Saturday, March 28, 2015

JoyceCarolOates. Transcript. Is the uninspired life worth living? CelesteBartosForum. 13 Dec 2014.

Good evening. Good evening. My name is Paul Holdengräber. I’m the Director of Public Programs here at the New York Public Library, known as LIVE from the New York Public Library. As all of you know my goal at the Library is to make the lions roar, to make a heavy institution dance, and when successful to make it levitate. I’d like (applause) thank you. Here is—I guess you applauded for levitation. (laughter) Two final events of our season I’d like to announce. On Monday, December 15th, Salman Rushdie will speak with Marlon James about his new, extraordinary, and engrossing novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and on Tuesday, December 16th, the day after, ending our fall season I will have the honor to speak with the very great photographer Thomas Struth, who’s featured in our exhibition here at the New York Public Library, which opened today, Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography. It is on view in the Gottesman Hall. There’s also a magnificent small but potent exhibition at the Met of Struth’s work. Go see both. Struth, if you don’t know who he is, you probably would recognize his photographs. He photographs incredibly large photographs of people in museums looking at works of art. He very often photographs them. He also made a very extraordinary portrait, on her request, of Queen Elizabeth. Which he had her pose for five hours to take that photograph. I highly recommend you come that evening and in preparation I would encourage you to read Janet Malcolm’s extraordinary profile of Thomas Struth. Stay tuned for our spring season, where we will be celebrating our tenth anniversary—I can’t quite believe it myself—after some six hundred events. So be ready to be surprised. And now, ladies and gentlemen, Joyce Carol Oates. Joyce Carol Oates delivers this year’s Robert B. Silvers Lecture, entitled “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?” Joyce Carol Oates has agreed to sign books after her lecture, and once again I would like to thank our independent bookseller, 192 Books, for being on hand and so helpful. Joyce Carol Oates wrote one of my favorite books. A year ago and two weeks I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Tyson here and I highly recommend that you read her book on boxing. I think it’s the best book ever written on boxing. As you may or may not know, for the last seven years I’ve asked my guests to provide me with a biography of themselves in seven words, a haiku of sorts or if you’re very modern, a tweet, and I asked Joyce Carol Oates to provide me her biography in seven words, and this is what she submitted to me: “When I know, I will tell you.” (laughter/applause) So come back. The Robert B. Silvers Lecture is an annual series created by Max Palevsky in recognition of the work of Robert B. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. [Shit.] It is my pleasure now to bring to the stage Robert Silvers, a lifetime trustee of the New York Public Library and a 2014 Library Lion. Robert Silvers. (applause)

Thank you very much, Paul. And I have to say that before these lectures happened I felt that editors like myself should, on the whole, work with writers and stay out of sight, somewhere in the middle distance, you might say, but when the late Max Palevsky, who was a great philanthropist, a scientist, an inventor, a builder, and also an original subscriber, he made the truly startling suggestion to do something in my name I was not only touched by his generosity but I also felt an editor’s impulse to do something to honor writers I greatly admired and to do so in a way that would involve the two institutions that have meant the most to me: the New York Review and the New York Public Library, which seems to me one of the most admirable institutions we have. It’s a really and truly democratic source of the mind of the city and I must say thanks to our president, Tony Marx, and to Paul and to the Library for making all this possible tonight, and thanks to Max. Now, after our lectures by Joan Didion and John Coetzee and Ian Buruma, Nick Kristof, Daniel Mendelssohn, Mary Beard, Lorrie Moore, Michael Kimmelman, Darryl Pinckney, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, I was particularly happy when Joyce Carol Oates said she would give this year’s talk. It seems a towering challenge even to describe the extent of Joyce’s work. I can start out very selfishly by saying that she has written some eighty-two contributions to the New York Review, and among her subjects have been dozens of the most important writers of the time and from an earlier time, including to name only a very few, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel, Raymond Chandler, and Muhammad Ali, for she is one of the few great writers in America who have been able to take on and evoke powerfully the world of boxing with its own heroic moments and its own shifty and tricky underground world. But the New York Review is after all only a tiny little part of her astonishingly various and original and unexpected work. She has written over forty novels, nearly forty collections of short stories, some seven hundred—more than de Maupassant—nine plays, ten collections of poetry, eleven novellas, and eight quite special and thrilling works under the name Rosamond Smith as well as collections of essays and memoirs and children’s fiction and young adult fiction. There really is no other writer in the world today, I think, who has written so much so brilliantly and taken on such a range of experience. For example, of poor black young men in Detroit or the grand sagas of American families as in her immensely imaginative novels Bellefleur and We Were the Mulvaneys. One could go on and on about her many books and stories and book awards. Her Pulitzer Prizes, her Faulkner Awards, and dozens of others. Prizes for such brilliant books to me and to many others as A Garden of Earthly Delights and Black Water and Blonde. But this prospect would only take away from the occasion that we are here to celebrate, that Joyce Carol Oates, who is completing many years of teaching at Princeton, has consented to our great happiness to talk to us tonight. Joyce Carol Oates. (applause)

