On New Year’s day 1973, Joyce Carol Oates began keeping a journal, which she maintains to this day. Already a well-established literary force by the age of thirty-four, Oates had written three books that had been named finalists for the National Book Award (in 1968, 1969, and 1972), and her novel them won the award in 1970; she had also received a number of O. Henry Awards, in addition to many other honors. Despite the warm critical reception from the literary world, however, the young author was naturally reticent about her personal life and would remain so throughout her career.
The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Greg Johnson, offers a rare first glimpse into the private thoughts of this extraordinary writer. This volume focuses on excerpts from the journal written during the crucial first decade, 1973-1982, one of the most productive of Oates’s long career. Housed in her archive at Syracuse University, the journals themselves run to more than 5,000 single-spaced typewritten pages. Far more than just a daily account of a writer’s writing life, these intimate, unrevised pages candidly explore Oates’s friendship with other writers, including John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, Gail Godwin, and Philip Roth, among others. Oates also describes, in vivid and captivating detail, her university teaching, her love of the natural world, her rural background, her vast reading, her critics, her travels, and, predominantly, the “silent, secret” life of the imagination.
What emerges is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young woman, fully engaged with her world and her culture—a writer who paradoxically thought of herself as “invisible” while becoming one of the most respected, honored, discussed, and controversial figures in American letters.
- National Book Critics Circle Award, Autobiography: finalist
A Charm invests a face
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For Fear it be dispelled—
But peers beyond her mesh
And wishes—and denies—
Lest lnterview—annul a want
Emily Dickinson (1862)
Motives for keeping a journal or a diary are likely to be as diverse as their keepers; but we may assume that like most of our motives, they are largely unconscious.
Impulsively begun, in its earliest, fragmented form in winter 1971-72 in London, England, during a sabbatical leave from the University of Windsor, during a time of lingering homesickness, this journal had seemed to me at the start a haphazard and temporary comfort of sorts, that would not last beyond the strain of the sabbatical year, or beyond the mood of loneliness, dislocation, and general melancholy-malaise that seemed to have descended upon me at the time; yet, astonishingly, though the melancholy-malaise cloud has evaporated and recrystallized countless times since, the journal has endured, and is now thousands of pages housed in the Syracuse University Library Special Collections.
From the start it was my understanding with myself that the journal would remain haphazard and spontaneous and would never be revised or rethought; it would be a place for stray impressions and thoughts of the kind that sift through our heads constantly, like maple seeds giddily blown in the wind, in spring; the journal would be a repository of sorts for experiences and notes for writing, but not a place in which to vilify others, There are journal-keepers—Sylvia Plath most famously comes to mind—who use their writing skills as scalpels to cruelly cut up anyone who comes into their paths, teachers, friends, even relatives and spouses; but I could not bear to think of this journal as in any way an instrument of aggression, So if the reader is looking for “cruel”—”malicious”—”wickedly funny” portraits of contemporaries, he / she is not likely to find them here.
At least, I hope that this is so. As I’ve never revised this journal, so I rarely reread it. As I rarely—if I can help it, never—reread old letters of mine. To revisit the past in this way is somehow so excruciating, I haven’t the words to guess why.
What I have seen of this edited / abridged journal, so capably presented by Greg Johnson, affects me too emotionally to make its perusal rewarding: revisiting the past is like biting into a sandwich in which, you’ve been assured, there only a few, really a very few, bits of ground glass.
(Why? Does the journal of the 1970s / 1980s return me to a time in which, for instance, my parents were alive?—and seemed, to me at the time, as if there would never be a time in which they would not be alive? And yet: now I am in that unthinkable time.)
(Why? Does the “uncensored” journal reveal too much of me, as my “crafted” fiction does not? Or is it simply that the self revealed, this “Joyce Carol” of bygone days, is a self with which I can’t any longer identify, or, perversely, identify too strongly?)
The risks of journal-keeping! Once the journal is read by others, it loses its own original identity: the (secret) place in which you write to yourself about yourself without regard for any other. What a folie-à-deux, our engagement with ourselves, and our wish to believe that this engagement is worth the lifelong effort it requires, as if, assigned at birth to a specific “self,” we must gamely maintain, through the years, an abiding faith in it: like venders pushing carts, heaped with the spoils of “ego,” each obliged to promote his / her goods in a bazaar teeming with mostly indifferent strangers, a few potential customers, and too many rival venders! As Emily Dickinson so wittily observes, it may be an unwise move to “lift the veil” and dispel the image of mystery. (And no one was more adroit at maintaining a veiled existence, in the cultivation of a white-clad romantic-poetess facade, than Emily Dickinson herself.)
Is the keeping of a journal primarily a means of providing solace to the self, through a “speaking” voice that is one’s own voice subtly transformed? A way of dispelling loneliness, a way of comfort? The obvious motive for much of literature is the assuaging of homesickness, for a place or a time now vanished; less obviously, to the reader kept at a little distance by the writer’s coolly crafted “art,” the motive may be to assuage hurt and / or to rationalize it. The paradox is: the more we are hurt, the more we are likely to take refuge in the imagination, and in creating a “text” that has assimilated this hurt; perversely, if we choose to publish this text, the more likely we are to invite more hurt in the way of critical or public opprobrium, forcing another retreat into the imagination, and the creation of yet another text; and so the cycle continues: The Career.
