Joyce Carol Oates on Writing: 'Don't Give Up'

Writers on Writing

Joyce Carol Oates at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2012. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images)

A recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, Joyce Carol Oates has published more than 100 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama over the past 50 years. This achievement has led a few critics (perhaps the more envious ones) to dismiss her as "a word machine." But even for an author who's as prolific and accomplished as Oates, writing does not always come easily.

In a National Book Award interview a decade ago, Oates said that she often has to force herself to write:

Each day is like an enormous rock that I'm trying to push up this hill. I get it up a fair distance, it rolls back a little bit, and I keep pushing it, hoping I'll get it to the top of the hill and that it will go on its own momentum.

Still, she said, "I've never given up. I've always kept going. I don't feel that I could afford to give up."

Though writing may sometimes be laborious for Oates, she's not complaining. “I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of ‘working’ at all," she said in a New York Times interview. "Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word.”

Now our own ambitions may not include writing novels and short stories in the manner of Joyce Carol Oates. All the same, we might learn a thing or two from her experience.

Any sort of writing project may be a challenge, even a great challenge, but it doesn't have to be approached as a chore. After pushing the rock for awhile, the process might actually turn out to be enjoyable and rewarding. Instead of draining our energy, a writing assignment just might help to restore it:

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.
("Joyce Carol Oates" in George Plimpton, ed., Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 1989)

A simple message, but on tough days worth remembering: don't give up.