Likely Stories: Soul at the White Heat by Joyce Carol Oates

Apr 27, 2017

An essential collection of essays for every writer on “The Writing Life.”


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

When I first began collecting Joyce Carol Oates back in the 70s, I had no idea how difficult a task it might be.  Her latest work is one that made me move it to the top of my TBR pile.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life encapsulates all the things I love about her work.  The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem.  Of the thirty-three essays in this amazing collection, fifteen are by Oates and the remaining represent many of the writers I most admire.

The first four essays are by Oates and deal with “The Writing Life.”  The first asks the question, “Is the Uninspired Life Worth Living?”  This has haunted me for decades.  When I finish a book, my first order of duty is searching for my next read.  I have numerous piles from which to choose from, but sometimes, I feel as though I need to take a break from reading.  That break rarely lasts longer than a few hours, while my mind wanders among the shelves searching for the next read.  This obsession never dies, although the flames do flicker a bit.  Joyce quotes numerous authors as far back as the ancient Greeks right up to Updike.  Swimming through this essay alone, visiting authors like Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, and many others too numerous to count, compensates ten-fold for the purchase of the book.  In her next essay, she provides her “Five Motives for Writing.”  It is as if she has hacked my brain and reminded me of why I love to write.  “Commemoration,” “Bearing Witness,” “Self-Expression,” “Propaganda, or moralizing,” and “Aesthetic Object,” are all reasons I write, even though I never planned that out.  They seem to me natural reasons for writing.  What could possibly be a better validation for an aspiring writing from such a source.  She finishes this section with “Anatomy of a Story,” and “The Writing Room.”  Once again, she has described – with only a few minor alterations, my writing place.

Joyce writes, “There is surely some subtle connection between the vistas we face, and the writing we accomplish, as a dream takes its mood and imagery from our waking life” (46).  She continues, “[My] writing room replicates to a degree, the old, lost vistas of my childhood.  What it contains is less significant to me than what overlooks though obviously there are precious things here.  […]  Like all writers, I have made my writing room a sanctuary of the soul” (46).  Joyce admits, “I love my study and am unhappy to leave it for long” (47).  Need I say exactly the same thing about my library, my desk, my teetering piles of novels?  This is what has drawn me to Oates since I first read her back in the 60s.

This review is only “Part One” of what I have to say about this marvelous, enchanting, thought provoking guide to the writing life.  To me, Oates is the premier woman of letters alive today.  In “Part Two,” I will talk about some of the other essays she has written, and “Part Three” will look at some of the reviews Oates has written.  Stay tuned—if you have the patience to wait—or, if you are like me, rush out and add this to your library.  Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates is a book every writer should own.  I cannot recommend more it more highly.  Part One merits—5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!