drowned in "By the North Gate" or a serial killer molding sex slaves in "Zombie," the content seems at odds with the seemingly domestic sensibilities of its creator.

But, for Joyce Carol Oates, art can only be profound if it transcends expectations. According to her, "serious art...disturbs conventional expectations, stirs debate or doubt, provokes, annoys (and) lingers in the mind like a mysterious dream." And, surely, pain, like that of a widow, or violence, like that of a murder, are two realities of life that she finds crucial to the creative process of the writer. Pain and violence, like serious art, are transgressive and, for her, become the stimuli for "creativity in diverse and unexpected ways." With a career spanning nearly 50 years, Oates has accomplished not only a diversity in her work, but has done so in unexpected ways that continue to complicate the boundaries between what is private or public for artists and their art.

On Thursday night, Oates' proven ability to express the internal pains of her private life will surely produce a speech that will linger, like her writing, in the minds of the audience.


Jessica Pena is the lead literature critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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