Joyce Carol Oates: First drafts are hell, final drafts, paradise

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde.

Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.

I could tell you about the life and times of Joyce Carol Oates.

But they are of no consequence.

Her writing is.

Sure, she is an acclaimed author of more than forty novels and countless short stories. She has won the National Book Award for her novel, Them, and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize.

But it’s all about her writing, all about the tales she tells upon a harsh and bitter landscape of poverty, violence, and racial tensions.

And what influenced her writing most?

Let her tell you in her own words:


Her outlook on life was molded and sculpted while living in Detroit during the 1960s, a place, she said, that was billed both as the Automotive Capital of the World and Murder City, U.S.A. It was the setting of the 1968 riots, and she wrote that she was unable to ignore the immediacy of drama, social conflict, tragedy, tragi-comedy … the opportunity of realizing first hand a virtual allegory of the American experience. The city of Detroit in its myriad aspects became for me a region of symbolic luminosities: it was itself, of course, uniquely and irreducibly so, but it was also far more – an emblem of American ambition, American delusion, American strife, American hopes, American violence, American dreams gone wrong.”


Her writing is often controversial but always powerful, and provides these words of advice for other others:

  • Write your heart out.
  • The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  • You are writing for your contemporaries, not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  • Keep in mind Oscar Wilde. A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
  • When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  • Unless you are experimenting with form gnarled, snarled, and obscure, be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  • Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.
  • Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader. He/she might exist but is reading someone else.
  • Read, observe, listen intensely as if your life depended on it.
  • Write your heart out.

I would tell you more about Joyce Carol Oates, but I can’t.

I don’t have time.

I have to leave now and go someplace where I can write my heart out.

Please click HERE to find my Boom Town Saga novel, Bad Side of a Wicked Moon, on Amazon

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  • Sally Berneathy

    I’m not sure I understand #6 about paragraphing, but the rest of the advice is golden. Well, except in #7, I would delete the word “sympathetic.” I have no sympathy for that idiot who writes my manuscripts.

    • I’d leave sympathetic for the poor idiot doing the writing, but not at all for the words on the page. Those deserve no sympathy – they haven’t earned it.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Sally: That “idiot” who writes your manuscripts sure does a wonderful job of making me laugh on and off the printed page. That is a rare gift.

  • Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.

    Definitely merciless. Then maybe the readers will have reason to be merciful. Don’t make their dislike easy.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia: We do have to be Jekyll and Hyde when we write and edit.

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