The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates

BOOK: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
The Journal Of Joyce Carol Oates


Edited by Greg Johnson

and for
fellow explorers of the landscape within

he 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 serve 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 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.

Greg Johnson
Atlanta, Georgia


A Charm invests a face

Imperfectly beheld—

The Lady dare not lift her Veil

For Fear it be dispelled—

But peers beyond her mesh—

And wishes—and denies—

Lest Interview—annul a want

That Image—satisfies—


otives 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
, 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
, 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 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 journal as an experiment in consciousness. An attempt to record not just the external world, and not just the vagrant, fugitive, ephemeral “thoughts” that brush against us like gnats, but the refractory and inviolable authenticity of daily life: daily-ness, day-ness, day-lightness, the day’s eye of experience.

hen Joyce Carol Oates began her journal on New Year’s Day, 1973, she was at the height of her early fame. Only weeks before, she had been featured in a cover story for
magazine, and after the appearance of her National Book Award–winning novel
(1969) and countless award-winning short stories, she had become one of the most widely discussed and controversial authors in the country, alternately praised and criticized for her violent themes, her turbulent artistic vision, and her immense productivity.

Her journal entries for this year, however, evince little regard for fame or the other trappings of literary celebrity. Instead, they show her sharp focus on the inner life, especially in the wake of a brief mystical experience she’d had in London in December of 1970, in which she had seemed to “transcend” her physical being. This crucial event in her life caused her to meditate on mysticism in general, to seek out writings on the subject, to visit the Esalen Institute and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, and even to consider writing a “mystical novel.” During this year she is immediately concerned, however, with recording her work on new stories and on her novel in progress,
How Lucien Florey Died, and Was Born;
and with discussing her dreams, her reading, her travels, and her teaching.

This typically productive year was shadowed by the hostility shown toward Oates by a Detroit resident, here known as “A.K.,” who remained angry over Oates’s refusal to rig a positive review of his first novel in an influential publication; he even resorted to “stalking” her at the annual Modern Language Association convention at the end of the year. She was also troubled by the recurrence of a lifelong physical problem, a heart condition known as tachycardia. Even these negatives, however, provided opportunities for Oates to consider philosophical and personal patterns in her life experience by which she learned and grew.

At this time, Oates was living with her husband, the critic and editor Raymond J. Smith, in Windsor, Ontario, where she and he had been professors of English since 1968. Their riverside home was, according to Smith, “a highly romantic setting,” and in her journal Oates often took note of her natural surroundings and of the ceaselessly flowing river as an emblem of human experience.


January 1, 1973.
…The uncanny calm of freezing, layered skies. Clouds opaque and twisted like muscles. Idyllic on the river, “unreal.” On this New Year’s Day I am thinking of another winter, three years ago, in London, when my life—the “field” of perceptions and memories that constitutes “Joyce Carol Oates”—was funneled most violently into a point: dense, unbearable, gravity like Jupiter’s. Another second and I would have been destroyed. But another second—and it was over…. Query: Does the individual exist? What is the essential, necessary quality of (sheer)



A journal as an experiment in consciousness. An attempt to record not just the external world, and not just the vagrant, fugitive, ephemeral “thoughts” that brush against us like gnats, but the refractory and inviolable authenticity of daily life: daily-ness, day-ness, day-lightness, the day’s eye of experience.


The challenge: to record without falsification, without understatement or “drama,” the extraordinarily subtle processes by which the real is made more intensely real
through language
. Which is to say,
through art
. To ceaselessly analyze the “consciousness” I inhabit, which is inhabited as easily and gracefully as a snake in its remarkable skin…and as unself-consciously. “My heart laid bare.” The stern rigors of a confessional that is always in session but can promise no absolution.


“The only happiness lies in reason,” says Nietzsche. “The highest reason, however, I see in the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such…. Happiness lies in the swiftness of feeling and thinking: all the rest of the world is slow, gradual, and stupid. Whoever could feel the course of a light ray would be very happy, for it is very swift…”


Nietzsche’s loneliness. Stoicism; and then frenzy. (Doesn’t stoicism lead to frenzy, in the end?) To aspire to Nietzsche’s aloneness in the midst of love, marriage, family, and community. A feat not even Nietzsche himself could have accomplished.