Homesickness, which involves both mourning and memorialization, is a powerful motive: I can recall those bleak wintry days in London when the sun, if it had appeared at all, began to set—improbably, horribly—at about 2:30 P,M., and in our drafty “flat” (the very word “flat” strikes the ear jeeringly, unlike our more benign American “apartment”) we would gaze across a busy, buzzing roadway into a corner of Hyde park all dun-colored in winter and desolate of the most intrepid tourists and vagrants, and we would observe to each other that the sun had, or had not, appeared yet that day, and that it had begun at last to rain, or “looks like rain,” or had teasingly ceased raining for a while; in this setting, at a makeshift “desk”—in fact, our dining room table, from which my (manual, Remington) typewriter and stacks of papers had to be continually removed, and returned, and removed again in a domestic routine not unlike that of Sisyphus rolling his rock, but less heroic—it seemed quite natural to write in a journal, the most haphazard and wayward of excuses for writing; and, unmoored as I felt in London, homesick for my Windsor home that had seemed, in Windsor, so confining, yet more homesick for the city across the river from Windsor where I’d lived as a young wife and university instructor for seven years, Detroit, to begin a novel set in Detroit. You will be confirmed in your suspicion that writers are demented if I reveal how, while living in the heart of one of the world’s great cities, for hours each day, and I mean hours, each day, I chose to immerse myself in a novel* so specifically set in Detroit it necessitated a hallucinatory sort of imagining that propelled me along the streets and expressways of Detroit more or less continuously for months. (Did I need a map? No! Only shut my eyes and I can “see” Detroit still in my head.) In such ways, journal and novel, the most random of writing and the most planned, I seem to have been comforted by connecting with a lost and endangered American self, in this London exile, solely through language.
The act of writing in a journal is the very antithesis of writing for others. The skeptic might object that the writer of a journal may be deliberately creating a journal-self, like a fictitious character, and while this might be true, for some, for a limited period of time, such a pose can’t be sustained for very long, and certainly not for years. It might be argued that, like our fingerprints and voice “prints,” our journal-selves are distinctly our own; try as we might, we can’t elude them; the person one is, is evident in every line; not a syllable can be falsified. At times the journal-keeper might even speak in the second person, as if addressing an invisible “you” detached from the public self: the ever-vigilant, ever-scrutinizing “inner self” as distinct from the outer, social self. As our greatest American philosopher William James observed, we have as many public selves as there are people whom we know. But we have a single, singular, intractable, and perhaps undisguisable “inner self” most at home in secret places.
Joyce Carol Oates
February 16, 2007
*Do With Me What You Will (appropriate title!), to be published the following year, 1973.
A Note on the Text
The full manuscript of Joyce Carol Oates’s journals, which totals more than 4,000 single-spaced typewritten pages, is housed in the Joyce Carol Oates Archive at Syracuse University Library. Because the journal is so voluminous, much good material unfortunately has been excluded, and the present edition is limited to the ten-year period 1973-1982. Although Oates did keep a handwritten journal prior to 1973, this manuscript unfortunately no longer exists; as the early entries for 1973 make clear, at age thirty-four Oates decided to take up journal-writing in earnest, as an “experiment in consciousness” that continues to the present day.
Confronting such a huge mass of material was of course, to the editor, somewhat daunting, and the uniformly high quality of the journal entries made many of the cuts especially painful; however, the selections published here are intended to provide an accurate overview of Oates’s primary concerns during a given year. Entries that focus on her work, her writing process, and philosophical concerns have naturally been included, while more ephemeral notations (for instance family news, or academic gossip) have been excised. The editor’s deletions, which have been made not only because of the manuscript’s length but also, in some instances, to avoid embarrassment to living persons, are indicated by ellipsis dots placed in brackets. Ellipses not in brackets are Oates’s own: she uses ellipsis dots frequently, especially during these years, as a stylistic device in her writing.
Footnotes have been kept to a minimum to avoid distracting the reader from the text; they have been provided primarily to provide bibliographical information and to reference less well-known persons mentioned in passing.
The editor wishes to thank Kathleen Manwaring of the Syracuse University Department of Special Collections, who promptly answered my queries about the manuscript and provided photocopies. Thanks are also due, of course, to Joyce Carol Oates herself for her assistance in preparing this edition.
- Publishers Weekly, August 6, 2007, p. 181
- Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2007
- Booklist, September 1, 2007, p. 38
- Library Journal, September 15, 2007, p. 61
- Washington Times, September 30, 2007, p. B08
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, October 7, p. 2
- New York Times Book Review, October 7, 2007, p. 25
- The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), October 14, 2007, Perspective, p. 5
- Chicago Sun Times, October 21, 2007, p. B11
- Dallas Morning News, October 21, 2007,
- Boston Globe, November 22, 2007, p. C7
- New York Review of Books, December 20, 2007
- Reference & Research Book News, February 2008