One of America’s greatest living writers also happens to be one of the country’s longest-running teachers of creative writing.
I’m talking about Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 novels, whose literary trophy case includes the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal. Five of her works have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. She has long been rumored as a favorite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Oates is now 84 years old, and she started in the classroom right out of grad school. For more than 50 years she has taught creative writing classes at Princeton University. She’s still teaching — not only at Princeton, but also at New York University and Rutgers University.
It’s trendy among education reformers to say that education hasn’t changed much over time. But Joyce Carol Oates’ own experience as a student and an educator reminds us how much actually has changed, especially around who gets to teach and who gets to study at the nation’s best colleges.
She grew up on a farm in upstate New York and started school in a one-room-schoolhouse with no plumbing. She was the first in her family to finish college. In fact she was the first in her family to finish high school.
The material in her fiction is often dark. As a current Princeton student recently wrote in The Daily Princetonian, she is “a master at finding horror in the ordinary,” as in her most famous short story, “Where are you going, where have you been?” about a girl kidnapped on a sunny day.
“If you can face the darkest elements in oneself, and the things that are secret you have such a feeling of power,” she says in the trailer for her online course about writing offered by the service Master Class, describing the writing process as “exploring your own imagination deep within you.”
I took a creative writing course from Oates when I was an undergraduate at Princeton decades ago, and I remember her attentiveness to the detail of the works we critiqued in class.
Now, as a journalist who reports about education, I was excited to ask her about her philosophy of teaching and how it has informed her work. So I connected with Oates by Zoom this month for an interview about her teaching career.
Her answers surprised me — as well as her reaction to being asked why she kept teaching even when she certainly could have just focused on writing.
“I’ve been teaching most of my adult life, so asking me if I like it seems a bit redundant — and if there’s some reason [I do it,] I say because I enjoy it,” she said. “Basically it’s a whole way of life. Sometimes people say, ‘Why did you or did you not have children?’ People who have children love them, and you ask them, ‘Why did you have children?’ — that kind of question is hard to answer.”
At one point in our conversation she compared her approach in the classroom to boxing, a sport she loves and explored in her book “On Boxing.”
“I think probably older boxers who are retired probably enjoy watching tapes and video of the great boxing matches and seeing what Muhammad Ali did here. What Joe Frazier did. What Sugar Ray Robinson did. Just admiring the technique. That’s definitely a part of what I like to do as a teacher. I can spend an hour on a really short story by Hemingway and we just all discuss it.”
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Steering Students Toward Their Strengths
Oates had a huge influence on me, but not because I was able to absorb her wisdom and follow in her footsteps. Sitting in her office way back then, with dreams of becoming the next great American writer myself, she praised my writing for the student newspaper and suggested I should go for that rather than the short stories I was struggling to conceive for her class. In our interview, I reminded her of that moment.
“If one is just as happy writing journalism or something else that doesn’t have to be dredged up from your unconscious, you might as well do that because it’s such a difficult field to be any kind of original artist,” she said. “When I look around at my students, especially my students who are in their 20s or 30s and they’re working on novels, I don’t necessarily tell them this, but I think to myself, ‘I wonder if the expenditure of energy and spirit this person has to put in that novel to make it even ordinary — maybe to get it published — Is that gonna be worth it for them?’”
“Sometimes writers have great ideas,” she continued, “but to execute an ambitious novel requires so much effort. You know, you can have a bunch of lumber in your backyard and you can have a great idea for a house and you can talk about your great idea and show your plans. But when it comes to actually building that house, that’s gonna take time and you put your youth and your energy into it, and sometimes it’s probably not going to work, you know?
But we who teach creative writing, we don’t usually say anything like that. We try — I try to steer my students toward their strengths. Some people can write short stories. Some people can do something else, like memoir. I try to tell them to work on that because they’re not going to have a whole lot of youthful energy to spend.”
How did she know that she had what it takes to be the kind of artist she’s become?
“I never thought of myself as a writer,” she told me, in the most surrealistic moment of the interview. “To me, each project or each story is independent of the others. And each project is very interesting and fascinating to me. Maybe it’s the way mathematicians feel. They have a problem they’re working on. They’re totally focused on the one problem. And they don’t have any knowledge of what they’re gonna be doing in 15 years or what they did last year — they’re focusing on the work.”
“So I’ve been working on this chapter for several days,” she added, holding up a thin stack of printed pages to her laptop camera. “So I finished it last night. So I will reread it, and then I’ll plan the next chapter. To me, that’s what I’m focusing on. I’ve always been like that. My first book was published when I was quite young. I never really knew that I’d have another novel, another book. And then when I published that, I didn’t really know I’d have another one published. It’s sort of been like one step after another. I would literally have been incredulous if somebody said, ‘Well one day you will have written a hundred books.’ I would say that’s not possible. Maybe it’s like a woman who prepares 10,000 meals in her lifetime. She never thinks about all the meals she’s gonna prepare. She says, I think, ‘What am I gonna make for tonight?’ And focuses on that preparation. But she’s not thinking about next week.”
There have been students in her class who she has encouraged to tilt at the windmill of a writing career. Most famously, perhaps, is Jonathan Safran Foer. One day before class she told him “I’m a fan of your writing,” a moment he described as “life-altering.” He went on to write the bestselling novel “Everything is Illuminated,” which started as a senior thesis project at Princeton.
How have students in Oates’ fiction classes changed over the years?
Mainly, it’s in the demographics.
“Many, many, many more of them are persons of color and persons who are the first people in their family to go to college,” she said. “They are often very brilliant because they have scholarships. But within that cohort, the personalities haven’t changed that much. There’s a certain kind of literary type that doesn’t change much over the decades.”
I kept coming back to the question of why she keeps coming back to the classroom.
“I find it really exciting,” she noted at one point. “Maybe it’s like playing chess with lots of people. You know, you just play chess because you like it. Like a chess grandmaster might play chess with a really brilliant 12-year-old and come close to losing — the experience is somehow pleasant in itself. When students give me texts that are really worthwhile and interesting, I feel kind of an excitement, and I wanna help them make it better. Sometimes I say, ‘Well, you need a new opening. This is not the best opening. How about this?’ You know, like, ‘Page three, maybe that’s your beginning.’ So it’s sort of like being an editor or a trainer or a coach, just kind of helping people take their material that exists and their goodwill and industry and kind of applying it and showing them how to make it more efficient.”