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Where Do Stories Come From? An Evening with Joyce Carol Oates

I’m a long-time Joyce Carol Oates fan: Her descriptive power builds an unreal and yet deeply resonant world that keeps you reading even though you know that around the corner something dark and terrible awaits you and her vulnerable, human characters. Stories like hers are always satisfying -- in all the muck and unpleasantness there’s something wonderfully cathartic about being shown a harsh truth.

During her visit to the Boston area last month, I tensed on the edge of the pew at First Parish Church in Cambridge, MA, as Oates shared some of the family history that inspired her recent memoir Lost Landscape. This was my chance to learn where her 40+ novels and short story collections had come from. I was not disappointed. In fact, in reading some passages and offering writers advice, she shed light on where all good stories come from:  

What story must you tell? Use memory to supply you with detail and guide you to unanswered questions to explore. “Most of our lives are forgotten,” Oates said.”The things that we do remember are emotional and distinctive. Student writing is often strongest with memory. Start there, with something that means something to you and then see what information you are missing, what questions in the memory need answering.”

What makes your story matter? Connect your personal experience to a broader, universal theme. One driving question for Oates in a section of Lost Landscape called “Happy Chicken” is, how to reconcile humanity’s concept of justice with the amorality of nature? The story is voiced by her childhood pet chicken and pits a child’s pursuit of love, affection, and happiness against aggressive roosters, a macho blacksmith, and the realities of a struggling farm.

Where does your story fit? Position your story in the world around you. Oates told the crowd how she saw her own writing change when she moved out of a rural area and into Detroit (The first city she’d ever lived in). “I started writing beyond a literary tradition and placing my work into a history and society context.” Later she addressed head-on why her novels are often so dark, citing the importance of writing to the world around you. “It’s not so bizarre to write about evil. Evil is out there in the world, not in our minds. It’s in the world.”

Joyce Carol Oates’ reading was part of Harvard Book Store’s event series and co-sponsored by Mass Humanities. Her parting advice for writers and all artists was “Have an interest in your own art. Read. See other examples of creativity. Don’t imitate but internalize the courage and recklessness in others’ work.”

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