I Am Sorry to Inform You

In 2008 Joyce Carol Oates lost the husband—Raymond Smith—to whom she’d been married for 48 years. Her recollections of those harrowing early days of widowhood provide a glimpse of Oates as a teacher of writers and as caretaker of the literary magazine she and her husband kept in print for so long.
Eva Häggdahl

Oasis

My job at the university is to impersonate “Joyce Carol Oates.”

Strictly speaking, I am not impersonating this individual, since “Joyce Carol Oates” doesn’t exist, except as an author-identification. On the spines of books shelved in certain libraries and bookstores you will see OATES but this is a descriptive term, this is not a noun.

This is not a person. This is not a life.

A writing-life is not a life.

It is not invariably the case that a teacher is also a writer, and that, as a teacher, she has been hired to impersonate the writer. But it is the case with me here in Princeton, as it had not been, for instance, in Detroit, where my identification was “Joyce Smith”—“Mrs. Smith.”

In the lives of teachers there are teaching-days, teaching-hours like islands, or oases, amid turbulent seas.

In the immediate days following Ray’s death, I did not teach. Colleagues urged that I take more time off, even the entire semester, but I was eager to return to my fiction workshops the following week, on February 27, in time to attend a joint reading that evening by Honor Moore and Mary Karr in our creative-writing reading series.

This “Oates”—this quasi-public self—is scarcely visible to me, as a mirror-reflection, seen up close, is scarcely visible to the viewer. “Oates” is an island, an oasis, to which on this agitated morning I can row, as in an uncertain little skiff, with an unwieldy paddle—the way is arduous not because the water is deep but because the water is shallow and weedy and the bottom of the skiff is endangered by rocks beneath. And yet—once I have rowed to this island, this oasis, this core of calm amid the chaos of my life—once I arrive at the university, check my mail, and ascend to the second floor of 185 Nassau where I’ve had an office since fall 1978—once I am “Joyce Carol Oates” in the eyes of my colleagues and my students—a shivery sort of elation enters my veins. I feel not just confidence but certainty—that I am in the right place, and this is the right time. The anxiety, the despair, the anger I’ve been feeling—that has so transformed my life—immediately fades, as shadows on a wall are dispelled in sunshine.

Always I have felt this way about teaching but more strongly, because more desperately, after Ray’s death.

So long as, with reasonable success, I can impersonate “Joyce Carol Oates,” it is not the case that I am dead and done for—yet.

Now for the first time in what I’ve grown to think of as my “posthumous life”—my life after Ray—I am feeling almost hopeful, happy. Thinking Maybe life is navigable. Maybe this will work.

Then I recall: hope was the predominant emotion I had felt—we had both felt—during the long week of Ray’s hospitalization. Hope, in retrospect, is so often a cruel joke.

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson so boldly said. The thing that is ungainly, vulnerable, embarrassing. But there it is.

For some of us, what can hope mean? The worst has happened, the spouse has died, the story is ended. And yet—the story is not ended, clearly.

Hope can be outlived. Hope can become tarnished.

Yet, I am hopeful about teaching. Each semester I am hopeful and each semester I become deeply involved with my writing students and each semester has turned out well—in fact, very well—since I first began teaching at Princeton. But now, I am thinking that I will focus even more intensely on my students. I have just 22 students this semester—two workshops and two seniors whom I am directing in “creative” theses.

Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.

For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.

Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.

Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.

Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.

“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in TheCanterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.

And so, in this afternoon’s “advanced fiction” workshop, in an upstairs, lounge-like room in 185 Nassau, the university’s arts building, I am greatly relieved to be teaching! To be back in the presence of undergraduates who know nothing of my private life. For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life—none of my students could guess, I am certain, that “Professor Oates” is a sort of raw bleeding stump whose brain, outside the perimeter of the workshop, is in thrall to chaos.

Along with prose pieces by several students, we discuss in detail, rending our way through the story line by line as if it were poetry, that early masterpiece of Ernest Hemingway—“Indian Camp.” Four pages long, written when the author was only a few years older than these Princeton undergraduates, the stark and seemingly autobiographical “Indian Camp” never fails to make a strong impression on them.

How strange it is, how strangely comforting, to read great works of literature throughout our lives, at greatly different phases of our lives—my first reading of “Indian Camp” was in high school, when I was 15, and younger than the author; each subsequent reading has been revelatory in different ways; now this afternoon, in this new phase of my life, when it seems to me self-evident that my life is over, I am struck anew by the precision of Hemingway’s prose, exquisite as the workings of a clock. I am thinking how, of all classic American writers, Hemingway is the one who writes exclusively of death, in its manifold forms; “The perfect man of action is the suicide,” William Carlos Williams once observed, and surely this was true of Hemingway. In a typical Hemingway story foregrounds as well as backgrounds are purposefully blurred, like the contours of his characters’ faces and their pasts, as in those dreams of terrible simplicity in which stark revelation is the point, and the time for digressing is gone.

