by: Joyce Carol Oates, 1938- .


A ll my life I’ve been fascinated with the mystery of human personality. Who are we?------so diverse, yet, perhaps, beneath diversity, so much akin? Why are we here? And where is here?

The mystery of human existence shades into the mystery of physical matter itself and the question s that abide are those of the ancient philosophers: Why is there something and not instead nothing? Just what is the purpose of consciousness, and the human inquiry, itself?

When we begin as writers, of course, it’s out of a fascination with language; with the mysterious sound, music, power of words. The sense of subterranean meanings beneath public discourse. The sense of the unpredictable, the playful, and the ungovernable; the expressible and defines itself, through us, in language.

As children, we acquire a talismanic power by imitating the speech of our elders; what begins as mimesis evolves into what we realize, one day, glancing about ourselves in wonder, is------what? Life itself? 

The most seemingly conscious or artists acknowledges his subordination to discovery.

                  ....In fashioning a work of art we are by no

                  means free, we do not choose how we shall

                  make it preexists us and therefore

                  we are obligated, since it is both necessary and

                  hidden, to do what we should have to do if it

                  were a law of nature------that is to say, to  

                  to discover it.                       (Marcel Proust)

What begins in childlike wonder and curiosity becomes, with the passage of time, if we persist in our devotion (or delusion), a “calling”: a “profession.” Almost without knowing what we do, we find ourselves in places we’ve never seen, nor even anticipated. We come into contact with worlds, and with people, utterly foreign to us. In doing so, in turn, we become other people, we mature into adults of the world we’d so admired, in our youth. If we are very fortunate, we participate in a very mystical evolution of the human spirit itself; that “enlargement of sympathy” of which George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence spoke in such idealistic terms.

But, what are the origins of the impulse Wallace Stevens calls the “motive for metaphor”?------the motive to record, transcribe, invent, speculate? The late William Stafford says in a poem,

                           So, the world happens twice----

                           once we see it as is;

                           Second, it legends itself deep

                           the way it is.                        

The crucial word here is “legends” with its suggestion of storytelling; a secondary creation over and above the existential experience of the world in which we find ourselves. To experience seem not quite enough for us, we want to know what we’ve experienced; we yearn to analyze it, to, debate it, even, at times, doubt and refute it. “There is an ancient feud between philosophy and poetry,” Socrates is noted as stating, in Book X of Plato’s Republic, but is perhaps a way of saying that there is a continuous dissatisfaction in mankind with things as they are said to be; a continuous yearning for the playfulness of the imagination.

I suggest several theories of the genesis of art:


1.      Art originates in play----in improvisation, experiment, and fantasy; it remains forever, in its deepest instincts, playful and spontaneous, an exercise of the imagination analogous to the exercising of the physical body to no purpose other than ecstatic release.


2.      Art is fueled by rebellion: the need, in some amounting to obsession, to resist what is; to defy one’s elders, even to the point of ostracism, to define oneself, and by extension one’s generation, as new, novel, and ungovernable. Virtually all artists begin as children or as adolescents; in adolescents, the need to break away from the past is as powerful as the drive to reproduce the species.

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet,” Henry David Thoreau says, with typical modesty in the first chapter of Walden,

“and I have yet to heard from the first syllable of value or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything.....” The unfairness, the very inaccuracy of such declaration strikes the necessary chord of youthful revolt.


3.      Art is a means of memorialization of the past; a recording of a rapidly vanishing world; a means of exorcizing, at least temporarily, the ravages of homesickness. To speak of “what is past, or passing, or to come”-------in the most meticulous language, thereby to assure its permanence; to honor those we’ve loved and learned from, and most outlive. The writer who most keenly evokes a landscape, a way of life, a gathering of people is likely to be one who has been exiled from his birthright. In time, even his (or her) rebellion shifts to a bittersweet sense of loss; even hurt, anger, chagrin become priceless emotions, bound up with the energies of youth.


4.      The artist is born damned, and struggles through his (or her) life to achieve an ever-elusive redemption, by way of art; a sense of one’s completeness or inadequacy fuels the instinct for ceaseless invention, as in an extension of the very self’ perimeters. The visual artist “makes art” that one can see, literally; this physical matter becomes part of the artist’s identity. As the Puritans lived in dread of being damned by God, Whose grace they could not assume, still less call down upon themselves through prayer or good works, so the artist seems to cast about for way of creating himself in aesthetic terms that are also spiritual terms. Like William Butler Yeats he “makes and unmakes” his soul. His art works may be subordinate to an idea or a vision, they may be said to constitute a single work, comprehensible, if then, only in retrospect.

In the beginning, for the child, there is only life, and consciousness; “play” is indistinguishable from both. No child, not even the prodigy Mozart, “plays” for professional purposes, nor even to define himself as talented, a worthy object of other’s attention. Though uttered in somber adulthood, describing the genesis of Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s off hand remark “It all came together between the hand and the paper” is illuminating.

