Pushcart XL: Joyce Carol Oates, “The Childhood of the Reader” (non-fiction) from Conjunctions, #63

At the roadside fruit and vegetable stand on Transit Road, in Millersport, New York, I would sit reading. Head lowered, scarcely aware of my surroundings, which is the consolation of reading.
… Quart baskets, bushel baskets of pears. How much did my parents charge for a bushel basket of pears? I have no idea; surely not much. Their prices had to be competitive with those of commercial vendors, if not lower. If you were a small-time farmer you could pitch your goods so low that you made virtually no profit and work for nothing. (All of the farms in our vicinity employed “child labor” – the farm owners children. Hours of such employment are not negotiable.) Yet I remember the sting of embarrassment when a potential customer, frowning over our pears, or strawberries, or tomatoes, deftly turning back the tight leaves of our sweet corn to examine the kernels, decided that our produce wasn’t priced low enough, or wasn’t good enough in some way, returned to her car, and drove off.
Sitting at a roadside, vulnerable as an exposed heart, you are liable to such rejections. As if, as a writer, you were obliged to sell your books in a night

Funny, I’ve heard writers describe book signings and readings in just that way. I suppose the commerce end of things is more private, but considering what writers go through in workshops, it’s still a study in vulnerability. Funny again: I have a hard time imagining JCO as vulnerable.

Her 2015 memoir The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age includes a form of this selection under a different title. In addition to the roadside stand opener with its whispers of loneliness and, yes, vulnerability, it includes the kinds of scenes you’d expect: a small child checking Plato out of the local library, a young woman discovering a previously unimagined world in college – in her case, the world of literary magazines, but I think, I hope, all college students discover previously unimagined worlds, since that’s what education is about – her job at the library, complete with her shock at a $1.00-an-hour paycheck shrunk to 70 cents. And then there are pointers to the JCO we will all know: she won the Mademoiselle fiction competition in college, the same spot won in other years by familiar names such as Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

But there’s also a bit of a surprise: the graduate school emphasis on reading and analysis, separated from aesthetic appreciation. And her frustration with the dearth of writing during that period.

Writers who are enrolled in graduate programs soon feel the frustration, the ignominy, the pain of being immersed in reading the work of others… When they are themselves unable to write or even to fantasize writing.

When I was doing online writer’s workshops (before I finally accepted that I am not a fiction writer, that in addition to lacking talent, imagination, and training, I’d rather read and write about my personal reactions to fiction than imagine layered characters and intricate narrative arcs to express “what I want to say” and just write what I want to say) I kept coming across blurbs claiming “Anyone can write stories, here’s all you need to do” with five, or seven, or twelve easy steps, more information available in this book for $15.95. Even great writers will claim it’s more about persistence than talent. But I do think there’s that calling, the inner drive to write stories, just as for journalists there’s an inner drive to record, for scientists to understand, for teachers to explain and develop. Anyone can be a writer – or a journalist, a scientist, a teacher – but to be a great anything, it has to start with the innate need to do the core of the job.

JCO’s been widely praised for her work in literary analysis, and some of her novels have become Lit101 standards. But for me, it’s when she writes stories – about Emily Dickinson, about Robert Frost, about mothers dealing with children, about children dealing with mothers, about women dealing with life – that she swims through the water she was born to breathe. Then again, I’m biased.

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