I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.
In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.
The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:
How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?
“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.
I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.
My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.
I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.
If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.
Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.
‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.
After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”
I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.
Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.