Joyce Carol Oates has been in the news recently, because she’s just written a new book called A Widow’s Story. It’s the latest in a long line of literary works. Her output is enormous: 56 novels, 34 short-story collections, 8 volumes of poetry, 9 plays, 14 collections of essays, and if that isn’t enough, she’s also penned 11 mystery novels.
One story gave a couple of glimpses into her writing process. She writes by hand and makes tons of notes about whatever she’s working on. Though she’s incredibly inventive and prolific, she writes slowly and doesn’t find it all that easy: in one interview she describes it as getting up every morning and trying to push a rock up a hill.” She also said something that I find really fascinating:
“The happiest time for me is when I have a manuscript to revise. Writing the manuscript for the first time is what’s excruciating.”
Wow! I find that, for me, just the opposite is true. Getting something down on paper is very exciting and energizing, but I find that revising is challenging. Often I’ll know that something isn’t working, but I have to struggle to find the solution. Or I’ll find that I change something and then discover that it isn’t a big improvement over what I wrote the first time around.
Maybe I need to take a tip from Joyce and reframe my attitude toward revision: If I can think of it as a happy, enjoyable process — and my manuscript as a kind of mystery that I have to unravel and put back together, I might find rewriting to be more focused and fruitful. After all, writing is rewriting, as the saying goes.
A few parting words from Joyce: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.”
Which do you find more enjoyable to work on? First drafts or revising?
The initial draft, definitely. Allowing the charachters to “run” the story, for me, is the fun part.
Also, with regard to Oates, I believe she is also a Princeton University professor, correct?
It just goes to show you how much you can accomplish when you do the work and are a writer rather than talking about being one.