The advantage of creating a personality, a meta-personality. The constant witness who refuses to be comforted—or deluded. Sharing in the emotions. Imposture. The sense of masquerade, carnival. Life as “Eternal Delight.” (As I write this the sun appears—ghastly in the stony sky.) Detachment a trick of the nerves. Possibly a curse. The obvious disadvantage: the meta-personality takes on a life of its own, cerebral and cunning, contemptuous of the original self. Or: the meta-personality evolves into a curious tissue of words, “transcendent” while having no genuine existence at all.


Dreams last night of unusual violence. Premonitions…? Preparations for the New Year…? Woke exhausted, alarmed. The passivity of sleep is an affront.



Mimicry of death. Dying-out of consciousness. A friend saying, with an anxious smile, that he feared falling asleep, in a way—the extinction of
personality. I thought, but did not say: Perhaps it’s personality that then comes alive.


Tentative plans for John Martin at Black Sparrow Press to do
The Poisoned Kiss
, unless Vanguard objects.
John Martin’s lovely books…. It would be appropriate for the Fernandes stories, which leapt out of the “left-hand” side of my personality, to be published by Black Sparrow on the West Coast, and not Vanguard in New York City.


My optimism today can’t quite overcome the memory of those draining, bewildering dreams. The irony: one can experience in sleep tortures that, in ordinary consciousness, would be profoundly traumatic. And yet one isn’t expected to take them seriously…. Madness, no doubt, begins in dreams. And spreads, and spreads, like oil in water.


Jules Wendall, still living.

Circling back. To be born again in the flesh, yearning and striving. The “damnation” of the soul…but the salvation of the species. The Tibetan world-contempt is really so vicious, one can only react to it with startled laughter….


January 2, 1973.
Quiet days. Still thinking—or is it feeling—reliving—those amazing dreams of the other night. One dare not reveal one’s dreams, for not only are they sacred but they are, to others, profoundly boring. It isn’t possible even to record them in words. The transcription into prose violates them hideously. Handwritten notes might be all right, but I rather doubt it. No: words are forbidden. When the soul speaks one must only listen, not attempt to transform, analyze, comprehend.


Waves of light, sourceless. A terrible sense of—of catastrophe—of an ending. More than personal death; an extinction of all consciousness. Haunting. Puzzling. The point of the dream seemed to be that I had to acquiesce to powers beyond my ego, rather more readily than I do at the
present time. I am rebellious, the dream seemed to indicate, and must be humbled. Will be humbled. Otherwise a demonic force would overwhelm me…something queer and destructive….


How am I to translate this into my life?—into my writing?


I have no idea. I had thought all along, humbly enough, that I was an acquiescent person.


The Soul dictates to the Ego. If the Ego begins to imagine itself autonomous, something will rise up out of the unconscious to humiliate it; or worse. The dream was unmistakable, more “real” than “real.” I don’t believe I’ve had more than three or four numinous (Jung’s word) dreams in my lifetime.


January 7, 1973.
Fascinating, the human mind; unfathomable. To think that we inhabit the greatest, most ingenious work in the universe…that is, the human brain…and we inhabit it gracelessly, casually, rarely aware of the phenomenon we’ve inherited. Like people living in a few squalid rooms, in a great mansion. We don’t even know what might await us on the highest floor; we’re stuck contemplating the patterns in the floorboards before us. Once in a while a truly alarming, profound dream/vision cracks through the barrier and we’re forced to recognize the presence of a power greater than ourselves, contained somehow within our consciousness.


Dreamt just before waking of a teenaged girl who wept miserably. I was half in and half out of her personality. She sat with a couple at a kitchen table, a young married couple who were friends of hers. The girl said “this is the most wonderful place in the world,” weeping uncontrollably…. Woke, and went to work composing the scene, trying to flesh out the circumstances. Who is the girl, who are her friends, why was she crying, what would happen next? (Though perhaps this is the very last scene of the story & I must not tamper with it.)


The emotion propels the dream-images forward, into waking consciousness. Without that emotion they sink back, they disappear. Like all of us.
January 9, 1973.
…Finished “Honeybit.”
The weeping girl, her friend (minus the husband: too many characters would clutter so very short a story), the kitchen table, the despair. It would have been impossible to do anything further….


