Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction can be quite strange as well. The world of books is enchanting; it transports you to another world, where you’re experiencing another life. At a recent Berkeley Connect in English panel, professors and fiction writers Joyce Carol Oates, Melanie Abrams, and Vikram Chandra discussed their journey towards the world of literature and the art of writing.
How did you start writing?
As a child, Joyce Carol Oates—the famously prolific author of more than fifty novels—was captivated by Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Growing up on a farm in New York, in the snow belt, life seemed mysterious to her. Lewis Carroll’s books spoke to her as profound pieces of art.
Her journey towards writing started off with the artistic hand. “Before I could write in a coherent way, I would draw tablets full of chickens and cats. I felt like a deranged Tolstoy. For all of us, creativity is mysterious. It begins in early childhood, to try and mirror the adult word, trying to appropriate the adult world and develop our own identities.”
Vikram Chandra—whose books include the novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain and the story collection Love and Longing in Bombay—felt like he was constantly in a dream during his childhood in India. When he was in sixth grade, a student-run magazine published his science-fiction story. “That was the moment,” Vikram laughed, when he realized his calling, as now he had an audience receptive to his ideas. Even though he loved writing, Chandra chose to go to film school. However, after realizing he wasn’t built for collaborating with other people, he dropped out and wrote a book instead. To Chandra, writing has “a sense of weird inevitability. If I’m not writing it down, I’m saying it in my head.”
It’s said that all good protagonists have a strong origin story, but Melanie Abrams—whose debut novel was Playing—rebutted this claim, saying she “doesn’t have a good genesis story.” Originally focused on theater, she switched directions from being a playwright to become a fiction writer. She noted that of the fourteen students in her graduate program, only two went on to publish books. She credits a combination of luck, determination, and hard work as the keys to her success.
What was the best or worst piece of advice you got when you were a young writer?
Post-graduation, Chandra was hanging out with his father’s friend, who questioned his plans for the future. To the friend, there were only two possible answers: be a doctor or an engineer. Not unkindly, the family friend remarked that many talented people go to New York with no success. This actually helped Chandra; his stubbornness, his persistence, his stamina, encouraged him to continue.
Oates stated that she never actually received any advice—or if so, she didn’t take it. Instead, she handed out advice to the Berkeley Connect students: don’t be discouraged, but persevere. There are many writers who seem to fail initially, like James Joyce. Initially a conventional writer, his Ulysses was rejected several times. Consequently, he rewrote and edited that book for many following years. All the material that was refashioned into a more experimental work would’ve been lost if he hadn’t initially been rejected. Oates reflected on the adage, “Those who have failed initially have been led to success in the future.”
Abrams took E.L. Doctorow’s quote to heart: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” She was advised—and advises others—to write 500 words a day. To her, that practice is incredibly freeing.
What was your most difficult moment as a writer?
Oates recalled working on a novel: a post-modernist biography of Marilyn Monroe. Although initially enthralled by the project, she eventually became extremely overwhelmed. Oates’ immersion led her in directions she didn’t anticipate. The manuscript was long — she had intended to write 200 pages, but it turned into 1,400 pages. However, when she finished, Oates missed the state of anxiety she was in as she wrote it. She remarked, “Perhaps writers have a streak of masochism and that helps them with their perseverance.”
Chandra empathized. “There are always moments of despair when writing anything.” Even so, he reiterated, persistence is key. Although difficult, Chandra did publish his first novel, perhaps due to his stubbornness.
The craft of writing
Oates compared writing to a river. Tributaries are rushing in from all directions; you have to structure your writing so it’s not one large flood of language. She advocated trying to tell a story in a different, original way. Everyone has stories—the challenge is not to tell them in a generic fashion. She referenced a few writers who she considers models of originality. Nabokov, for example, is a “writer’s writer. So is Hemingway. Because they forged a new way of creating a familiar story, taking language to a different place. If you’re interested in literature rather than just publishing, look at the great writers. Faulkner wrote The Sound and the Fury… all in sections. Faulkner stumbled his way through it.”
When she’s writing, Abrams enters a semi-disassociated state. She feels as though she’s occupying a back part of her brain, a passenger in her own vehicle. A part of her, the driver, lives in the world of the novel and then there’s the part that’s writing down the words of the driver. While writing, Abrams advises to not fall into the mistake of writing your character’s actions via thinking what an ‘interesting’ character would do. Instead, imagine what you would do in those moments that the character is having; this makes it much more realistic, as writers sometimes create unrealistic reactions otherwise.
Creative writing pushes your imagination to its limits. You create a different reality, an alternate universe that can be just as life-like or fantastical as you desire. Many writers find freedom in this power. All of that is available to you—just choose a story to tell and begin.
If there was a common theme among all the speakers, it was that whether you have written one book or fifty, it is still challenging sometimes, but you will make progress if you stick to it. Write that next page! Type, rewrite, and repeat. Your next chapter is just beginning.
Written by Melody Niv, Communications Assistant