Thank you so much for the gracious introduction. It’s a great honor and a great pleasure to have been invited to give the Robert Silvers Lecture this evening and in such a beautiful setting. Since 1992, I’ve been writing reviews for the distinguished New York Review of Books in an association that has been challenging, exacting, and rewarding. My first editor at the New York Review until her untimely and lamented death in 2006 was the remarkable Barbara Epstein. Her first assignment for me was a half dozen books on boxing, primarily on the great Muhammad Ali. The essay I wrote was so freighted with boxing lore, arcane quotes and references, so specific in its concerns, I could not reasonably see how it could even be published in any general interest literary publication. Yet somehow it was in October 1992 and in this way began my literary friendship with Barbara Epstein. We shared what might be a called a fierce attentiveness to the specific inhabitude to work that may have seemed odd to others but that was perfectly natural to us. Once, in those days when people called one another on the telephone instead of sending e-mails or texting, Barbara called me fairly late at night, it might have been eleven p.m., to go over a review I’d written. I said, “Isn’t it late for you to be still at the office, Barbara?” And Barbara said, “Isn’t it late for you to be still at your desk?” So we understood each other perfectly. Since 2006 the legendary Bob Silvers has been my editor. Bob is as exacting as Barbara and as inspiring and nurturing. My several essay collections, In Rough Country, Uncensored Views and Reviews, and Where I Have Been and Where I Am Going have all been generated by New York Review assignments, most on subjects I would not have thought of writing about otherwise. The books just arrive and I have no choice, I have to write about them. Bob doesn’t call beforehand, it’s just the books arrive as wonderful surprises sometimes. I pick the books out and have no idea how I’m going to deal with them but I have no choice, I sort have to do it. That’s meant to be a joke. (laughter) So I sort of open the books and see what my fate is for the next several weeks.
The creative editor is one who, to paraphrase the Surrealist Manifesto, brings together two seemingly disparate objects, the reviewer and the book, to create something new, rich, and strange. It’s no surprise that the New York Review is the most distinguished of contemporary literary journals and that Bob Silvers is the most respected and honored editor of our time.
My talk tonight, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?”—obviously a reflection of “Is the unexamined life worth living?”—Thoughts on Inspiration and Obsession. I think I should begin by evoking Magritte’s famous painting of 1928, The Treason of Images, with its simple literal depiction of a pipe, you know, and the provocative caption beneath, “This is not a pipe,” because this is not a traditional lecture so much as a quest for a lecture in the singular, a quest constructed around a series of questions: Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? “Where do you get your ideas?” Do we choose our subjects or do our subjects choose us? Do we choose our voices? Is inspiration a singular phenomenon or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living?
So I located about nine types of inspiration, some of which overlap, which I’ll talk about tonight, and if I suddenly run out of time, I’ll just skip to the end because I make a point at the end. Nobody will miss what’s in the middle, and I can always say the best parts had to be left out, (laughter) and I’m really looking forward to having questions from the audience. It’s always so lively and unexpected, sometimes very unexpected, sorts of questions one gets. So: Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living? Thoughts on Inspiration and Obsession.
“Why did I write? What sin to me unknown dipped me in ink, my parents’ or my own?” Alexander Pope’s great epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 1734, asks this question both playfully and seriously. Why did the child Pope take to verse at so young an age, telling us as many a poet might tell us with a kind of modesty that enormous self-confidence can generate, “I lisped in numbers but the numbers came,” it’s a very famous line, by which the poet means an intuitive, instinctive inborn sense of scansion and rhyme, for which some individuals have the equivalent of perfect pitch in music. You are born with it or you are not.
For sheer virtuosity in verse, Pope was one of the great masters of the language. His brilliantly orchestrated couplets lend themselves ideally to the expression of wit, usually caustic, in the service of the poet’s satiric mission. The predilection to “lisp in numbers” suggests a kind of entrapment, though Pope doesn’t suggest this. The perfectly executed couplet with its locked-together rhymes is a tic-like mannerism, not unlike punning, to which some individuals succumb involuntarily.
I’ll say parenthetically that there is such a thing as pathological punning and rhyming. It’s a symptom evidently of frontal lobe syndrome, a neurological deficit caused by injury or illness. I say parenthetically, because I’m married to a neuroscientist and I know things that I wouldn’t have known otherwise that simply verge upon the morbid. Almost any kind of talent for literature could be traced back to some strange neurological deficit as they call it. And so punning and rhyming as sort of a compulsive behavior which not many people do but some do, it’s fascinating. Even as others react with pained amusement or if not with revulsion and alarm.
Pope’s predilection for “lisping in numbers” seems to us closely bound up with his era and his talent a talent of the era, that is the eighteenth century, that revered the tight-knit grimace of satire and a very sort of expository and didactic poetry from which, half a century later, Wordsworth and Coleridge would seek to free the poet. Pope never suggests, however, that the content of poetry is in any way inherited like the genetic propensity for scansion and rhyme. He would not have concurred, and who among the poets among most of us with so concur, with Plato’s churlish view of poetry as inspired not from within the individual’s imagination but from an essentially supernatural daemonic source.
To Plato, poetry had to be under the authority of the state, in the service of the quote “a mythological generic good.” That it might be imitative of any specific object was to its discredit. The idea of imitation was a negative thing. “No ideas but in things,” the rallying cry of William Carlos Williams in the twentieth century, would have been anathema to the essentialist Plato, like emotion itself or worse yet passion, the passions, these were negative things. Thus all imitative poetry, especially the tragic poetry of Homer, should be banished from the Republic as it is, “deceptive, magical, and insincere.” With the plodding quasi-logic of a right-wing politician, Plato’s Socrates dares to say, this is from Eon, “In fact all the good poets who make epic poems like Homer use no art at all but they are inspired and possessed when they utter all those beautiful poems and so are the good lyric poets. They are not in their right mind when they make their beautiful songs. As soon as they mount on their harmony and rhythm, they become frantic and possessed, for the poet is an airy thing, a winged and a holy thing. He cannot make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his senses and no mind is left in him. Not by art, then, they make their poetry, but by divine dispensation. Therefore the only poetry that each can make is what the muse has pushed him to make. These beautiful poems are not human, not made by man, but divine and made by God, and the poets are nothing but the gods’ interpreters.”
The poets whom Plato disdained and feared were analogous to our rock star performers, you may not know that, but they recited their poems before large and enthusiastic audiences. We can assume it wasn’t the fact that these poets were popular, as Homer was popular, to which Plato mostly objected, but the fact that his particularly heavily theologized pulp philosophy didn’t form the content of their utterances. The poet’s right mind should be under the authority of the state. Indeed, each citizen’s right mind should be part of the hive mind of the Republic. That the freethinking, rebellious, and unpredictable poet type must be banished from the claustrophobic Republic is self-evident. In one of the great ironies of history it was to be Plato’s Socrates who was banished from the state.
So that’s one theory of poetry, and then in contrast to that, the worksheets of poets as diverse as Dylan Thomas, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, and many others suggests how deliberate is the poet’s art and how far from being inspired by a mere daemon. Though it’s often the poet’s wish to appear spontaneous and uninspired, see William Butler Yeats’s poem “Adam’s Curse.”

“We sat together at one summer’s end,
that beautiful, mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones,
Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
the martyrs call the world.’

And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one should find out all heartache,
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labor to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain, there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.’”

Very different from the Beats’ notorious admonition, “First thought, best thought.” To appear spontaneous and unresolved even as one is highly calculated and conscious, that’s the ideal, as Virginia Woolf remarked in her diary in an aside that seems almost to prefigure her suicide in 1941 at the age of fifty-nine. This is from The Writer’s Diary, April 8, 1925: “I do not any longer feel inclined to doff the cap. I’d like to go out of the room talking with an unfinished, casual sentence on my lips, no leave-takings, no submission, but someone stepping out into darkness.”
Inspiration is an elusive term. We all want to be inspired if the consequence is something original and worthwhile. We would even consent to be haunted and obsessed if the consequences were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls, “zero at the bone,” the dead zone from which inspiration has fled. What does it mean to be captivated by an image, a phrase, a mood, an emotion? “A picture held us captive, and we could not get outside it for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” This is from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
Most serious and productive artists are haunted by their material. This is the galvanizing force of their creativity, their motivation. It is not and cannot be a fully conscious or volitional haunting. It is something that seems to happen to us as if from without, no matter what craft is brought to bear upon it, what myriad worksheets and notecards. Here is Emily Dickinson’s cri de coeur. “To whom the mornings stand for nights, what must the midnights be?” Most of the Dickinson poems we revere and have lodged deeply into us are beautifully articulated, delicately calibrated cries from the heart. Formulations of unspeakable things at the point of which poetic inspiration has become terror-filled.

