There are many, many reasons I love my adoptive city of Rome. One of them is that it’s a city that has attracted some of the greatest artists, poets and writers in history. All you have to do to see this for yourself is to visit the Cemetery for Artists and Poets  or stroll around town looking for the numerous plaques indicating that Gogol/Goethe/Keats/take-your-pick once lived here.

Luckily, the tradition holds strong today. Rome’s International Literature Festival , held in May and June against the backdrop of Rome’s impressive ruins, just wrapped up.

Harper Collins photo - Joyce Carol OatesThe acclaimed American author Joyce Carol Oates was also in Rome for a program at John Cabot University, an English language university in the city, and the evening of 21 June she participated in an event open to the public –  A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates .  I was pleased to attend the event. 

Whether or not you enjoy Joyce Carol Oates’ writing – and I definitely count myself as an admirer of her work– you can’t help but be impressed by what a prolific writer she is.  

She published her first novel in a 1963 and has been an active author since then, publishing  over fifty novels, as well as short stories, plays,  poetry and nonfiction, meaning over seventy published works in all. Pretty inspiring …

I’ve read interview with Ms Oates, but it was the first time I saw her speak and I was impressed by how well-spoken and – I wasn’t expecting it – how amusing she is in person. When asked about how she managed to be so productive, her response was that she didn’t feel that she was. In her mind, she believes she wastes a tremendous amount of time when she should be writing more.

I enjoyed hearing about how much time she spends daydreaming and thinking about her characters, something she believes is crucial for writers. She feels that sitting for long periods of time in front of the computer can kill creativity and she noted that she spends a lot of time out walking or jogging or biking and she believes that this physical activity allows the creativity to flow uninterrupted.

I already wrote a post entitled Where do you develop your ideas for stories?  that addresses this. I could fully understand the need to work out a story idea and characters far away from the desk. She feels that this type of mental preparation prepares a writer to later sit down at the computer and ensure that his or her time there is productive, since it is simply committing to the page ideas that have already been fleshed out in the writer’s mind.

Ms Oates teaches at Princeton and she spoke about the times when she must point out to a student that his or her writing leaves something to be desired. She made the audience laugh when she said that she always has an expressionless face when she does that and that she is “always very nice… because I’m a woman.” And that women are generally that way “because they’re not men.” Her comment drew a lot of laughs from the –heavily female – crowd.

She went on to say that she tries to draw her students out. When something reads lifelessly on a  page, she asks the student why he or she wrote it. Sometimes, they are able to explain the motivation behind it and are able to involve their professor and classmates in a story that appeared so one-dimensional in print. Ms Oates suggests that the writer go back again, ensuring that same enthusiasm is conveyed in the written story.

Following the discussion, Ms Oates read a short story and then signed books at a reception following the event. She signed my copy of her newest book, Mudwoman, which I look forward to reading, and she was extremely gracious, asking me about life in Rome and noting that we expat women ‘must be on to something’ coming to live in Italy. I certainly couldn’t argue with her on that one.

The event was extremely enjoyable and I appreciated the chance to hear all the wise advice and insight offered by such an accomplished and prolific American author. Now, if I could only manage to learn to waste my time as spectacularly and successfully as Joyce Carol Oates claims to “waste” hers…