Joyce Carol Oates Explores the Art of Memory with New Book

Via NYU Creative Writing Program

By Tara Dalton

After some opening words from Professor Darin Strauss, Joyce Carol Oates rose, took her position at the front and began to speak.  Her main focus was an excerpt from her new memoir, “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.”  “To tell [the memoirs] as narratives is to distort them,” Oates said.  Memory operates in bursts, often isolated from any certain location or time. According to Oates, the trick when attempting to capture past events when details are lacking, is to arrive at likely surroundings for what memories one has retained. Many of Oates’ statements seemed to be a confirmation of the value in the subjective truth of a story, which can be marred by an adherence to rigid accuracy.

Consider that in “The Lost Landscape,” an entire chapter is dedicated to Oates’ pet chicken. While this memoir does not describe each precise detail, its truth cannot be denied.

One particularly moving moment in the evening was a reading of the words of Oates’ mother, arranged as poetry, depicting the tale of how her sister was given away by her family at a young age and the emotional weight she consequently carried for decades after. “The fact that Oates learned of her mother’s troubled experience when Oates herself was well into adulthood adds to the poem’s poignancy.  The poem harkens back to her earlier statement:“To speak of oneself, is to speak of other people.”   The present, as Oates noted earlier in the night, exists only in the brightness of high noon, lacking any shadows of the future.

Joyce Carol Oates spoke regarding several other topics, including pseudonyms in the literary world, her students, and the reactions she’s had to her writings, before taking questions from Professor Darin Strauss and the audience.

This segment brought a clarification of her earlier voiced views on the process of writing, which she described as the development of a feeling that evokes words on a page.  Movement, particularly running, is helpful for her in forming a visual phenomenon that then compels her to bring something to a page.  After an idea is developed, she writes it first by hand, with limited editing, before ultimately beginning to type it out. Writer’s block is something she considers to be a result of writing too soon, before fully thinking out one’s ideas.

This event by the NYU Creative Writing Department is one of many that have been scheduled for this fall semester. Check out the full Reading Series schedule to see if one of your favorite authors or poets will be visiting or to simply discover some new content and ideas.
Tara Dalton is a contributing writer. Email her at


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