“The first Day’s Night had come—
and grateful that a thing
So terrible—had been endured—
I told my Soul to sing.

She said her Strings were snapt—
her Bow—to atoms blown—
And so to mend her—gave me work
Until another morn.

And then—a Day as huge
As yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face—
Until it blocked my eyes.

My Brain—begun to laugh—
I mumbled—like a fool—
And tho’ ‘tis Years ago—that Day—
My brain keeps giggling—still.

And Something’s odd—within.
That person that I was—
And this One—do not feel the same—
Could it be Madness—this?”

This is the very voice of inwardness, compulsiveness, the soul at the white heat, of which Dickinson speaks in the remarkable poem that seems almost to deconstruct the Platonic charge of God inspiration.

“Dare you see a soul at the white heat?
Then crouch within the door.
Red is the fire’s common tint
But when the vivid ore.
It quivers from the forge
without a color but the light
of unignited blaze.”

There is another Dickinson whose inspiration is clearly more benign, drawn from the small pleasures and vexations of daily life, a shared and domestic life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts.

“A rat surrendered here
A brief career of Cheer
And Fraud and Fear.

Of Ignominy’s due
Let all addicted to

The most obliging Trap
Its tendency to snap
Cannot resist—

Temptation is the Friend
Repugnantly resigned
At last.”

Surely the most brilliantly crafted poem ever written on the subject of a rat found dead in a trap. And behind the house—

“A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality.
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.”

In a tersely titled poem “Pig,” by our contemporary Henri Cole, the trapped, doomed animal that is the poem’s subject fuses with the poet observer in the way of a vivid and revealing dream.


“Poor patient pig—trying to keep his balance,
that’s all, upright on a flatbed ahead of me,
somewhere between Pennsylvania and Ohio,
enjoying the wind, maybe, against the tufts of hair
on the tops of his ears, like a Stoic at the foot
of the gallows, or, with my eyes heavy and glazed
from caffeine and driving, like a soul disembarking,
its flesh probably bacon now tipping into split-
pea soup, or, more painful to me, like a man
in his middle years struggling to remain
vital and honest while we’re all just floating
around accidental-like on a breeze.
What funny thoughts slide into the head,
alone on the interstate with no place to be.”

Parenthetically I should remark that when I taught several writing workshops at San Quentin in 2011, on my first meeting with the inmate writers, I read this poem of Henri Cole’s about the pig who had gotten out of his, he was trapped, he got out of his pen and was on the flatbed and was sort of out there enjoying the breeze, in fact I had to read this poem twice. The inmate students were riveted and moved by this poem in which they saw themselves all too clearly and it was very influential for them.
In these striking poems by Dickinson and Cole, the poet appropriates a natural sighting of one of nature’s people. These are not found poems except in their suggestion that the poet’s sighting has an element of accident, one within the range of all of us, the rat in a trap, the snake in the grass, the pig on the flatbed being borne along a highway to slaughter. The poet is a seer and the poem is the act of appropriation.
We might wonder would the poem have been written without the sighting? Would another poem have been written in its place at just that hour? Is it likely that the poet’s vision is inchoate inside the imagination and is tapped by a sighting in the world that triggers an emotional rapport out of which the poem is crafted. If we consider in such cases that what the poet has made out of the sighted object that is but is not contained within the subject we catch a glimpse of the imagination akin to a flammable substance into which a lighted match is dropped.
Dickinson’s poems and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off. In fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter. It’s a fact that the human brain processes only a small selection of what the eye sees. So too the poet is one who sees the significant image to be put to a powerful use in a structure of words while discarding all else.

This is from someone’s journal.
“This is to be fairly short to have Father’s character done complete it in and Mother’s and Saint Ives and childhood and all the usual things I try to put in—life, death, and so forth. But the central figure is Father’s character sitting in a boat reciting, ‘We perished, each alone,’ while he crushes a dying mackerel.” This is Virginia Woolf musing in her diary for May 14, 1925, on To the Lighthouse, about which she will say months later, she is being “blown like an old flag by my novel, I live entirely in it and have come to the surface rather obscurely and am often unable to think.”
By one of these wonderful coincidences, I just saw some worksheets of To the Lighthouse in the Berg Collection about half an hour ago, and she talks about having this strange fluency which is not typical of her writing.
A different sort of inspiration is the sheerly autobiographical, the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience. Yet here also the appropriating strategy is highly selective, as in memoir the writer must dismiss all but a small fraction of the overwhelming bounty of available material. What is required beyond memory is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s constituting entirely a new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Virginia Woolf noted, “fertile and fluent.”
“I am now writing as fast and freely as I have written in the whole of my life, more so, twenty times more so than any novel yet. I think that this is proof that I was on the right path and what hangs on my soul is to be reached there. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes but look elsewhere and the soul slips in.” That’s so beautiful. That’s from A Writer’s Diary, February 6, 1926.
John Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, in 1959, published when the author was twenty-six, is a purposefully modest work composed in a minor key. Unlike Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, 1948, also published when the author was twenty-six. Where Mailer trod onto the literary scene like an invading army with an ambitious military plan, Updike seems almost to have wished to enter by a rear door, claiming a very small turf in rural eastern Pennsylvania and concentrating upon the near at hand with the meticulous eye of a poet.
The Poorhouse Fair is in its way a bold avoidance of the quasi-autobiographical novel so common to young writers, the novel of which the author’s coming of age is the primary subject. Perversely, given the age of the author, The Poorhouse Fair is about the elderly, set in a future only twenty years distant and lacking the dramatic features of the typical future dystopian work. Its concerns are intrapersonal and theological. By 1959 Updike had already published many of the short stories that would be gathered in The Olinger Stories one day which constitutes his own coming of age novel, freeing him to imagine an entirely other original debut work.
The Poorhouse Fair, as Updike was to explain in an introduction to the 1977 edition, was suggested by a visit in 1957 to his hometown of Shillington, which included a visit to the ruins of a poorhouse near his home. The young author then decided to write a novel in celebration of the fairs held at the poorhouse during his childhood with the intention of paying tribute to his recently deceased grandfather. In this way The Poorhouse Fair both is not but is an autobiographical work, as theological concerns described elsewhere in Updike’s work were those of the young writer at the time.
Appropriately, as many of you probably know, Updike wrote another future-set novel near the end of his life, Toward the End of Time, 1997, in which the elderly protagonist and his wife appear to be thinly, even ironically disguised portraits or caricatures of Updike and his wife in a vaguely postapocalyptic world bearing a close resemblance to the Updikes’ suburban home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts. Is it coincidental that Updike’s first novel and his near to last so mirror each other? Both have theological concern and both are executed with the beautifully wrought, precise prose for which Updike is acclaimed. But no one could mistake Toward the End of Time, with its bitter, self-chiding humor and tragically diminished perspectives with the work of fiction of a reverent and hopeful young writer.

