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Podcast #44: Joyce Carol Oates on Inspiration and Obsession


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Joyce Carol Oates has given us some of the most frightening and elegant stories in American letters. Her impressive creative output has included novels, short stories, and memoir. We were lucky to have the author deliver the Robert B. Silvers lecture, entitled "Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?", about inspiration and obsession. 

Joyce Carol Oates at NYPL

The author of over forty books, it's difficult to imagine Oates lacking inspiration. Yet the author explained that a lack of inspiration is one great writerly fear. More preferable even is obsession:

"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 deadzone from which inspiration has fled."

Oates described dreams as a strong catalyst for literary fiction. In dreams, after all, a wonderful strangeness emerges:

"Our dreams are filled with these strange images and these strange things, but mostly we let them fade away. If you seized one of them that was really mysterious and disturbing and just thought about it, obviously you could construct a story around that."

And what of critics? Oates provided one interpretation of Plato's resistance to some poets as a resistance to ideological differences:

"The poets who in Plato disdain and fear were analogous to our rockstar performers. You might not know that, but they recited their poems before large, enthusiastic audiences. We can assume it wasn't that fact that these poets were popular as Homer was popular to which Plato objected but the fact that his particular heavily theologized philosophy didn't form the content of the utterances."

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