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Monday, October 28, 2013

Dose of Oates

I’m Telling You Dept.: Let’s wander back 23 years for a visit to Union College and a talk by Joyce Carol Oates, and an opportunity for Dr. Helen Caldicott to piss off the kind of folks who deserve to be pissed off daily.


SCIENCE, WHICH BEGAT the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research four years ago, has been moving aside during recent sessions to accommodate the humanities. And the talk by Joyce Carol Oates that concluded this year’s conference at Union College deftly and charmingly punted one area of science out of the picture when she confessed that she recently got rid of her word processor “because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life staring at this little screen.”

Joyce Carol Oates
Photo by Marion Ettlinger
I don’t think Science – or any of the scientifically minded who helped fill the Memorial Chapel – was offended.

Oates, prize-winning author of over 30 volumes that comprise novels, short stories, essays and criticism, examined aspects of writing and the writer’s experience, reading excerpts from an essay that she punctuated with wise and amusing commentary.

Although she alluded to the boring nature of essays as if to explain a need to depart from her own, it was an artless performance that presented one of our most dangerously insightful literary talents in a vulnerable light.

Research was the focus of the conference, and research showed in Oates’s material. Not in any unpleasantly dusty sense, but rather in an artistic style that emphasized the need to enhance the recorded findings of others with interpretations and amplifications of our own.

What drives a person to engage in creative writing? “Most writers you study have obsessive personalities,” she suggested, quickly stressing that no pejorative was intended. “These are people caught up in a rapture.”

She cited examples from works by Samuel Beckett, John Updike, the Brontes, and many others as specific aspects of the creative experience were considered. “For whom are we performing?” was a question she asked, and it was fascinating to watch her own performance in light of the question. Essay portions were delivered in a warm but slightly mannered style, while quotes from other authors sounded almost halting. A passage from Beckett’s one-character play “Krapp’s Last Tape” came out as if she were trying hard not to act at all: she even read the ellipses as “dot ... dot ... dot.”

But when Oates veered a little from texts, she turned marvelous, informing her extemporaneous thoughts with funny asides and broadcasting her obvious enthusiasm for the subject. Thus an anecdote about Charlotte Bronte’s father – who declared “Jane Eyre” to be “rather better that I expected” – was rendered with flash-in-the-eyes feeling.

This lecture was a much calmer event than the talk that opened the conference: Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Helen Caldicott spoke Thursday morning on the subject “Prescription for an Ailing Planet” and offered the opinion that, with overpopulation so dire a problem, she couldn’t rule out abortion as a viable solution.

Some of the audience was enraged enough to leave, vociferously, giving everyone a chance, as Conference Coordinator David Peak expressed it, to see that a wide range of opinion and expression was encouraged at the conference.

Peak, the chairman of the Union College physics department, was delighted with the overall outcome of the conference. “This was something Union College and Schenectady can be proud of,” he said.

The three-day event drew over 1200 people from 40 states to the campus, with 800 oral and poster presentations by students in a wide range of disciplines.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 23 April 1990

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