4. Love at First Sight
In literary inspiration, as in life, such a blow to one’s self-sufficiency and self-composure can have profound and vigorous consequences. For here’s another sort of inspiration which we might call the encounter with the other.
He had been a highly successful young writer with his first two novels quickly written in his early twenties following his seafaring adventures in the South Seas: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846, and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847. Now he was working energetically on a third seafaring novel narrated in a similar storytelling voice, this time set on a New England whaling ship called the Pequod. Herman Melville as a young man had sailed with a New Bedford whaler into the South Pacific where after eighteen months he’d jumped ship in a South Seas port. Going to sea for Melville was “the beginning of my life.”
While Melville was working industriously on this new novel when a book of short stories came in the house, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse, which had been published a few years before, in 1846. Melville at thirty-one, younger than Hawthorne by fifteen years, read this collection of anecdotal and allegorical tales with mounting astonishment. There was the affable, sunny Hawthorne, as he seems to have been generally known, but there was the other darker and deeper Hawthorne. “It is that blackness in Hawthorne that so fixes and fascinates me,” as Melville would say.
Soon Melville was moved to write the first thoughtful appreciation of Hawthorne, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” 1850, in which Melville speculates “that this great power of blackness in Hawthorne derives its force from its appeal to that Calvinistic sense of innate depravity and original sin from whose visitations no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free.” Hawthorne’s influence upon Melville was immediate and profound. What would have been another seafaring adventure tale, very likely another bestseller, was transformed by the enchanted Melville into the intricately plotted, highly symbolic and poetic Moby-Dick, the greatest of nineteenth-century American novels, as it is one of the strangest American novels.
Hawthorne seems to have entered Melville’s life at about chapter twenty-three of this new novel, transforming its tone and ambition. That is so bizarre and so wonderful if you’re a writer yourself to sort of fantasize that something’s going to come in and completely shake you up right in the middle of your novel and make it much better. Again one is moved to think of a flammable material into which a struck match has been cast with extraordinary incendiary results, for Melville was consumed by Hawthorne’s prose style as well as Hawthorne’s tragic vision, which he was to align with the Shakespeare of the great tragedies and their great soliloquies.
The result is a novel that is unwieldy, extravagant, and unique. Unsurprisingly dedicated to Hawthorne “in token of my admiration for his genius.” Moby-Dick was published in 1851, which is the year of Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables but only one year after Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. For Melville this homage to the older Hawthorne seems to have constituted the great passion of his life.
From a letter to Hawthorne in 1851: “I felt pantheist then. Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me in this moment on account of your having understood the book. Whence come you Hawthorne, by what right do you drink from the flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips, lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the supper, and we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. The very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on the paper. Lord, when we will be done changing? It’s a long stage and no end in sight and the night coming and the body cold, but with you as a passenger I am content and can be happy. I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.” That’s such a beautiful letter.
It’s a bitter irony and must have been a considerable shock to the ecstatic young Melville that Moby-Dick, in which he had poured his soul, was to most readers of the era, including even educated reviewers, unreadable. A great classic we are accustomed to consider it today and yet a crushing failure to the young author, who had realized only $556 from royalties. Reviews were generally negative, some of them savagely negative, even in the UK, where Melville’s early South Seas adventure romances were overnight bestsellers.
It was such bad luck that Melville’s British publisher brought out the novel before his American publisher, and had not had time to incorporate Melville’s new title, Moby-Dick, which was to have replaced The Whale. Worse luck that the British publisher failed to include the last page of the novel. (laughter) Which includes the epilogue, which is rather important to the novel. In fact, some of the reviewers made fun of the fact that, “Well, how could this person be telling this story when the Pequod went down and everyone drowned?” You know, sort of ridiculing the writer. And some of the front matter of the manuscript was, I don’t know why, was moved to the back of the book and became a very unwieldy appendix. Who knows what happens? It was the case at this time that British publishers could remove from the manuscript anything politically questionable or “obscene” not only without conferring with the author but without informing him. So things have improved a little since then.
On the whole, American reviewers followed British reviewers. Crushing opinions of the novel. Not one American reviewer took time to note that the American edition differed significantly from the British, so probably they didn’t read it. Like merely human-size harpooners surrounding a mighty Leviathan, such crude reviewers had the power to kill sales of Melville’s books and destroy the energies and hope of Melville’s youth. He continued to write after Moby-Dick but never regained his own optimism. Even his attempt to cultivate a new career lecturing to lyceums ended when he couldn’t resist mocking his audience, the quasi-intellectualism and pretension of the lyceum circuit. I have to really admire him for that—having failed completely writing a great novel he then couldn’t help but mock his audiences so he soon had no invitations. He had integrity, I guess. “Dollars damn me,” Melville said. He had not enough of them.
By the time Melville died in 1891, even his early bestsellers were out of print and his name was forgotten. The account that Melville’s name was printed in the New York Times obituary as Henry Melville is evidently not true, but evidently a Hiram Melville seems to have crept into print a few days later. So I don’t know where Hiram Melville came from. Both his sons had predeceased him, which would have been a terrible tragedy, the younger, Malcolm, by his own hand. His marriage seemed to have been difficult. His wife’s genteel parents kept urging her to leave him on the grounds that he was a heavy drinker and insane.
It is significant that Melville’s final work of fiction, the posthumously published novella Billy Budd, is a starkly imagined allegory of innocence, evil, and tragic atonement so Hawthornian in its prose and vision it’s as if Melville’s beloved collaborator had assisted him one final time. Inspiration in this instance was ravishing, irresistible, a double-edged sword. In the short run it led to what seems unmistakably like failure in the author’s tragic experience but in the longer run great and abiding posthumous success.

