Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living (#497)

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“If you feel that you just can’t write or you’re too tired or this, that, and the other, just stop thinking about it and go and work. Life doesn’t have to be so overthought. You don’t have to wait to be inspired. Just start working.”

— Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) is the author of novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and A Widow’s Story. Among her many honors are the National Book Award, the PEN America Award, the National Humanities Medal, the 2019 Jerusalem Prize, and the 2020 Cino Del Duca World Prize for literature.

Joyce is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.

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#497: Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with a master of memoir? Listen to my conversation with award-winning author Mary Karr, in which we discuss curiosity and presence as a solution to fear, the role spirituality plays in maintaining her sobriety as a former atheist, coping with and expressing the aftermath of trauma, what she wished she’d known about therapy when she was younger, and much more.

#479: Mary Karr — The Master of Memoir on Creative Process and Finding Gifts in the Suffering


  • Connect with Joyce Carol Oates:

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  • In Joyce’s estimation, what is the most important “writerly” quality? On the obverse side, what does she consider to be the biggest obstacle to creativity? [07:03]
  • What does Joyce suggest to novice writers for overcoming the obstacles to creativity they’ll inevitably encounter? [09:23]
  • Why does Joyce need to envision the end of a novel and its title before she can really begin writing it? How does her process differ from that of her friend, the late E.L. Doctorow? [11:23]
  • Once Joyce has her title and ending in place to write toward, does she ever change them along the way? [13:09]
  • How does physical activity fit into Joyce’s creative process? [14:21]
  • How fleshed out is a typical ending before the rest of the writing begins in earnest, and what does Joyce’s revision regimen look like? How does she decide what stays and what goes? [16:17]
  • When the writer Jonathan Safran Foer was a student of hers, how did she select what she considered to be essential reading for this budding talent? [22:50]
  • Jonathan says Joyce was the first person to take him seriously as a writer. But what was the catalyst that allowed her to begin taking herself seriously as a writer? [24:59]
  • When By the North Gate was published in 1963, Joyce had already been featured in magazines and won awards for her writing. How important did that first book feel as a personal milestone at the time? [28:17]
  • As “a sympathetic and careful reader,” how does Joyce encourage young writers in her classroom? [30:06]
  • On overcoming writer’s block with a strong work ethic, and why a lot of women seem to struggle with treating the time it takes to create something as a valuable commodity. [32:32]
  • Does Joyce work on multiple projects at once, or does she commit to just one at a time? [35:01]
  • Joyce has said on numerous occasions that she’s one of the rare and lucky writers who doesn’t suffer anxiety around writing. Why does she think this is, and does this apply to all creative endeavors? What would make her anxious? [35:50]
  • As someone who could see new ways to revise a draft upon every inspection, how does she decide when enough is enough and a piece of writing is ready for prime time? [39:22]
  • Why is an Oscar Wilde quote about sincerity included in Joyce’s 10 tips for writing? [40:51]
  • Why does Joyce feel it’s important to write for one’s contemporaries over writing for the sake of posterity? Can Joyce recall any impediments that have stood in the way of her own ability to follow this advice? [42:27]
  • If Joyce believes a writer shouldn’t try to anticipate an ideal reader, who is she writing for? How does one stay true to this sentiment when writing for a publication with a particular kind of audience? [46:05]
  • What kind of writing assignments could one of Joyce’s students expect to take on? What kind of assignment might she bring out to challenge her more advanced students, and how might it differ from something she’d assign a class of younger people? [50:06]
  • How much of Joyce’s own work has she discarded before sending it to an editor or just removed from circulation? [53:50]
  • On productivity: what does Joyce feel is the relationship between quantity and enduring quality of one’s work? [55:26]
  • Of her own prolific body of work, what might she suggest first to someone who wants to get acquainted with it? Are there any she wishes could have been released with the same high profile treatment as We Were the Mulvaneys when it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club? [58:00]
  • For someone who’s already written what would take most authors several lifetimes to accomplish, what’s still on Joyce’s list? [1:02:51]
  • A final word of advice to writers and aspiring writers, and other parting thoughts. [1:05:21]


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7 Replies to “Joyce Carol Oates — A Writing Icon on Creative Process and Creative Living (#497)”

  1. I was trilled to see Wolfwalkers make it to Five Bullet Friday. I was the assistant director of Wolfwalkers which took me almost four years, and I’m the technical director of the studio in Kilkenny that produced it. Many of the attitudes, behaviours, and techniques I use to manage a project like Wolfwalkers and instil in our teams and crew are either directly learned from your writing or from others via your interviews. You were very kind in everything you said about it, so thank you.

    P.S. you also thought me how to cook which likely helped me survive the project too.


  2. I was so excited to see you paired with this literary icon on this podcast, which I’ve been an avid listener of for several years. Unfortunately, this interview felt under prepared and quite flat. It seemed like you were out of your element in this one, with no specificity or attention given to any of Oates’ wide range of writing. Nor did you seem to have any special interest for what she had to say. I am a fan of this podcast, and this episode was such a missed opportunity on what could have been an enriching conversation. Would love to see more attention given to topics like the connections between trauma and inspiration, navigating business within the arts, and how gender and race come into play (a topic I have noticed is often skirted in this show.) I look forward to hearing many more insightful conversations.

    1. I think JCO is the issue here rather than Tim. JCO is a notoriously odd interviewee. She takes on the mantle of both pragmatist and mystic, often shifting between the two identities. This kind of personality is incredibly frustrating for an interviewer, even an interviewer that is a JCO nerd. She’s also incredibly precise about everything, often to the point of not being able to recognize the context of a question, e.g., writing anxiety.

  3. Someone please let Tim know he got a mention and compliment from the great Clay Jenkinson on the Thomas Jefferson Hour last week.

  4. I recently watched a speech by Tim about accelerated learning with an acronym DiSSS. One of the Ss is selection ie where you can use 4 chords or something to play all pop songs. I’m wondering what the essential selection for writing would be? Are they categories or something more specific? I’d like to have a dialogue if anyone has any ideas on the matter. I can probably bring the video if anyone is curious.