When I’m asked. as I sometimes am, When did I know that I “wanted to be a writer when I grew up,” my reply is that I never “knew” I wanted to be a writer, or anything else; I’m not sure, in fact, that I really “want” to be a writer, in such simplistic, abstract terms. A person who writes is not, in a sense, a “writer” but a person who writes; he (or she) can’t be defined except in specific terms of texts. Elsewhere I’ve stated that “JCO” (Joyce Carol Oates) is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a series of specific texts. What is perceived as product by others is process from the artist’s perspective. My earliest, most vivid memories have to do not with any :”self” (I think that young children must have been blurred, shifting images of themselves) but with drawings and coloring with crayons; inventing play worlds, or what might be called secondary worlds; or, as philosophers might term them, “counter-factual worlds.”

Why?----to what purpose? No doubt child psychologists have speculated

on the phenomenon of children’s imaginations and the extraordinary energy invested in play, and surely it has to do with testing the perimeters of the self and of “reality,” and of course, imitating adults models. But the fact remains that it is a mysterious activity, exciting, fascinating, unpredictable. Like Lewis Carrol’s heroine Alice, the child plunges willingly down the rabbit hole, or through the looking-glass, into another dimension. This “other dimension” is a counter-world into only one individual has access: “....The artist needs only this: a special world to which he alone has the key” (Andre Gide). The counterworld both mirrors the “real” world and distorts it, in it, you both are not, yourself... the most primary, if unacknowledged, fact of artistic creation.

Recall the thrilling openings of the Alice books! In John Tenniel’s famous drawings, their intricate shadings so evocative of the dream state, a partly dematerializing Alice is seen pushing through a drawing room mirror in Through the Looking-glass; she re-emerges in a world less tidy than the one she’d known, but far more interesting-----for everything, here, is alive. Chess pieces have metamorphosed into kings, queens, knaves of singular ferocity; flowers not only speak, but debate with passion; “snapdragonflies,” rocking horseflies,” “bread-and-butterflies,” fawns tame as house pets, animal-human figures out of child-hood mythology------all participants in Alice’s adventure in the curious country that is England, yet marked off like a chessboard.

                  “It’s a huge chess that’s being played------all

                  over the world-----if this is the world, you know.

                  Oh, what fun it is! How I wish that I was one

                  of them! I wouldn’t mind being as Pawn, if

                  only I might join------though, of course, I really

                  should like to be a Queen best.”

Alice’s excited enthusiasm is that of a child about to embark upon an adventure of life, beginning as a Pawn and ending (in theory, at least) as a Queen. Alice is an epic heroine with whom any child can identify; sometimes reckless; sometimes rather shy; at all times questing, inquisitive. “Curiouser and curiouser!” she exclaims. The world is curiouser and curiouser, the more we plunge into it. Lewis Carroll’s counter-factual world shades into nightmare, informed by a subtle sub-textual theme of Darwinian evolution----“survival of the fittest”-----that takes its most graphic expression in the numerous instances of eating in the Alice books.

                  And sorts of things happened in a

                   moment. The candles all grew up to the ceiling

                  ........As to the bottles, they each tool a pair of plates,

                  which they hastily fitted as wings, and so with

                  forks for legs, went fluttering about in all directions.....

                  At this moment Alice heard a hoarse laugh at her side,

                  and turned to see what was the matter with the White

                  Queen, but, instead of the Queen, there was the leg

                  of mutton sitting in a chair. “Here I am!” cried a

                  voice from the soup tureen, and Alice turned again,

                  just in time to see the Queen’s broad, good-natured

                  face grinning at her for a moment over the edge of

                  the tureen, before she disappeared into the soup.

                  There was not a moment to be lost. Already several

                   of the guests were lying down in the dishes, and the

                  soup ladle was walking up towards Alice’s chair........

Alice can escape from, by waking from, the nightmare prospect of being eaten; the adventures through the looking-glass, like the adventures down the rabbit hole, involve intense emotion, but the child-heroine is never seriously in danger. One “plays” at adult life in such classic childhood fantasies but can revert back, virtually at will, to a waking world, one’s parents’ home, where all is safe and controlled.

Then there are those gifted, blessed or accursed children who are themselves, in childhood, geographers of the imagination. It is probably not a rarity, the child-fantasist who develops his or her imagination consistently, but it is rare that we know about it, at least in much detail.