At an Indian camp in Northern Michigan to which Nick Adams’s father, a doctor, has been summoned to help with a difficult childbirth, an Indian commits suicide by slashing his throat while lying in the upper bunk of a bunk bed, even as his wife gives birth to their child in the lower bunk. Hemingway’s young Nick Adams is a witness to the horror—before his father can usher him from the scene, Nick sees him examining the Indian’s wound by “tipping” the Indian’s head back.

Later, walking back to the boats to return home from the Indian camp, Nick asks his father why the Indian killed himself, and his father says, “I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”

No theory of suicide, no philosophical discourses on the subject are quite so revelatory as these words. Couldn’t stand things, I guess.

How poignant it is to consider that Hemingway would kill himself several decades later, with a shotgun, at the age of 62.

Suicide, a taboo subject. In 1925, when “Indian Camp” was first published, in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, how much more of a taboo subject than now.

Suicide is an issue that fascinates undergraduates. Suicide is the subject of a good number of their stories. Sometimes, the suicidal element so saturates the story, it’s difficult to discuss the story as a text without considering frankly the subject, and its meaning to the writer.

Not that most of these young writers would “consider” suicide—I’m sure—but all of them have known someone who has killed himself.

Sometimes, these suicides have been friends of theirs, contemporaries from high school or college.

These personal issues, I am not likely to bring into workshop discussions, as I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing. Though I came of age in the 1960s when the borderline between “teacher” and “student” became perilously porous, I am not that kind of teacher.

My intention as a teacher is to refine my own personality out of existence, or nearly—my own “self” is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.

(Visiting writers/instructors at Princeton—I’m thinking of Peter Carey, for instance, and seeing the look of quizzical hurt on Peter’s face—are invariably astonished/crestfallen to discover that their students are not exactly familiar with their oeuvre; but I’m more likely to feel relief.)

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that, this semester of Ray’s death, my students will be my lifeline. Teaching will be my lifeline.

Along with my friends, a small circle of friends—this will “keep me going.” I am sure that my students have no idea of the circumstances of my life, and that they are not curious about it; nor will I ever hint to them what I am feeling, at any time; how I dread the conclusion of the teaching-day, and the return to my diminished life.

It’s a matter of pride—or, almost!—that, this afternoon in the workshop, I behaved no differently, or seemed no different, than ever in the past. In my exchanges with my students, I have given them no reason to suspect that anything is amiss in my life.

In the doorway of my office stand two of my writing students from last semester. One of them, who’d been a soldier in the Israeli army, slightly older than most Princeton undergraduates, says awkwardly, “Professor Oates? We heard about your husband and want to say how sorry we are… If there’s anything we can do…”

I am utterly surprised—I had not expected this. Quickly I tell the young men that I’m fine, this is very kind of them but I am fine…

When they leave, I shut my office door. I am shaking, I am so deeply moved. But mostly shocked. Thinking They must have known all along today. They must all know.

UNEXPECTED!
Thank you for your submission.

I am sorry to inform you that, due to the unexpected death of editor Raymond Smith, Ontario Review will cease publication after its May 2008 issue.

Several hundred of these little blue slips I had printed up, a few days after Ray’s death.

It’s a measure of my fractured concentration at the time—my reputation for prolificacy notwithstanding—that numerous drafts were required to compose this melancholy rejection slip.

Originally, I’d written unexpected death but then, rereading what I’d written, I thought that it sounded too—melodramatic, or self-pitying. Or subjective.

For, for whom was the death of Raymond Smith unexpected; and why should total strangers care? Why should total strangers be informed?

Unexpected was therefore removed, but later, how many hours and drafts later I would be embarrassed to say, unexpected was reinserted.

Sorry to inform you of the unexpected death of Raymond Smith.

Like a mildly deranged, large flying insect trapped in a small space, these words careened and blundered about inside my skull for an inordinate amount of time.

For I knew—common sense dictated—that I had no choice: I would have to discontinue Ontario Review, which Ray and I had edited together since 1974. This was heartrending but I saw no alternative—90 percent of the editorial work on the magazine and 100 percent of the publishing/financial work had been my husband’s province.