Wrote until four in the afternoon, but when I was done with the story another story intruded: another dream-image? Or what? I feel besieged. If the stories came out perfectly formed, that would be one thing; one could merely type them out. But it isn’t like that at all. I have only a few stray words, or an image or two, or a glimpse of someone’s face. Nothing is clear, nothing is sequential or logical or explained. It’s exactly like trying to reconstruct a jigsaw puzzle from the single piece you have in your hand….


The other story which suggested itself is “The Golden Madonna,” not so sensitive a story, in my opinion, as “Honeybit.” A man’s story; a young man’s story.
, possibly…?

So I was writing until 7:30 and it was time to start dinner and I was exhausted, completely exhausted, my vision blotched, my head aching. It would have been perfectly possible to put off “The Golden Madonna” until tomorrow; it isn’t that urgent. But once one is writing it’s almost easier to continue than to stop….


What has “The Golden Madonna” to do with me? I would like to say—nothing. And “Honeybit”? Perhaps something. But these stories feel to me like dream-fragments from others’ dreams, others’ lives. I am absorbed in the writing of them, as one must be, but they don’t profoundly move me; there’s little of my life dramatized in them. Except of course we are all part of one another, as Stephen Dedalus says, not, I think, ironically….


The Mind, the Soul: and the Ego floats atop it like a playful bubble.



January 19, 1973.
Days of teaching; meeting with students; talking with colleagues. The irresistible pull of the external world. One could very easily lose oneself within it…. “Keeping busy” is the remedy for all ills in America. It’s also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed.


Did I die, in a sense, back in December of 1970…? A peculiar experience which I’ll never quite comprehend, though I’ve brooded over it constantly. I can say without exaggeration that a day doesn’t pass without my contemplation of it. For some time afterward I felt as if my sojourn as “Joyce” was through; or perhaps I felt that my death—since it will be a historical fact someday, at a later point in time—was already accomplished and absorbed into my life. No matter what I assume in trying to understand this peculiar experience—which refuses to reduce itself to the “merely psychological” and still less to the “merely physiological”—I am always left baffled. The only person I’ve talked to about it is Ray, and as I speak to him I seem to hear the inadequacy of my words, and I don’t doubt that he finds the whole thing murky if not muddy…. What is “mystical experience” anyway? Is it only natural, but since we lack the vocabulary to deal with it, it comes out sounding bizarre? Does one, in submission to the “mystical,” desperately project familiar images of belief which are then mistaken as the
of the experience? A Christian, for instance, would see Christ…a Catholic might very well “see” Mary…. I try again and again to express this utterly simple experience (it lasted only about ten minutes) in words, and I always fail. Someday I must attempt a large, ambitious, risky, even rather lurid novel about mysticism: its blessings, its curses.


Well, if I am dead from one point of view I’m still alive from another. It isn’t “my” life here, typing out these words; it’s “a” life, someone’s life, someone both myself and not quite myself. The Soul encompasses this particular being, but isn’t limited by it. Fair enough. The Ego sees the Soul, in a sense, out of the corner of an eye—the shadow of the Soul, perhaps. The dream world quivers with the presence of the Soul. Every moment answers the question: How did I experience that moment, when I was alive? (Suddenly this reminds me of Pater: not to experience each
moment fully, “in this short day of sun and frost,” is to go to bed before evening.)



February 17, 1973.
The memory of that odd, inexplicable experience at our Dunraven flat.

Must dramatize it somehow in a story, a novel…. Corinne of
Lucien Florey

But I despair of getting it right. Perhaps I’m too close to the experience; I’m too attached.


Can one really believe in the playfulness of the universe?—and its beauty?


In theory, yes. Very readily.


In experience…?


No, such beliefs, however passionately held, are a mockery of our ordinary perceptions. “God is Love” etc. An insult to those who suffer. “God is God is all”: the sum total of the universe. Neither good nor evil. Just an immense democracy. One alternates between embracing such a conviction…and running from it in horror.

BOOK: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates
3.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess
ToLoveaLady by Cynthia Sterling
Stone Walls by A.M. Madden
Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan
Love Rules by Rita Hestand
Hard Magic by Larry Correia
The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen