I just finished reading A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most talented and versatile writers. A Widow’s Story, describing the death of her husband in 2008 and the severe depression that followed, is very different from her previous books (she’s most famous for her fiction) – intimate and painfully honest.
Oates’s sadness over the loss of Ray, her husband, takes over her life. She is so depressed that everyday tasks are are overwhelming. A Widow’s Story plunges you into the grief and despair she is experiencing, and it also says a lot about this gifted couple and their relationship.
The Smiths’ marriage (she uses “Oates” only for her writing career) was both loving and quirky. Her husband never read her published writings! (Few of her students at Princeton had read her work either. I’m flabbergasted.)
Nor did she ever read a novel that Ray had started before he met her and never finished. Late in the book she finally began reading it, and she imagined what she would have said to Ray if she’d had the opportunity. The manuscript gave her insight into pieces of him she had ever known – his imagination and his past, for example.
What fascinates me is that the professional-writer part of her brain kicked in at the same time. Of one episode in the novel that’s clearly related to his past, she says that it couldn’t have been published: “Not that it’s too raw or unintegrated with the plot – revising and recasting could have remedied this – but rather, the material is just too personal.”
How extraordinary! Here’s a woman who’s almost paralyzed with grief, encountering her lost husband on a new level – and her writer’s brain instantly switches into analytic mode, with thoughts about “revising” and “recasting.”
Writing well requires a different kind of thinking, and that means learning to write isn’t just about acquiring skills and techniques. You need a new kind of brain, and that requires willingness to endure a confusing period when things just aren’t going to make sense.
The bad news is that it’s hard to learn how to write well. The good news is that even when you think all is lost – as Oates did – the ability to write stays with you. Oates was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t open mail or listen to phone messages from friends who were worried about her. But nothing could stop her from thinking like a writer.