5. She was stalled in a new ambitious novel, her seventh, that was to be a “study of provincial English life.” Her most recent novel, Felix Holt, with a similar ambition, had been published two years before and had had disappointing sales. She knew the setting well, in fact intimately, the Midlands of England in the 1830s. But after a desultory beginning in 1869, Middlemarch was set aside for a year following domestic distractions. Uncharacteristically, the highly professional fifty-year-old George Eliot hadn’t been writing on the new novel with much enthusiasm or inspiration.
But then, in May 1870, Eliot and her companion George Henry Lewes visited Oxford, where they had lunch with the rector of Lincoln College and his (conspicuously) younger wife, neither of whom they knew well. The Pattisons were perceived as an oddly matched husband and wife, not only because Francis Pattison was twenty-seven years younger than Mark Pattison, but because while Francis was beautiful, lively, and charming, Mark was “a wizened little man, without evident charm, prone to depression.” A highly private, reclusive scholar of classics and religion.
Clearly this marriage among unequals made a powerful impression on George Eliot, who shortly thereafter began Middlemarch anew, this time opening with a vivid portrait of Miss Dorothea Brooke, a beautiful, intelligent, and idealistic young woman who makes the grievous error of marrying a much older clergyman/scholar, the pedantic, self-pitying Edward Casaubon. Just as the rector’s young wife Francis had hoped to assist him in his scholarly work, so too Eliot’s Miss Brooke hopes to assist her husband in his quixotic effort to write “the key to all mythologies.” Eventually Francis Pattison would leave her dull, embittered husband to live in close proximity to a male friend in Europe. After years of stoic resignation as Mrs. Edward Casaubon, Dorothea becomes a widow and remarries this time a far more suitable man. As Casaubon never completes “the key to all mythologies,” so Mark Pattison never completed his work of scholarly historical ambition.
Deciding to begin Middlemarch not as she’d originally planned with the young physician Lydgate and the Vincy family into which he marries but rather with Dorothea was indeed inspired. For with this stroke one of the great themes of Middlemarch is forged, the devastation of youthful female idealism under the heavy hand of patriarchal convention. Without the impetuous but always sympathetic Dorothea, who like her American counterpart Isabel Archer of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady makes a very bad mistake in marriage for which she pays dearly. It’s difficult to imagine what Eliot would have made of more conventional characters of Middlemarch. But it’s not surprising that George Eliot would never admit, or rather, she would always deny, having modeled her fictional married couple on the rector of Lincoln College and his young wife. Writers would far rather have us believe that they have imagined or invented rather than taken from life. In Eliot’s case in particular with her heightened sense of moral responsibility she would have felt vulnerable to charges of having exploited the Pattisons, who were to a degree her and Lewes’s friends.
“Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” This famous admonition of Henry James suggests the nature of James’s own deeply curious, ceaselessly alert, and speculative personality. His inspirations were myriad and often sprang from social situations. Typically for one who had dined out virtually every night of his adult life. The most frequently reported of these is James’s inspiration for The Turn of the Screw, which he records in his notebook for January 1895: “Note here the ghost story told me at Abingdon by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the story of the young children left to the care of servants at an old country house through the death presumably of parents, the servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and depraved the children. The servants die, the story is vague about the way of it, and their apparitions’ figures return to haunt the house and the children to whom they seem to beckon. It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of a strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told by an outside spectator, observer.”
The “strangely gruesome effect” that most intrigued James was the presence of not one but two ghosts appearing to not one but two innocent children, thus The Turn of the Screw. It can’t have been accidental that the archbishop’s tale gripped James when by his account in his early fifties he was severely depressed following the public failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895, for which James had had great hopes. Is it a surprise to learn that Henry James, the very avatar of novelistic integrity, the darling of the New Critics, in fact had wanted badly to become a popular playwright and dared to fantasize success in the West End. Imagine poor James’s grief when at the opening of the play, that is at the curtain on the opening night, a section of the audience cruelly jeered him as he stood onstage. I think they called “Author! Author!” so that he came out and then they jeered him and laughed at him.
In this state of mind, the emotionally fragile James was particularly susceptible to the eerie hauntedness of the archbishop’s story. He let it gestate for more than two years and then began to write what would be The Turn of the Screw, in as entertainingly dramatic and suspenseful way as he knew how, to acquire, as he hoped, a new audience in the United States, where sales of his books had been languishing. Like so much that seems to spring at us from an accidental encounter, The Turn of the Screw had a powerful if perhaps unconscious significance. And the to author, who claimed in a letter to a friend that while he was correcting proofs of the story he was “so frightened I was afraid to go upstairs to bed.”
What would have been a disadvantage for a certain sort of writer for whom the autobiographical is primary was for James an enormous advantage. Out of the emotional isolation of his bachelor life—imagined so beautifully by Colm Tóibin in his novel The Master as a life of joyless restraint and denial—James was free to imagine the intense intimate lives of others. The fascination of the governess of The Turn of the Screw for sinister, sexual Peter Quint, for instance, is given a particular charge by James’s particular imagination. Homoerotic energies so powerfully repressed they emerge—they erupt as agents of unspeakable evil. In this elegantly constructed gothic tale, much is ambiguous, but the atmosphere of yearning, of desperate, humiliating yearning is unmistakable. We feel that the emotionally starved young governess is a form of the author himself, helpless in her infatuation with the ghosts of her own imagination and forced by this imagination to enter the tragic adult world of loss.

6. “Where do you get your ideas?”
The question is frequently asked and rarely answered with any degree of conviction or sincerity and rarely is the answer “a dream.” Written when Katherine Mansfield was thirty, her short, elliptical story “Sun and Moon” seems to have sprung virtually complete out of a dream. Lyric and fluid like ice melting, a shimmering, impressionistic work of fiction, “Sun and Moon” suggests the haunting evanescence of a dream. In her journal for February 10, 1918, Mansfield wrote, “I dreamed a short story last night, even down to its name, which was ‘Sun and Moon.’ It was very light. I dreamed it all, about children. I got up at 6:30 and wrote a note or two because I knew it would fade. I didn’t dream that I’d read it, no, I was in it, part of it, and it played around invisible me. But the hero was not more than five. In my dream I saw a supper table with the eyes of five. It was awfully queer, especially a plate of half-melted ice cream.”
Mansfield’s story, for all its delicate filigree, is a chilly prophecy of the destruction of childhood innocence. The “plate of half-melted ice cream” is a little ice cream house that has melted away among the ruins of an adults’ coarse party from which children are excluded. That is such a beautiful story, I recommend you all to read it if you don’t know it, and that it sprang almost complete from a dream I just think is really amazing. This actually is so rare. It virtually never happens that one has a dream and transcribes it and so beautifully.
But my subject in this section is dreams.
The challenge was to write a ghost story, so Lord Byron had suggested to his friends with whom he was traveling in Italy at the summer of 1816, and so Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, eighteen at the time, recounts a nightmare she had that very night. “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life. His success would terrify the artist. He would rush away hoping this thing would subside into dead matter. He sleeps but he is awakened. He opens his eyes. Behold! The horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains.”
Here is a dream vision of singular vividness and strangeness. It would seem almost by the young writer’s account that the allegorical horror story, more a parable, had not been imagined into being by the author herself. Rather, Mary Shelley is the passive observer. The vision seems to come from a source not herself. Yet, we are led to think, knowing something of the biographical context of the creation of Frankenstein, it can hardly have been an accident that a tale of a monstrous birth was written by a very young woman who had had two babies with her mercurial and unpredictable poet lover Percy Shelley, one of whom had died, and she was at this time very much pregnant again and they were not yet married.
Following the dream, Mary Shelley spoke of being possessed by her subject. At first she thought her lurid gothic tale would be just a short story, but the manuscript evolved, with some help, collaboration from Shelley. The work became a curious, heavily Miltonic allegorical romance. Ultimately it was rejected by both Shelley’s and Byron’s publishers, who knew that the author was a young woman. But it was finally published anonymously in 1818 when the author was twenty-one. Since then, Frankenstein has never been out of print and is surely the most extraordinary novel ever written by an eighteen-year-old girl in thrall to a brilliant but doomed Romantic poet. Today Frankenstein isn’t identified as the doctor creator of the monster but the monster himself. And Mary Shelley’s brilliantly deformed creation has been detached from the author, an iconic figure seemingly self-generated, one of the great, potent symbols of humankind’s predilection for self-destruction, as significant in our time as in 1818.

