The writing life


JOYCE Carol Oates says she has writer's block. This is a stunning statement from a prolific, young writer (only 52) who has already written her masterpiece. She has also written some 20 other novels, who knows how many poems, several collections of short stories and essays, a book on boxing and a few suspense novels.

Oates says she has placed three recent manuscripts in the hands of publishers. These brand new books will be released on time -- in August, the fall, and next February. Does that sound like writer's block?

With all this she can summon the energy and manage the time to teach literature and writing at Princeton, write book reviews and give public lectures and interviews.

When she claims "writer's block," could she mean her imagination has taken a day off? Whatever -- remarks like hers hit us hard.

I try not to think of Joyce Carol Oates. Sometime back when I calculated that the number of her published volumes was greater than the sum of her years, I gave her up. The realization of her astonishing achievement came to my attention just as I had fallen into that terrible age when we begin to live in the imagination those several lives we might have lived if we hadn't gotten so tangled up in the one that looks like ours. It was a watershed moment. I knew I had to get going.

Yet my manuscripts fit easily into a shoe box along with my other important papers. Like Oates, I became a teacher of literature and writing, but unlike her, I remain a teacher without a portfolio, as it were. I have writing galore in my life, on my desk, on the windowsills, in my briefcase. I study the writing of students morning, noon and night. I write reams of comment in lavender ink around the edges of their papers.

I am drawn to almost any kind of writing, even the handwriting scrawled into blue books at examination time. It isn't exactly the writing life, but there's nothing for it. I fly toward words and sentences, among paragraphs and pages, like a moth to flame. I never suffer writer's block. With a trembling heart and a dry mouth I can dream of writing day after day, dream of writing line after line, after line.

Even without the writing, I can dream of the writing life with so much longing and expectation that the faraway distance of my desire blurs my tear-stained eyes.

In my tenderest youth I kept myself going in this dream of the writing life by remembering that Melville did his best work at 32, then by remembering that Hawthorne's genius did not really flower until he was 45. Finally, as though all on a summer's day, I had moved along to Cervantes, who did not get down to writing his masterpiece until he was 58.

Now the stretch of my past calls me away from these measures of time to another order of things. I try out the idea that John Keats needed only a brilliant 18 months to write those odes. Katherine Anne Porter and Tillie Olsen could get side-tracked from the writing life for whole decades at a time, then leap the interval to recover their writing lives again. Emily Dickinson could say, "It would have starved a Gnat/To live so small as I," yet out of the buzz of her fierce concentration she drew 1,775 poems. The writing life is all there somewhere. I could trip into that incandescent moment of my beginning any time now.

I must confess I am getting down to the wire. But there is no need to panic, no need to claim writer's block, no need to concede the race. I may, after all, have the deepest affinity with Rilke's "Malte Laurids Brigge." The neurasthenic Malte believed no one should write anything while young, that "one should wait and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long, and a long life if possible, and then quite at the end, one might perhaps be able to write 10 lines that are good."

Now there is a reasonable goal. Perhaps that kind of writing can be taken up at a late hour. I have in a fashion been doing my work. I have waited. And I have gathered "sense and sweetness" from that other life that captured me. My heart is all astir for the writing life; maybe "10 lines that are good" could be managed.

Snap out of that writer's block, Joyce Carol Oates. You may have a big margin on me, but I'm treading at your heels.

Josephine Trueschler, who says Oates' masterpiece is "Because Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart," teaches at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

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