“Write your heart out. Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for the subject”.
~ Joyce Carol Oates
A few months ago, on November 28th, I stood on the steps of the Montante Cultural Center with a pounding migraine as a cold rain fell. All that could place me there would be the opportunity to listen to Joyce Carol Oates (and the gentle nudge of my husband, Steven, who always encourages me to follow my writing road). Part of the fall 2011 Contemporary Writers Series offered by Canisius College, the chance to spend an evening in the company of one of my favorite writers was too great to pass up.
At 7 pm she walked to the podium at center stage, set her papers in front of her and her purse to the side. I was spellbound for the next two hours and she spoke with wit, charm, intelligence and yes, passion.
She invited, and then carried me over the threshold into her writing life. The stories ranged from growing up in Middleport, NY, to the time spent teaching creative writing to inmates at a maximum security prison near San Francisco. She read some poetry and an excerpt or two from other pieces, and mused about the genesis of what she wrote, of what it meant to be, or to be viewed as, an artist. She didn’t elaborate on “the process”, but more on what was behind what she wrote. The passion she felt.
I thought back to the first time I’d heard of Joyce Carol Oates. The year was 1998 and I was taking an adult education creative writing course. We named ourselves the Rough Writers. Our instructor, Bill Joseph had a passion for writing that was infectious. He introduced me to great writers, incredible literature and techniques to emulate. He encouraged me to follow the areas of my writing that I felt passionate about (the writing I mostly kept hidden).
After a short story I shared with the group (my first foray into sharing a darker literary piece) he took me aside and told me my writing style reminded him of Joyce Carol Oates. I’d never heard her name before, but went home and researched her. Now I’m no Joyce Carol Oates – nor do I ever expect to be – however to have someone who’s opinion I so highly respected say my style reminded him of hers, well I was humbled, and inexplicably I have felt this connection to her writing ever since.
When she finished speaking, I immediately went to the small reception room outside the hall and bought a copy of The Faith of a Writer and The Falls, a novel of the beauty and mesmerizing pull of Niagara Falls, just a short and drawing 8.5 miles from me.
The autograph line moved quickly. I rested my pounding head against the cool wall as we moved forward. What would I say? My head was too full of her and the steady pounding of my migraine to plan anything out. All too quickly it was my turn and I handed her my books. I thanked her for her work, for The Falls. I may have uttered something about her influence on “my writing”. She smiled, asked my name and signed my books, including my name with her signature when she signed The Falls.
I took a lot of notes throughout the two hours; little snippets on what she read, anecdotes to a time in her life or an insight to a poem. Maddeningly I can’t find them now. I believe they are in the house somewhere – waiting for me to unearth them at a time that I need my own personal session with JCO. Just her, me, the writing, and a nudge to follow my passion.