Joyce Carol Oates: “Not in a Car!”

Tracy, Hepburn, Adam's Rib

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (photo:

The most specific piece of writing advice I gleaned at the Princeton University event celebrating Joyce Carol Oates’s teaching career last week was this: Never let your characters have a conversation while riding in a car. Her former students laughed in a way that suggested they’d heard this one—and other cliché-avoidance tips—before, more than once.

The event included two panels involving 10 of Oates’s former students—all successfully published writers today—who offered wide-ranging reminiscences about their experiences with their teacher and mentor. In last week’s First Draft blog post, I collected their thoughts on what she taught them about “being a writer.” They also let the audience glimpse a bit of what they learned from her about the craft of writing.

Julie Sarkissian, author of the novel Dear Lucy, long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, recounted how she grounded some of her early writing in her own experiences and how Oates wanted her to separate this work from the lived reality, to make the fiction whole and entire in itself. Apparently the teacher wasn’t swayed at all by Sarkissian’s argument that what she’d written was “true.” Sarkissian learned right then that “the fact that something is true is a pretty pathetic defense when it comes to fiction.”

Is it going too far, then, to say fiction is about lying? Deftly? Another of Oates’s students present was Pinckney Benedict, author of the collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories (my review), and apparently Oates once said something like, “Pinckney seems like the kind of person who would lie to an interviewer.” A startled Benedict found this a revelation: “You can LIE to an interviewer?!” and swore he’s included two or three whoppers in every interview since.

Now I wonder what lies lurk in his excellent Glimmer Train interview from Winter 2013, which has him saying, “I am not trying in my own work to demonstrate that my heart is in the right place because, quite frankly, it is not.” [Is that one?] Trying to establish a common ground with readers—“we’re all well-meaning people together”—he says, “is the antithesis of a powerful or worthwhile literature.” That statement underscores the “don’t pull your punches” approach to writing Oates encouraged in her students.

Former Oates student Jonathan Safran Foer recounted how he’d once turned in a set of pages on which Oates wrote: “Confusing, but uninteresting,” with the latter charge the more piercing. Even unpleasant and essentially boring characters have to be made interesting, she said, in the context of fiction. They become interesting through their uniqueness. (Paradoxically, “The more unlike anyone else you make a character, the more universal that character becomes,” says Donald Maass’s in Writing 21st Century Fiction.) Benedict, originally from rural West Virginia, sets his stories in an Appalachian region so vividly portrayed the reader can reach out and touch the surrounding mountains and smell the barns and fresh-turned earth. In commenting on his skill in this, Oates echoed Maass’s counterintuitive statement, “The regional, if it’s intensely felt, is the universal.”

A conversational thread I especially related to was Oates’s dictum that “Writing is about solving problems.” How do you get this character from here to there (believably)? If you need a character out of the picture a while, where does she go? Why? How to get from here to there is what Oates taught her students. Despite having written more than a hundred books, when she has to identify her profession, “If I have to put it down on some form,” she said, “I write ‘teacher.’”