Has the flood of words run dry? Author Joyce Carol Oates thinks she has writer's block

April 03, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Ever since she was a student at Syracuse University in the late '50s and won a short-story contest held by Mademoiselle magazine, Joyce Carol Oates has been thought of as the literary equivalent of baseball's "The Natural" -- one for whom writing came easily, and often. You thought of her, and the image came forth of millions of words flowing unchecked from the typewriter of this serious-looking woman.

At 52, she has written 20 novels, three suspense novels under jTC the pseudonym Rosamond Smith, several collections of short stories, essays and poems, and even some screenplays and plays. If there is such a thing as an automatic author, a writer who never met a genre she didn't like, it's Ms. Oates.

But you might want to sit down for this one. Joyce Carol Oates says she has writer's block.

Specifically, she's not sure if she can -- or wants to -- write another novel.

"I don't feel that emotionally I'm ready to do a novel and I haven't done one for quite a while," she said in an interview before delivering the 14th annual Harry G. Pouder lecture last night at Johns Hopkins University.

"The novel is such a large task. I can't begin a novel until I know the whole way through and know the ending. It takes a long time to think about it. In my mind I have to get it all ready before I can write the first sentence, so in the meantime, I work on other things. I may not write another novel. I find it so exhausting."

This is a startling statement, coming so soon after her hugely successful novel of last year, "Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart." Set in her native upstate New York in the 1950s and early '60s, it brilliantly portrayed the racial tensions of that region and period and especially the emotionally charged relationship between a young white girl and a black high school basketball star. It was nominated for the National Book Award, and Ms. Oates' editor, William Abrahams, said flatly, "It's her masterpiece, so far." Even the author reluctantly acknowledged, probably my best novel."

Still, she said of novel-writing, "I just don't feel I'd like to do it for a while." Then she looked up at her questioner and asked softly, "Do you know anything about boxing?"

Ms. Oates is known as an aficionado of the sport, so the question isn't jarring coming from such a soft-spoken, fragile-looking woman.

"Boxing is so much about training and conditioning. And as a man gets older, boxers find it harder to keep in training. One of the reasons Rocky Marciano retired was because he just didn't want to do the training.

"Getting a novel ready, writing the first draft, is analogous to training. Of course, revision and polish are fun. But as one gets older, or has done it so many times, then doing

something different becomes more difficult. That's why theater is so interesting to me because I haven't done it very much."

As for "Because It Is Bitter," "I just remember how hard it was to write. . . . It was just so emotional -- it was a novel that I had put so much of my life into, my heart, and I haven't even come to grips with that, and it's been quite a while since I finished it."

One major struggle, she said, was that "I felt that I didn't have the right language. Each morning, when I would write, I would get the feeling that each sentence was too important for me, too intense and stressed. And I don't think writing should be like that -- it should be more fluid and even playful, and to me, it became too serious."

But for someone who says she has writer's block, Ms. Oates manages to keep awfully busy. She teaches writing and literature at Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. Mr. Abrahams said she has on tap a book of short stories to be published in August, a collection of 12 plays in November, and another Rosamond Smith suspense novel in February.

"It's an amazing experience to be not only a novelist, but an essayist and poet and short-story writer and playwright as well," Mr. Abrahams said, his unabashed admiration coming across strong over the telephone from his office in the San Francisco area. "I think she does everything wonderfully well. Henry James, for instance, was a great novelist but couldn't write a good play. I do think she has some kind of genius."

Ms. Oates said she does have a novel running around in her head, but added, "I have writer's block right now. I can't write this novel, so I write other things. If I had to write this novel I've been thinking about, I'd be paralyzed. I'd be sweating; I'd have all kinds of visceral reactions because I'm not ready."

She stopped and gave an unexpectedly warm, even delightful, smile. "I have to tell myself it's not that important," Ms. Oates said. Then she reached for another boxing metaphor, recalling the words of a famous trainer. "The late Cus D'Amato would tell Mike Tyson, 'It's only boxing.' I have to remember the same thing."

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