Writing Routines

Joyce Carol Oates’ Writing Routine: “Be in some place where you’re not interrupted.”

Joyce Carol Oates is an American writer, known for her prolific output. Over the decades, she has published 58 novels, a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and non-fiction.

I love to write. It’s a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.

Joyce Carol Oates on productivity: ‘I love to write’ | The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Joyce Carol Oates’ productive writing output has become stuff of legends. When Margaret Atwood was interviewed during the 2015 Guardian Live Members’ event, the Canadian author was asked whether she considered herself prolific. Atwood scoffed at the idea and replied “Joyce Carol Oates is prolific; I’m just old.”

Ever since the Vanguard Press published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall in 1964 when she was 26 years old, Oates’ extensive bibliography now includes 58 novels as well as a number of plays, novellas and volumes of short stories, poetry and non-fiction.

In addition to her prolific output, Oates also balances teaching with her writing. She taught at Princeton University from 1978 to 2014 and is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor Emerita in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing. She is also a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley where she teaches short fiction

In a profile of the author for Tin House, writer Mia Funk compared Oates to Bob Dylan, another artist who’s put out an incredible amount of work over his career.

“Oates almost resembles Bob Dylan, that other poet of American life whose output astonishes and whose song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ was the inspiration for her much anthologized ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ Funk writes. “She seems to have embraced the same down-to-earth don’t think twice philosophy about producing work and moving on.”

In the same article, Funk also compares Oates’ writing style to, of all people, Manny Pacquiao — “a fighter who has moved effortlessly between different weight divisions and is known for his fast combinations and not being afraid to rise up and stretch himself even at the risk of leaving himself wide open.”

Productivity is a relative matter. And it’s really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones—just as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one.

Joyce Carol Oates, The Art of Fiction No. 72 | The Paris Review

Joyce Carol Oates’ daily routine writing routine

In a 2001 interview, Oates described her typical daily writing schedule:

I try to write in the morning very intensely, from 8:30 to 1 p.m. When I’m traveling, I can work from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Alone, I don’t sleep that well. I get a lot of work done in hotel rooms. The one solace for loneliness is work. I hand write and then I type. I don’t have a word processor. I write slowly.

USA Weekend | July 29, 2001

“Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days,” she revealed in a conversation with The Paris Review. “On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class.”

If Oates ever stuck on a particular idea or during the plot of a novel, she’ll go for a walk up a hill near where she lives. “So if I’m stuck trying to work out a plot at my desk — I’m sitting right now at my desk. I really can’t work it out here,” she told Tim Ferriss. “I have to go somewhere else, preferably up the big hill. And I need to be alone with my thoughts.” 

When the author is working on a novel, she writes a lot of notes in longhand. “The notes come first and since I travel a lot, I take notes by hand,” she told Buzzfeed. “At first the notes are just for me, but after a while I’ll put them together into an outline, and then I type them onto a computer. I can basically have a whole novel on the computer.”

When asked how she is able to write so quickly, Oates explained, “I only do one project at a time. It’s like a gourmet cook who spends hours in the kitchen who makes one meal at a time, you put your whole heart and soul into the project in front of you.”

Although she does push back at the notion that she writes quickly, especially compared to her earlier days as a writer. “I think that I envy my younger self because I used to write a whole draft of a novel and then go back and rewrite it,” she lamented. “Today, I do a lot of revising as I go along and that seems to be more painful and arduous.”

“It’s a slow process, almost like putting a mosaic together or weaving things in and out, whereas before it felt more like galloping on a horse and then creating the manuscript. For some reason I’ve become more attuned to the individual sentence and reworking the sentences. I’m not sure why that happened.”

While Oates says that she’s never experienced writers’ block, she does say that she has gone through difficult periods of putting the words on paper. “I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes,” she told Funk. “But the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.”

Writer’s block doesn’t exist, except it’s a very expensive block in Park Slope where all these writers live and it’s really expensive. Instead, I’d call it frustration or slowness. I think I have a lot of interruptions in my life. That’s the best advice to give a writer or an artist: Be in some place where you’re not interrupted.

Joyce Carol Oates Has The Most Inspiring Writing Advice For Authors | Buzzfeed

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