Writing relentlessly

Joyce Carol Oates has written roughly six-thousand books. I’ve read one. I’m currently working on number two, a slim novel titled “Black Water.” Boy is it boring. Dry and colorless as a sun-baked cow skull. It’s not even trying to pull me in. It’s stingy like that.  

“Wonderland” is the other Oates book I read, some time ago. Unlike “Black Water,” which runs 154 pages, it’s unmistakably Oatesian, meaning it’s fat, multi-chambered and densely populated. It’s also pretty great, an epic family drama spanning generations that quakes with urgent, thrumming incident. It’s known as one of her best books and was a finalist for some big award or another. 

Oates is famously prolific. I call her relentless. Her torrential output, starting in 1963, includes 58 novels, numerous plays and novellas and several volumes of short stories, poetry and nonfiction. The novels are rarely anorexic. They are epics pushing 500, 700, even 900 pages or more. When I see her shelf in bookstores, I quietly scamper past. 

That’s why I picked up the acclaimed “Black Water”: it’s a finger sandwich next to the author’s standard ten-course feasts. A modern retelling of Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick incident, the book toggles through time to trace a young woman’s life and death by drowning in a Toyota that crashed upside-down in a lake.

The novel purports to be a scathing statement about women who are tragically drawn to powerful men, which I suppose it is. But that doesn’t interest me, at least not right now. It doesn’t help that Oates’ breathless, jagged prose feels awkwardly stylized, hardly the case with the lyrical “Wonderland.”

A force of nature, Oates is the epitome of a writing machine, matching the creative incontinence of Stephen King. She poops out literary doorstops with boggling regularity, making her contemporaries look downright slothful. I’m not knocking it. It’s something to envy. To be so productive would be miraculous, if exhausting.

A sliver of Joyce Carol Oates’ output

But such churning industry casts a light on the idea of consistency: how many of those piles of books are really, truly good? Surely a lot, or the author wouldn’t be the celebrated bestseller she is. Yet there’s probably a mountain of misfires there, too, which perhaps dilutes such voluminous achievement. 

In a 2015 essay, King himself confronts the notion “that prolific writing equals bad writing,” citing a truism in literary criticism that goes “the more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.”

He’s rightfully a little defensive, having published some 60 novels since “Carrie” in 1974, including four very thick books in a single year. As a writer, King is admittedly, and unashamedly, possessed. 

He insists it can’t be helped, that once his creative ideas catch fire, there’s no quenching them. “I never had any choice,” he says. “There were days when I literally thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane.”

That must be the case with Oates, an artist so overcome with ideas, she has to put them down before they devour her, for good or ill. Her well-publicized work ethic is austere, regimented and, yes, wildly fertile. King writes: “I remember a party where someone joked that Joyce Carol Oates was like the old lady who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” 

Most good writers work painstakingly — they “bleed,” as Hemingway said — which tends to produce a modest yield. Take Donna Tartt (“The Goldfinch”), who’s written three novels in 25 years. The books were smashes, and she is fabulously rich, but Tartt might represent the other side of the equation: by taking few risks, rarely publishing, can you call yourself a bold and vigorous artist?

Then there’s filmmaker Terrence Malick, who represents both sides. In 25 years, he made only three films, all masterpieces, including “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line.” Then, starting in 2005 with the sublime “New World,” he went on a tear of productivity, making almost a film a year that returned six back-to-back stinkers that he’s yet to recover from. (Let’s not even start with Woody Allen’s late, lame film-a-year output.)  

There’s a cautionary tale in there somewhere. It seems moderation — not too slow, not too fast — is the way to dole out one’s art. Still, if Oates, as the party wag cracked, “had so many children she didn’t know what to do,” I wouldn’t mind being that old lady who lived in a shoe, writing and creating and making magic by the ton, no matter how imperfect. We should be so lucky.

Dying is easy, writing is hard.

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The quote about writing from “Death in Venice” novelist Mann has for decades been my favorite assessment of the craft, even, if you will, my mantra. I present it because just days ago in The New York Times an op-ed writer echoed it crisply: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This is something I have staunchly believed, and still do. Writing’s a bitch.

I’ve written so long and hard that my head hurt, that I’ve become physically wobbly, a wet noodle. And compounding the physical complaints was the inexorably depressing notion that what I just spent hours extracting, exhuming, molding and crafting was irrefutable crap.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway

A journalist colleague once called me a bleeder, because I am so slow and painstaking a writer. I’ve spent six hours on a 700-word article, I’m ashamed to admit. That isn’t the norm, but it also isn’t uncommon. Every word — no: every syllable — counts.

My best friend as a writer is so rudimentary I shouldn’t even have to mention it, and that’s reading. Yet I know many writers who don’t get this. What reliably dumbfounds me is how little so many of them actually, actively read. Television has usurped reading as a cultural pastime, confused as literature as it is. I guarantee watching TV is not going to improve one’s prose skills (teleplay-writing skills, maybe). Too many would-be writers are aspiring illiterates. A fact.

As the greats have harrumphed :

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” — Larry L. King

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —  Stephen King

26stephens-web-blog4277Done correctly, writing is work, grueling toil. It’s fun (when it’s going well), but not that much fun. Still, creating and thinking are so gratifying that it’s worth it. It takes time, hours and hours. Listen to Louis Menand of The New Yorker:

“Writing, for 99-percent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as ‘like speech’ are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, and recalibration. … Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.”

That’s as hard as it sounds, and, without the most gimlet-eyed editor, failure is inevitable. But we try. We do the work. We grind, grope for the felicitous simile and metaphor, strive for the perfect punctuation, the poetic stroke, the tickling aside. We do, yes, bleed. Sympathy is unfitting for such a self-involved venture. The only reward is to be read.