7. Social injustice as inspiration
The wish to bear witness to those unable to speak for themselves as a consequence of poverty or illness or political circumstance, which includes gender and ethnic identity, the wish to conjoin narrative fiction with the didactic and the preacherly, above all the wish to move others to a course of action, the basis of political propaganda art. Here we have such works as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
I say parenthetically, Sinclair, an avid lifelong socialist, wrote nearly one hundred books of which the majority are novels involving politics and social conditions in the United States. Among these are Oil!, from which the acclaimed 2007 There Will Be Blood was adapted and Lanny Budd series of eleven novels, each a bestseller when it appeared, and his novel Dragon’s Teeth was awarded a 1943 Pulitzer Prize.
Frank Norris’s McTeague and The Octopus are savage critiques of rapacious American capitalism. Class warfare might be identified of the groundwork of the great novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, and John Dos Passos’s hugely influential USA. In the era of Dreiser and Dos Passos there were few women writing of life in urban ghettos with the intelligence and emotional power of Anzia Yezierska, whose Bread Givers, Hungry Hearts, and How I Found America chronicle the lives of Jewish immigrants of New York City’s Lower East Side with unflinching candor.
This is the sort of socially conscious, realistic fiction that Nabokov scorned as vulgar— “Mediocrity thrives on ideas,” said Nabokov—and of which Oscar Wilde would have said with a sneer, “No artist has ethical sympathies. All art is quite useless.” Still, mainstream American literature with its predilection for liberal sympathies with the disenfranchised and impoverished, the great effort of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel to draw attention to social injustice and inequality remains the most attractive of literary traditions even in our self-consciously postmodernist era. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for instance, slave narrative sources have been appropriated and refashioned into an exquisitely wrought art that is both morally focused and aesthetically ambitious. E. L. Doctorow’s great subject has been the volatile issues of class and race in America from his early novel The Book of Daniel, which imagined the—reconstructs the lives of the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg through Ragtime, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, and The March. Doctorow’s more recent novels have been shaped also by the tradition of oral histories. As Doctorow has said, “Every writer speaks for a community.”
No one has more explicitly acknowledged his political moral intention in writing a work of fiction than Russell Banks in his envoi to the novel Continental Drift, which concerns itself, like most of Banks’s fiction, with working-class and disenfranchised Americans caught up in the malaise of a rapacious capitalist economy. This is the very end of the novel. “And so ends the story of Robert Raymond DuBois. A decent man, but in all the important ways an ordinary man. One could say a common man. Even so, his bright particularity, having been delivered over to the obscurity of death, meant something larger than itself. Knowledge of the facts of Bob’s life and death changes nothing in the world. Us celebrating his life and grieving over his death however will. Sabotage and subversion then, are this book’s intentions. Go, my book, and destroy the world as it is.”

8. James Joyce once remarked that Ulysses was for him essentially a way of “capturing the speech of my father and my father’s friends.” An astonishing statement when you consider the complexity of Ulysses, but one which any writer can understand. So much of literature springs from a wish to assuage homesickness, a desire to commemorate places, people, childhoods, families, and tribal rituals, ways of life, purely the primal inspiration of all. The wish in some artists, clearly the necessity, to capture in the quasi-permanence of art that which is perishable in life. Though the great modernists—Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Lawrence, Woolf, Faulkner—were revolutionaries in technique, their subjects were intimately bound up with their own lives and their own regions. The modernist is one who is likely to use his intimate life as material for his art, shaping the ordinary into the extraordinary. The confessional poets—Robert Lowell, John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and to a degree Elizabeth Bishop—rendered their lives as art as if self-hypnotized. Of our contemporaries, writers as seemingly diverse as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike created distinguished careers out of their own lives, often returned to familiar subjects, lovingly and tirelessly reimagining their own pasts as if mesmerized by the wonder of self. In his last, most obsessively self-reflective work, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov invokes the intense claustrophobia of a “superimperial couple” who not only inhabit the same psychic realm but boldly and audaciously are intimately related, sister and brother. Set in a whimsical counterworld called Antiterra, Nabokov’s commemoration of self is fondly and literally incestuous. And again by one of those amazing coincidences, I was just looking at some of the work cards of Ada or Ardor in the Berg Collection. I looked at the very first paragraph, which is very famous, where he sort of turns Tolstoy on his head, “Happy families are dissimilar; it’s unhappy families that are all alike.” And Nabokov, as you know, wrote, he wrote in wonderful clear handwriting on these little notecards, it’s quite amazing. No writer has been more mesmerized by the circumstances of his own exceptional life than our greatest Transcendentalist poet, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote exclusively and obsessively of himself as an adventurer in a circumscribed world, “I have traveled much in Concord,” as Hawthorne famously said. Walden is the publicly revered text which we all know and some of us have taught many times, but it’s actually Thoreau’s journal, in which he wrote daily from 1837 to 1861, eventually accumulating some seven thousand pages, that is the more remarkable document, as the Thoreau is the most acute of observers of nature and of human nature. The analyst of self in the Whitmanesque sense, the self that is all selves. Here is the essential Thoreau: “I stand in awe of my body. This matter to which I am bound, it becomes so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts of which I am one, but I fear bodies. Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature. Daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it. Rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks, the solid earth, the actual world, the commonsense contact. Who are we, where are we?”

