A very long time ago, so long ago we listened to music on vinyl and people still used typewriters, I had a very good writing instructor at City College of San Francisco. He was a published writer, and was very good about the nuts and bolts of writing: grammatical, thematic, plot development, all of it. He also didn’t hesitate to critique what he felt didn’t work, which didn’t endear him to some of the more sensitive students.
He talked to us about how creating a story was like giving birth to a baby. You presented your baby to the world and wanted people to say “How beautiful! Gorgeous! How very darling!” And instead people say things like, “your baby’s too fat,” or “her eyes are too close together,” or “what’s wrong with your baby’s mouth?”
It’s instinctive to clutch your baby back as if from kidnappers. “What?! Not my baby!”
I always loved that metaphor. It still amuses me. He explained to us that criticism was part of the writing process.
He had known Joyce Carol Oates when he was younger, and told us a few stories about her, before they had a falling out over something small. (But then, other people’s fallings out often seem minor, don’t they?)
So for years I’ve thought, some day I’ll try reading Joyce Carol Oates. I hear her name mentioned on the short list for a Nobel, and I know she’s incredibly prolific. Earlier this summer I looked at her oeuvre on a couple web sites, jotted down notes on some of the more highly regarded works, and went to Books, Inc. on Van Ness which, of course, had few of the books listed. But I picked up a couple anyway: i am no one you know (short stories)and Wild Nights! (fictional accounts of the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway).
The first story I read was “Me and Wolfie, 1979.” One of the characters is called “me,” which I thought was an interesting device. It was about a woman and her young teen son, after a break up, rambling from town to town, and their “manic-depressed,” “teeth-grinding” lives of desperation, leading to parts like this:
That Saturday night in Olcott there was a strong wind & pelting rain & Wolfie was awakened about 2 a.m. by a sound of broken glass & his mother screaming. “Get away! God damn you! Get out of here! You fucker!” Wolfie thought: It’s a man. The tattoo freak. There’d been a signal between them Wolfie hadn’t comprehended, the guy must have come after Wolfie was in bed & Me had let him inside, in secret, as sometimes Me did with guys, & Wolfie stumbled in pajamas into the hall outside his room, already he was smelling whiskey, spilled whiskey, this was a smell he knew though he hadn’t smelled it yet in Olcott. Wolfie heard a sound of struggle, another scream of Me’s, & a deeper angry voice he believed he heard, & heavy footsteps, & more breaking glass, & standing in the doorway of her dim-lighted room there was Me naked holding a sheet against her sweat-gleaming body.
There’s a scene in a cemetery and gratitude they aren’t in “some massive extended family.” I wasn’t nuts about the story, but I do like how she didn’t over-explain things, opting for terse story-telling, which forces your own inferences.
I also tried “Fugitive” about interracial marriage driven asunder by cultural differences, and then “Curly Red,” another story about interracial tension involving family betrayal and justice. “In Hiding,” about a poet and professor corresponding with a prison inmate and finally “I’m Not Your Son, I Am No One You Know,” a painful little story about visiting an old folks’ home and seeing a loathed teacher.
I now get why her stories are compared to the horror genre and called “gothic.” There’s a creepiness permeating them. Maybe it’s just this collection, I thought. I’ll pick up Wild Nights.
I started “Poe Posthumous; or The Light-House,” first, and liked how it began, as a diary with the brilliant writer escaping Baltimore and ending up in a lighthouse somewhere in (I think) South America. It starts well enough, on his little island with a little dog and minimal keeper duties, and begins the gradual Poe-Oates spiral into madness, despair, and horror. About the time the Cyclophagus shows up it really began to lose me. “A most original & striking creature” which seems to be an amphibian that will “clamber about devouring what flesh its claws, snout, & tearing teeth can locate.”
I flipped through the last ten pages, got the gist of the banal, horror-drenched descent, and decided to escape the grisly vortex of gothic madness. I’ve always liked Hemingway. I’ll give “Papa at Ketchum, 1961” a try. I should have known better.
Old Ernest was a sitting duck for the Oates treatment. With his pseudo macho swaggering, Hemingway’s final psychotic days (he was in fact treated for depression at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, just before my family moved there) are painful, suicidal ruminations on booze, babes, and bullets. I got as far as Oates’ describing Hemingway’s thoughts on women: “the pure purpose of female is cunt, but a woman, a wife, is a cunt with a mouth, a man has to reckon with. It’s a sobering fact: you start off with cunt, you wind up with mouth. You wind up with your widow-to-be.”
It’s not exactly Lieutenant Henry walking off in despair at the death of his beloved Catherine in A Farewell to Arms.
That was it, I was done. I’ve known enough people who think degradation is reality, that those who see life at its most base and mean are seeing the world as it really is. If that’s your world view and you’d like it given a nice semi-gothic, subtly horrific spin, then Joyce Carol Oates might be the writer for you.
* * * * * *
About 15 years after I first took a writing course from that prof, he was on the front page of the SF Chronicle. In the early days of the internet a lot of students took to critiquing their professors online. With his sharp, critical mind, he was raked over the coals by students, some of whom perhaps felt they were getting their revenge. Feeling mischaracterized, he filed suit for emotional distress and damages for defamation. Oddly, the only place I found it online was at a college website in Nebraska; you can read about it here, if interested.
A good friend of mine in high school told me once that her older sister saw Hemingway during his visit to Rochester, in his final paranoid days. A.E. Hotchner does a good job describing them in Papa Hemingway.
One final note tying Hemingway, Oates and my teacher together. Hemingway famously advised that people should write about what they know. Yet my teacher told us that Oates writes, somewhere, about a race car driver, although she didn’t even know how to drive when she wrote it. She simply watched people drive, and wrote about what they did with their hands and feet as they operated a vehicle.
I guess I’ll never find out how good a job she did describing driving.
While it makes sense for a writer to stick to what they know, I do think a careful writer can tackle subjects outside their direct experience. So I’m grateful to Oates for that. Much as I’d much rather pick up a Hemingway novel again, for the first time in decades.
Myself, I’m now back to reading a Nero Wolfe mystery at night, a book on the 1908 pennant races called Crazy ’08, and Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. Perhaps because of my recent dalliance elsewhere, I’m enjoying all three books very much.