Famed author Oates leading memoir workshops at Lafayette Library
By Lou Fancher
Writers speak about their favorite authors — writer Joyce Carol Oates, for example — using intimate words, as if speaking of a close family member. Their voice tones are typically shaded with awe; a hushed reverence otherwise reserved for spiritual leaders or the natural world’s beauty and power. They become especially animated, even exhilarated, when describing their literary hero’s language, plot, characters or structure.
Which is why, as one of 10 writers chosen from a pool of roughly 30 applicants to participate in a memoir-writing workshop led by Oates, the Lafayette Library’s 2019 writer-in-residence, Lafayette-based writer Francie Low is effusive.
“Oates’ writing is like silk in its fluidness,” says Low. “She has details, from tiny things like how a mud puddle sparkles to big ones, like how someone expresses anger in how they sit in a car. Those nuances are incredible.”
Co-presented by the Lafayette Library & Learning Center Foundation and the Simpson Family Literary Project, the fortunate memoirists join Oates in sessions designed to share and critique their work. Oates’ writing includes fiction, poetry, plays and criticism. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award and Jerusalem Award, among others. An active educator, Oates teaches at UC Berkeley, Princeton University, New York University and other colleges.
“I like to look at actual text and talk about that. I don’t have a didactic or pedantic approach to memoirs,” says Oates in an interview. “I’m interested in the existential distinction of a text. Some people write exact authentic detail; some write with more poetic impression. I look at the individual works instead of imposing principles. I’m a pragmatist as a teacher.”
Low, 54, is a former marketing professional whose self-published memoir, “Alive and Flexible,” resulted from a blog she wrote during 15 months following her husband’s harrowing cycling accident. “I didn’t know I was creating the bones for a book. I was just trying manage during a traumatic time,” she says.
Becoming “serious” and working to form her posts into a book, she found the process therapeutic. “It helped me slow down to really think about what happened, what I was feeling. I realized I didn’t want anyone to worry; I wanted to convince them it was a blip, although it was far more than a blip,” she said.
Writing, she concludes, ultimately brought appreciation for the support given to her family while her husband recovered. “People just showed up, mowed the lawn, brought food, (all) without being asked. It was amazing,” she recalls. In the workshop, Low hopes to introduce more colorful details and “maybe not have every moment covered.”
Dan McGovern, of Walnut Creek, began his memoir upon learning of the workshop. “I’ve admired Oates’ work for almost 50 years, so I wanted to have my writing critiqued by her,” says the retired attorney.
McGovern was once the second-ranking attorney in the U.S. State Department and head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the western United States. “I wrote 30 pages in about 30 hours. I felt confident because I’d drafted opinions for the California Supreme Court for 20 years.”
He also had terrific material, including a letter written to him by his father in 1968. “He was apologizing to me for a terrible scene he felt responsible for. He tried to explain where his inexplicable anger had come from.” From Oates he hopes to learn various ways to approach source material when completing his memoir.
Oates says, “I run my workshops as if the students are assemblages of editors. As if we’ve accepted material and now we have the challenge of making the text better. We seek to make suggestions about the text: Can it be tightened? Is it too thin? Is it structured in the best way? What about pacing? Are the sentences engaging, vividly written such that people want to keep reading?”
Memoirs, according to Oates, fall into two categories; urgent cinematic accounts perhaps written in first-person like a journal, or stories written in past tense that are fact-filled recollections of history. The best memoirs — she mentions Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” — do both. “Melville is pretty accurate, yet other aspects of his writing are magical, surreal, Shakespearean.” About writing her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” Oates says, “I would always try to present the authenticity of my experience. I wouldn’t deliberately distort it.”
This leads to thoughts on the contemporary literary world and the role of libraries. With “a thousand different forces” at play and no longer one driving, “monolithic, predominantly white male culture,” she welcomes “seismic eruptions” like transgender fiction. “That’s one example that was totally unknown when I was a girl. In the ’60s, white male culture got shaken up by ethnic writers, immigrants … today, my sense of literature is quite multiple, complex.”
Her students are no longer predominantly white or American citizens. “The sense (for experienced writers and those just entering the profession) is of a global culture, and it’s quite exciting.”
As one may expect, libraries are discovering new ways to remain relevant. “The evolution of a library into a cultural community center like this one in Lafayette is a good idea. In contemporary times we see computers all over the place. Libraries are now also learning centers — but books remain the core, the foundation,” she insists. “That’s a good thing.”
And it’s also a good thing that writers like Oates, who love to teach, continue to share, nurture, instruct and inspire the Lows and McGoverns of tomorrow.