9. This is almost the end.
The early Surrealists considered the world a vast forest of signs to be interpreted by the individual artist. Beneath its apparent disorder, the visual world contains messages and symbols. Like a dream? Is the world a collective dream? Not the hypnotic spell of the individual artist’s childhood, family, or regional life, as in the inspiration of commemoration, but rather in its antithesis, the impersonal, the chance, the found.
The Surrealist photographer Man Ray wandered Parisian streets with his camera, anticipating nothing and leaving himself open to availability or chance. The most striking Surrealist images were ordinary images made strange by being decontextualized. “Beautiful as a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.” When photography began to be an art that didn’t depend upon careful staging in a studio or even outdoors, it was ideally suited to the caprices of opportunity: the artist wanders into the world armed with just his camera, freed from the confines of the predictable and controlled, as in the work of Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Bruce Davidson, Garry Winogrand, the newly discovered Vivian Maier, Diane Arbus, whose strategy was to “go where I’ve never been,” among others.
Literature is not a medium that leads itself well to the surrealist adventure of availability or chance. Even radically experimental fiction needs to be fueled by some strategy of causation, otherwise readers won’t trouble to turn pages. Unlike most visual art, which can be experienced in a single gaze, fiction is a matter of subsequent and successive gazes, mimicking chronological time.
There is a minor tradition of found poems discovered in unpoetic places, like newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and graffiti. Sometimes instruction manuals and brochures. Language appropriated and refashioned into a recognizable poetic form. Virtually all poets have experimented with found poems at some point in their career, sometimes appropriating entire passages of prose and more often appropriating a few lines and constructing a poem around these lines, as in work by Howard Nemerov, Charles Olsen, Charles Reznikoff, Annie Dillard, and some others. Found poetry is usually meant to be witty or satirical or mordantly ironic as Hart Seely’s appropriated material titled Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld, 2003. Here’s a complete poem by Rumsfeld/Seely:

“The Unknown”

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say,
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.”

(laughter) It’s actually quite profound.
So this is my conclusion. If inspiration is many-faceted, out of what human need or hunger does inspiration spring? That is to say, what is the motive for metaphor? It seems clear that Homo sapiens is the only species to have anything like human language and certainly the only species to have written languages or histories. Our sense of ourselves is based upon linguistic constructs inherited or remembered and regarded as precious or at least valuable. Our sacred texts are presumed to have been dictated by gods. And sometimes we are fired with murderous rage if the texts are challenged or mocked, or if our creator’s name is uttered in the wrong way or by the wrong lips.
Perhaps literature in its broader sense, incorporating centuries, millennia, is a consequence of myriad individual inspirations across myriad cultures, relates to us as that part of the human brain called the hippocampus relates to memory. The hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped part of the brain necessary for long-term storage of factual and experiential memory, though it’s not the site of such storage. Short-term memory is transient. Long-term memory can prevail for many decades. The last thing you will able to retrieve in your memory may very well be the first thing that came to reside there, a glimpse of your young mother’s face, a confused blur of a childhood room, a lullaby, a caressing voice. If the hippocampus is injured or atrophied, there will be no further storage of memory in the brain, there will be no new memory.
I have come to think that art is the formal commemoration of life in its variety. The novel for instance is “historic” in its embodiment in a specific place and time and its suggestion that there is meaning to our actions. It is virtually impossible to create a work of art without an inherent meaning, even if the meaning is presented as mysterious and unknowable. Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depth of art and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture, no collective memory, as if memory is destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we are no one. We’ve become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies where so much concentration is focused on social media, insatiable in its fleeting interest, the stillness and thoughtfulness of a more permanent art feels threatened.
As human beings, we crave meaning, which only art can provide. But the social media provide no meaning, only the succession of fleeting impression whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products. The motive for a metaphor then is a motive for survival as a species and as a culture and as individuals. Thank you.
I thank you very much. So I’m very happy to try to answer any questions you might have. This is the most exciting part of the evening for me.

