Joyce Carol Oates contributes to the August 2010 Fiction Issue of The Atlantic a non-fiction piece, I Am Sorry to Inform You, which is most likely an excerpt of her forthcoming memoir of widowhood.
In 2008 Joyce Carol Oates lost the husband—Raymond Smith—to whom she’d been married for 48 years. Her recollections of those harrowing early days of widowhood provide a glimpse of Oates as a teacher of writers and as caretaker of the literary magazine she and her husband kept in print for so long.
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Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.
For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.
Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.
Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.
Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.
“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in The Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.
And so, in this afternoon’s “advanced fiction” workshop, in an upstairs, lounge-like room in 185 Nassau, the university’s arts building, I am greatly relieved to be teaching! To be back in the presence of undergraduates who know nothing of my private life. For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life—none of my students could guess, I am certain, that “Professor Oates” is a sort of raw bleeding stump whose brain, outside the perimeter of the workshop, is in thrall to chaos.
Thank you for your submission.
I am sorry to inform you that, due to the unexpected death of editor Raymond Smith, Ontario Review will cease publication after its May 2008 issue.
Several hundred of these little blue slips I had printed up, a few days after Ray’s death.
It’s a measure of my fractured concentration at the time—my reputation for prolificacy notwithstanding—that numerous drafts were required to compose this melancholy rejection slip.
Originally, I’d written unexpected death but then, rereading what I’d written, I thought that it sounded too—melodramatic, or self-pitying. Or subjective.
For, for whom was the death of Raymond Smith unexpected; and why should total strangers care? Why should total strangers be informed?
Unexpected was therefore removed, but later, how many hours and drafts later I would be embarrassed to say, unexpected was reinserted.
Sorry to inform you of the unexpected death of Raymond Smith.
Like a mildly deranged, large flying insect trapped in a small space, these words careened and blundered about inside my skull for an inordinate amount of time.
For I knew—common sense dictated—that I had no choice: I would have to discontinue Ontario Review, which Ray and I had edited together since 1974. This was heartrending but I saw no alternative—90 percent of the editorial work on the magazine and 100 percent of the publishing/financial work had been my husband’s province ….