Inspired by Joyce Carol Oates

It is over three months since I saw Joyce Carol Oates talk at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. On 26 August, Michael Cathcart interviewed her in his benign and unpretentious manner, but was not a good match for her incisive intellect and wit, and the glassy Deakin Edge venue echoed nastily. Too often, JCO’s precious words bounced away, but fortunately were captured for Cathcart’s Radio National show ‘Books and Arts’. I had prepared myself for the rare treat by reading two volumes of her short stories and her novel Black Water. Much as I admired her work, that was enough for now. There is only so much bleakness I can tolerate, and her short stories go into dark territory. When JCO flew away, I put her books back on the shelf, and turned to more cheerful fare.

Shortly afterwards I came across (in Best American Essays 2016) her essay about her sister, eighteen years younger than Joyce, who developed severe autism as a child and was eventually institutionalised. ‘The Lost Sister: An Elegy’ is a harrowing account, bringing to mind characters and incidents in Oates’s stories, and giving some context to her fiction. To live with a mute and violent sister who never looks any of her family in the eye would surely colour your imagination in shades of black.

On a recent trip to the Murray River I came across a secondhand copy of A Widow’s Story, JCO’s 2011 memoir, a testimony to grief. When her husband of 47 years, Raymond Smith, died, Oates dived into a crazed insomnia and spent the next six months trying to claw her way back from despair. Unlike Joan Didion’s succinct A Year of Magical Thinking, Oates’s memoir is discursive, a 415-page record of a distracted mind haunted by regret and shame, a day-by-day account of survival.

There are some books that make me reluctant to move on and start reading another. A Widow’s Story had that effect on me. Its honest self-exposure has inspired me to make a tentative start on a memoir about living with a daughter who has a mental illness. It is difficult territory, which I have been hesitant to enter, but now I have a light to guide me.

And it appears there is another memoir of JCO’s waiting for me, one day: The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age (2015). It includes a lot of her published nonfiction, including the essay on her sister. I imagine I will come across it one day, at the right time, on a shelf in some dusty rural bookshop.


Did you miss me?

Sorry to disappoint those (millions?) of you clamouring to read my blog or check out my website. It disappeared over a week ago, but I can assure you I still exist in the real world. And here I am, putting the first brick of my online world back in place.

Last week, when I wasn’t waiting in a phone queue to seek tech support, I was reading. Two memoirs were stand-outs, both published posthumously shortly after their authors had died. The Memory Chalet is by Tony Judt, a historian who contracted the auto-immune disease ALS and wrote over his final two years, dictating to an assistant, as paralysis took over his body. He relied on his ‘memory chalet’ to store his memories (a reference to the ‘memory palace’ that dates back to Greek and Roman authors). If, like me, you’re a fan of  Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, you’ll know it as Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’. Judt’s book is beautiful, both as a memoir, written in a series of essays, and as an insight into his brilliant mind.

The other memoir is Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, the story of a neurosurgeon who dies of lung cancer at the age of 37, leaving his wife and baby behind. The author studied literature before he became a surgeon, and his writing and his life are exemplary. In the first half, he takes us into his day-to-day work as a surgeon, focussing on the doctor-patient relationship. In the second, he details the progress of his illness and discourses on the nature of death and time. He had helped his patients face death, and now he had to find his own way there.

Both were remarkable men and fine writers. And, in extremis, they found a way to write down their experience for the world to read. An inspiration for all us writers.