Author Crush: Joyce Carol Oates
I should probably call this series more like "Passage Crush," but that sounds like something horrible that would happen to multiple vehicles in tunnel. I mean this little section of my blog to show off neat little tricks I've stumbled across in my reading.
In my very first-ever writing course, one of our weekly assignments was to submit work by other authors that really impressed us. The catch was, we had to say why. I was tempted to just plonk Ray Bradbury's entire catalog on the professor's desk, mic-drop style. My early assignments were pretty much that. "This poem is GOOD." "This book is FREAKING AWESOME." "I mean, if I knew why it was awesome, I'd do it myself, and then people would be turning in my work."
Turns out that was the point. After a few weeks of the professor pushing and asking questions like, "How exactly does the author make this work?" I started to see what was happening. Oftentimes, we'd break a passage down into sentences, then into individual words, teasing apart the layers until we understood just where the magic was hidden. It was then that I realized that all English writing, from Goodnight Moon to War and Peace is a combination of 26 letters and a few symbols. There's nothing at all that even my most revered literary idols could do that wasn't available to me. I just had to figure out how they were doing it.
Of course, you can look around your local bookstore and see that I haven't figured it out yet. But, I still do this exercise, and it's helped me immensely as a writer and an editor. It also helps to counteract the fact that, as I told you last week, I'm often wrapping myself in errors.
So who better to kick off our author crush series than Joyce Carol Oates? Currently, she's still filed under "FREAKING AWESOME." I'm still trying to pick apart how she does what she does. But I'm working on it. The following is from her very short story "Photographer's Model," in her collection The Assignation.
It sort of dulls the impact putting these three passages one right after another. But, it struck me in the early part of this story how Uncle Billy's name evolves and how it paces with the evolution of the protagonist. In the first passage, he's simply "her uncle." In this passage, she, too, is hardly anything: no name or character, just a niece in pictures. Later we will learn that Billy is an amateur photographer, so it stands to reason that he took pictures of her before she became anything through his pictures.
In the second passage, he becomes "Uncle Billy." Our protagonist has gone to live with her uncle because her father was "always injuring himself outdoors" and "they were always poor." As soon as we learn of her moving, we also learn that she's not at all romantic about her childhood home, and very quickly distances herself from her family. Her relationship with Uncle Billy is expounded, and we begin to learn how his photographs of her set the course for her life.
In the third passage, he's "Billy." Not her uncle, not her Uncle Billy. She's coming to the understanding that there is something that sets her apart from other girls, something "special." The protagonist is establishing herself and her agency and place in the world, and Billy is now not her uncle, not the photographer who actualizes her role, but simply another character in her story.
(Later in the work, the protagonist recalls a scene from her childhood, and Billy again [though briefly] becomes "Uncle Billy," counseling her about dealing with her fractured family relationships.)
This is a small, small, small part of a great (FREAKING AWESOME) little story. It could easily be lost in the pile of other expert moves that Oates makes. A less careful author would likely alternate between calling him "Billy" and "Uncle Billy" and no one would even notice to call it error. But with an extremely precise author like Joyce Carol Oates, and in an extremely short story like "Photographer's Model," you can bet that every single word is pulling double-duty. Most readers will probably never even notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the characters and the story as a whole, that feel that leaves you wondering, "How did she do that?"
I hope this can be a place you'll enjoy visiting!