Advice For A Young Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

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Reading Time: 3 minutes
Joyce Carol Oates as a young writer

Advice For A Young Writer by Joyce Carol Oates

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Joyce Carol Oates as a young writerFound today an excerpt from Joyce Carol Oates‘ book, The Faith Of the Writer.

Being that I consider Joyce Carol Oates to be one of my favorite writers of all time, and also as I find the following to be quite good advice for a young writer, I thought it were worth posting. A bonus is she mentions another of my favorite writers, Anne Sexton.



Write your heart out.

Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.
Your “forbidden” passions are likely to be the fuel for your writing. Like our great American dramatist Eugene O’Neill raging through his life against a long-deceased father; like our great American prose stylist Ernest Hemingway raging through his life against his mother; like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton struggling through their lives with the seductive Angel of Death, tempting them to the ecstasy of self-murder. The instinct for violent self-laceration in Dostoyevsky, and for the sadistic punishment of “disbelievers” in Flannery O’Connor. The fear of going mad in Edgar Allan Poe and committing an irrevocable, unspeakable act–murdering an elder or a wife, hanging and putting out the eyes of one’s “beloved” pet cat. Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; these emotions are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months, and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as “work.” Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happy person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely that you will create anything of substance.

What advice can an older writer presume to offer to a younger? Only what he or she might wish to have been told years ago. Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances, and compare yourself to others among your peers! (Writing is not a race. No one really “wins.” The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.)
And again, write your heart out.

Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, and not what someone tells you you should read. (As Hamlet remarks, “I know not ‘should.'”) Immerse yourself in a writer you love, and read everything he or she has written, including the very earliest work. Especially the very earliest work. before the great writer became great, or even good, he/she was groping for a way, fumbling to acquire a voice, perhaps just like you.
Write for your own time, if not for your own generation exclusively. You can’t write for “posterity”–it doesn’t exist. You can’t write for a departed world. You may be addressing, unconsciously, an audience that doesn’t exist; you may be trying to please someone who won’t be pleased, and who isn’t worth pleasing.

(But if you feel unable to “write your heart out”–inhibited, embarrassed, fearful of hurting or offending the feelings of others–you may want to try a practical solution and write under a pseudonym. There’s something wonderfully liberating, even childlike about a “pen name”: a fictitious name given to the instrument with which you write, and not attached to you. If your circumstances change, you could always claim your writing self. You could always abandon your writing self, and cultivate another. Early publication can be a dubious blessing: we all know writers who would give anything to have not published their first book, and go about trying to buy up all existing copies. Too late!)
(Of course, if you want a professional life that involves teaching, lectures, readings–you will have to acknowledge a public writing name. But only one.)

Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world.
Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully.

Excerpt Courtesy:, from The Faith of A Writer by Joyce Carol Oates.

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