Q: Hello. Thank you. Early on, you quoted Plato saying that the only poem the poet can write is the one that the muse pushes them to. And I perhaps simply misheard, perhaps I was primed for puns per the opening, but I heard “the only poem is the one that the news pushes him to write,” and I laughed to myself and then I thought you’re very active on Twitter, and you’re very engaged with the news, which I think have, what your beautiful phrase, “humankind’s predilection for self-destruction,” there’s so much of it and I just wonder what role the news plays in your muse.
Oates: Well, it’s—you mean news?
Q: Yup, like CNN, Buzzfeed, politics.
Oates: Well, I think of art, I think of particularly something like the novel, that is really sort of the consequence of a lot of strategy and thinking. I think of art as quasi-permanent, obviously it’s not going to be completely permanent, and the other is sort of social conversation that you might have. Maybe we used to have these conversations over the telephone or maybe we wrote letters and now the social media do that, but I don’t really think—that’s sort of a fleeting, it’s sort of like something that’s always moving, whereas a novel is something much more solid, so I’m not really sure that there’s any connection between the two. People often ask me what the relationship is between my teaching and my writing, because I’ve been teaching for many years. And the teaching to me is a social and sort of stimulating experience that opens me to do new ideas and new people and personalities and so forth, but I wouldn’t say that it has any direct effect on the actual writing. The writing takes place in some solitary place in the soul. But I thought that the whole Platonic—the admonition that the poet has to be—so much noise in the room. It’s all these little things.
Q: We’re very social.
Oates: Maybe it’s just in my ears that I’m hearing all the sounds. The idea that the poet has to be banished from the Republic, that’s just so outrageous I think and unconscionable, but absolutely understandable because tyrants, and people who are not even tyrants, want to censor, they send into exile, they would put in prison, they would probably execute or torture people who disagreed with them. And we have that today even in the liberal democracies, this yearning to censor a dissident voice and it’s so clearly set forth in Plato. Thank you.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi. First of all, I loved to hear your coverage of so many literary topics and writers and it’s just wonderful an English student, but I was wondering about your thoughts on, I guess for lack of a better word, uninspiration. Kind of the moments when inspiration is lacking and if that kind of makes the inspiration more, I guess in your own personal experience and maybe in some of your research if that makes this inspiration so valuable is that kind of lacking of inspiration.
Oates: Well, Virginia Woolf has this wonderful part of—I think it’s in her diary. Where she talks about moments of being in contrast to ordinary times. Because most of our life is just sort of the ordinary life that we have to life. You know, you’re making dinner or you’re doing something that’s mundane, but once in a while there’s this illumination, a moment of being where you sort of see something, or you’re taken by surprise, or you hear something. James Joyce spoke of “the epiphany.” I think that these moments of inspiration are not that common. You know, they’re really not that common. How many times would Henry James have heard a story as powerful as the story that would turn into The Turn of the Screw? I mean, for some people, it’s like lightning striking. And it’s not very frequent, but you can go out and look for it.
Because one of the topics of inspiration is the Surrealist idea of going out into the world to find something bizarre or unpredictable where you decide that you’re just going to go out in the world, they had their camera, but one could just have a notebook. James Joyce did something of that with his notebook and his wandering around Dublin. It necessitated going into many pubs, for Joyce, (laughter) and he would be drinking of course, but he’d be sort of listening to the voices, you know the whole of the music of Ulysses had a lot of the pubs and the lilting Irish accents, and the voices are somehow not exactly discernible but you hear the music. So if you’re feeling uninspired, probably the best thing to do is sort of shake yourself up and to go out and look for something that will enter you like a lightning bolt.
Q: Thank you.
Q: When you write, how do you manage your self-criticism and reach the state of unconsciousness where you’re able to write in the freest form?
Oates: Well, I have to say, despite what some critics have said, I’ve never written in an unconscious state. (laughter) It would be really so exciting and wonderful to kind of wake up from a blackout. Well, it’s a good question and I think the more you outline and the more you think about what you’re doing. I like to go for long walks, I like to run, and I sort of show myself a kind of cinematic working out of the chapter like a little movie. I think the more you do of that and the more it becomes part of your memory, when you come back to work, you can write quickly. But if you’re sitting at your computer and trying to write, that’s the hardest of all, it’s most dispiriting and paralyzing, I think it’s not a good idea. However, as I said, if you go out meditating and think through what you’re going to write, when you come back you can write kind of quickly. It’s not unconsciously but it’s quickly.
Q: Yes, thank you.
Q: You talked about memory being attached to the self and as more and more of our experiences are through screens basically where people are offloading their memory to their digital beings, what do you think it means to the self?
Oates: That’s a very profound question. I have no idea how to answer that. I think it’s absolutely fascinating. You know, I was reading Nabokov recently, the idea of memory, people inhabiting time and the most—the greatest adventure for the writer is to be as I suggested a kind of time traveler, where you go back in time to an earlier stage of your own life, perhaps when you were a child, you have the child’s perspective, but now you have the adult perspective, so the kind of two, a double perspective there that gives you some detachment, but apart from that, I don’t really know, it would be a very interesting subject to talk about at length. Thank you. Maybe one more question.
Q: Hi. I was wondering if you could share how often you get that lightning bolt, (laughter) and also if you could perhaps share the last time it occurred.
Oates: Oh, well, that’s—I should have brought in one—I do have a found poem, I don’t have it with me actually. I did once find a poem, a found poetry is a strange sort of minor tradition in poetry where you’re not looking for anything but you see something that could be rendered into poetry. And I did have that experience. Well, I can only remember a few times in my life. I do a lot of thinking and working with an image, but I wouldn’t say that it was instantaneous. It’s more like I get an image in my mind and then I meditate upon it, and I think about a place. To me, the setting is very important. I can’t write anything without knowing where it takes place. And my long novels are all set in very, very vividly described places, often in Upstate New York, because to me I have to remake the world in the prose and then the story takes place in there, and so somehow between that and creating the characters is a sort of time of gestation, I think.
But if you take an image from a dream and meditate on it, something will come of that because it has some emotional resonance that nobody else would understand but you would understand. Our dreams are filled with these strange images and strange things, but mostly we let them fade away, but if you seize one of them that was really mysterious and disturbing and just thought about it, obviously you could construct a story around that, you could construct a work of art around that because it has meaning to you but most people can’t do that or they don’t want to do that, or it’s actually it’s an effort—
Q: Why do most people feel like they can’t do that?
Oates: Well, I did once write a whole novel constructed around a dream and it was very, very difficult, because the image that comes to you is mysterious and you can’t—you can’t really figure out what it is. It’s like getting a strange mineral that’s glowing, you know, that sort of fell down, and it’s Kryptonite or something, you’re sort of walking and you’re sort of looking at this strange thing. You know it has meaning, but you don’t know what it is exactly. So you’re kind of frustrated by it, but you don’t want to throw it away because you know it’s valuable.
So I wrote a whole novel called Mudwoman out of a dream that I had, it was so vivid, so much more real to me than most of my life. Because these dreams that we have sometimes are really vivid, and they stand out in a numinous way, more than most of our lives, as Virginia Woolf said about moments of being, but I was haunted by that for years, and finally when I constructed a whole novel around it, it takes place like on page 300. You know, it wasn’t the beginning of the novel, I had to construct a whole world around it that would then present that in a coherent way, and it was really—it was a great effort, you know.
It’s much easier I think to start off with a story and with characters and have an outline for a novel, rather than begin with the images, but when you look at a great painter like van Gogh and see how he’s working with images and how passionate the paint is on his canvases, you understand that another artist seeing the same scene would paint something very flat and pretty, or, you know, attractive, but van Gogh brings to it this intense passion, almost the passion of madness, and the paint’s thick, you know, those are very, very powerful, so obviously he was terribly haunted by some of these images, and that I would suppose is what makes him a great artist and somebody else is just painting pretty little watercolors and things like that, but to take to the image to some extreme.
I can give you one example, though it’s getting a little late and many of you might know this. When William Faulkner was quite young, in his late twenties, he was haunted by a dream of looking through a window into a room where there was a coffin. He imagined a little girl climbing a tree and the little girl looks in the window, she’s not supposed to look, it’s like the forbidden fact of death for children. That was the haunting image that began The Sound and the Fury, and when you read The Sound and the Fury, the little girl, Caddy, is the one who climbs up the tree, and Quentin is on the ground, you know, he doesn’t want her to go up, it’s one of the key scenes.
But that was generated, the whole novel was generated by that dream. It’s so touching when you learn that Faulkner’s little girl, little daughter had died, a couple of years before, I think, so you can see how the personal, deeply wounded personal history went into that dream, and then the dream goes into the novel. But the novel The Sound and the Fury, as some of you might know, was written over a period of time, it was a difficult novel, and it’s a brilliant novel, it’s probably one of the very great novels in the English language, but it came out of that dream, so if Faulkner hadn’t had the dream, I mean, I hate to say it, but maybe if his daughter hadn’t died, you know, he might not have written that novel.
The other day I was teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, remember that great story, it’s a novel and it’s a short story, I was teaching it at Princeton, and all the students are so admiring of it, that’s a great short story, set in the—during the Vietnam War, and I said to the students, “Would you like to have written that story?” And they said, “Yes, yes,” they all would. And I said, “Would you like to have lived the experience that would allow you to write this story?” And they all were completely, they wouldn’t want to do that, and you can’t blame them.
Q: Thank you.

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