Consider the extended, ingeniously labyrinthine counterworlds of the Bronte children------Charlotte, Anne, Emily, and their ill-fated brother Branwell. These precocious children, motherless and isolated in a rural English parsonage, their household dominated by an eccentric father with a predilection for melodramatic violence-----a soldier manque who had ended up, unfortunately for him, a country parson----created by way of communal story-telling two fantasy lands: Gondal (the invention of Emily and Anne: a fictitious island in the Pacific bearing a distinct resemblance to rural Haworth) and Angria (the invention of Charlotte and Branwell: an imaginary African country conquered by th British). Many years later Charlotte designated a gift of their father’s of twelve wooden soldiers as “the origin of our plays”----ordinary toys that sparked the children’s imaginations to such extraordinary heights.

The Bronte children confabulated plays, mimes, games, and serial adventure stories; eventually, tales of Gondal and Angria were recorded in “Little Magazines”-----tiny books filled with italic handwriting meant to resemble print. These remarkably detailed chronicles of imaginary lands were not short-lived preoccupations of childhood, to be abandoned at puberty: Charlotte wrote her final Angrian story at the age of 23, and Anne and Emily continued their Gondal saga until they were 26 and 27 years respectively.

Under the pseudonym “Currer Bell,” Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in October 1847, when she was thirty-one years old; under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell,” Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights in December 1847, when she was twenty-nine (Emily would die a year later.” Has the transformation of private loneliness and childhood isolation into enduring works of art ever been more triumphant than this? The memorialization of childhood fantasy reimagined as adult passion and “fate”?

No one has ever written more intimately of the writerly impulse than John Updike, in his autobiographical Self-Consciousness, which focuses upon a self’s point of consciousness-----the very points at which (by way of skin, breath, speech, and its impediments, yearning for transcendence)

a child-self becomes defined. In the chapter “Getting the Words Out, “ in which Updike examines his stuttering, he theorizes that his writing has its origin in relationship to breath. And language is visual, too: Updike’s wooden ABC’s were “alphabetical symbols stamped on blocks........:

[marking] the dawn of my consciousness.” Updike’s mother wanted passionately to be a writer herself, yet did not succeed while Updike was growing up; his memory of hearing her type for hours and hours, shut away in a room to which he wasn’t allowed to enter: “The sound of her typing gave the house a secret, questing life unlike that of any of the other houses up and down Philadelphia Avenue” (Shillington, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s).

The child John discovered to his astonishment and hurt that “in my mother’s head there existed, evidently, a rival world that could not coexist with the real world of which I was, I had felt, such a loved component.” Writing was clearly an adult, even a secret, preoccupation; it presented itself initially to the child John as a matter of graphic symbols..the liberal type of newsprint and the “marvel of reproduced imagery” of comic strips. Updike was mesmerized by the world of popular culture, including Walt Disney’s cartoons and cartoon strips; he speaks of “dead pulp paper quickened into life by.......Dick Tracy or Captain Easy or Alley Oop.” A love of comic strips blossomed into a love of copying them onto blank paper and even onto plywood, setting them in rows on his bedroom shelf. Updike’s verbal virtuosity, the painstaking craft of his prose, has its genesis in these early acts of devotion: “The very crudities and flecked imperfections of the [cartoon] process and the technical vocabulary of pen line and crosshatching and benday fascinated me, draw me deeply in, as perhaps a bacteriologist is drawn into the microscope and a linguist into teeming niceties of a foreign grammar.”

It is instructive to note, in passing, that the fantasies of childhood, whether self-invented or acquired by way of popular culture, parallel, in essence, the fantasies of the race. Not “realism” (a convention most people believe to be primary) but a kind of “surrealism” is the mode of storytelling that seems to have predated all others. Legends, fairy tales, billiards, the earliest of preserved drawings and other works of “primitive” art are not all realistic but magical, with claims of divine or supernatural origin; of course, they are anonymous.

As if, on so dreamlike a level of human consciousness, we are identical and the intrusive “individuality” of more modern times is not yet a problem. As beat and melody underlie the most formally intricate works of poetry, so romance underlies prose fiction, and is perhaps indistinguishable from them. All writers-------all artists------may be classified as romantics, for the very act of creating, and of caring passionately enough to create, is a romantic gesture. What begins as child’s play ends, not ironically so much as rather wonderfully, as a “vocation,” a “calling,” a “destiny”------even, above a certain income level, a “respectable profession.” But, the origins of the impulse remains tantalizing mysterious, and we no more know or understand them, for all our exegesis and our science, than we understand our dreams.

                  Why did I write? What sin to me unknown

                  Dipt me in Ink, my Parents’, or my own?

                  As yet a Child, nor yet a Fool to Fame,

                  I lisp’d in November, for the Numbers came.”

( By numbers,” Pope meant rhythm and rime.)


Source: THE FAITH OF A WRITER by: Joyce Carol Oates

Copyright @ 2003 by The Ontario Review, Inc.

                Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

                10 East 53rd Street, New York, N. Y. 10022

(Above reprint. Pgs. 37 - 49)

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