We’d begun the biannual Ontario Review: A North American Journal of the Arts while we were living in Windsor, Ontario, and teaching together in the English Department at the University of Windsor. I’d had the idea that since “small magazines” had been so integral a part of my writing career, I should help finance one of our own; also, both Ray and I were interested in promoting the work of excellent writers whom we knew in both Canada and the United States. Our intention was to publish Canadian and American writers and to make no distinction between the two, which was the special agenda of Ontario Review.

Our first issue, Fall 1974, was greeted with much interest in literary Canada—not because it was an extraordinary gathering of first-rate North American talent (which we believed it was) but because there were, at the time, many more writers and poets than there were reputable outlets for their work in Canada. We were fortunate to publish an interview with Philip Roth—which I’d “conducted”—as well as fiction by Bill Henderson, soon to become the founder of the legendary Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, and by Lynne Sharon Schwartz before she’d published her first book of fiction. Like most beginning editors, we’d called upon our friends to write for us, and our “briefly noted” reviews—of new books by Paul Theroux, Alice Munro, and Beth Harvor, all at the time virtually unknown—were signed “JCO.”

Starting a literary magazine is an adventure not for the faint-hearted or the easily discouraged. Neither Ray nor I knew what to expect. Ray’s first experience with a printer was a near disaster—the printer had never printed anything more ambitious than a menu for a local Chinese restaurant—the page proofs were riddled with errors that required hours of Ray’s time and patience to correct; and when the copies were finally printed, for some reason we never understood, a number were smeared with bloody fingerprints.

I wish that I could recall Ray’s exact words, when he eagerly opened the box from the printer, and saw the mysterious stains on the covers. I want to think that he’d said something appropriately witty but probably what emerged from his throat more resembled a sob.

And very likely I said uselessly Oh honey! How on earth did this happen!

Carefully we examined each of the copies to weed out the soiled ones—another effort that required hours. Exactly how many copies of this premier issue Ray had had printed up, I can’t remember: maybe 1,000?

(If 1,000, most of these were never sold. No doubt, we gave them away. And we paid our contributors partly with three-year subscriptions. It would be years before OR had a circulation of 1,000.)

Our second issue went far more smoothly than the first. Through a bit of good luck—I’d written to Saul Bellow, whom I scarcely knew, requesting something from him—we had a “self-interview” by Bellow, at about the time of Humboldt’s Gift. (When Bellow’s literary agent discovered that Saul had sent us this little gem, the agent tried to take it back; but too late, we told her—we’d already gone to press.) We published work by the Canadian writer Marian Engel, and poetry by Wendell Berry, David Ignatow, Cesar Vallejo (in translation), and Theodore Weiss (destined to become our close friend after we moved to Princeton in 1978).

In 1984, when we’d been in Princeton for several years, and Ray had resigned from teaching in order to be a full-time editor/publisher, we decided to expand our small-press enterprise to include book publishing. (Why? Out of some “reckless commingling of idealism and masochism” was Ray’s droll explanation.) Though neither the magazine nor the press ever made any profit, we were, resolutely, “nonprofit”; our projects were funded privately, by my Princeton University salary and other more random spurts of income.

The 1980s was a time when libraries were still subscribing to literary magazines and buying poetry books, a situation that would change drastically in the late 1990s. In Canadian publishing circles Ontario Review soon ascended to the sort of small-press literary eminence belonging, in the States, to Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, and Ray Smith was a “major” editor/publisher in these quarters.

Ray’s Jesuit training in adolescence had instilled in him a predilection for what is called perfectionism but which might resemble, to a neutral observer, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Thus, Ray was the ideal editor—as well as copy editor and proofreader. Though he sent out page proofs to our authors, he never trusted any eye but his own, and so he did everything except “set type”—in those days when type was still “set”—and no doubt he would have done that, if he’d been able. Apart from our domestic life, Ray’s work was his life. Most of all, Ray had loved working with writers: no relationship is quite so intimate and intense, when an editor is truly absorbed in editing, and a writer is willing to be “edited.” Enormous sympathy, tact, diplomacy, shrewdness are required—and a sense of humor. Ray took—this does sound rather masochistic, or at least eccentric—genuine pleasure in reading unsolicited submissions, which numbered in the thousands, annually; he passed on to me fiction that was “promising” but needed work, so that, if I wished to, I might work with the writer, making editorial suggestions. He took particular pleasure in working with writers one or the other of us had “discovered”—like Pinckney Benedict, my prize-winning Princeton student whose remarkable senior thesis, Town Smokes (1987), was one of our first OR Press books, and would be one of the most enduring.

When Ray spoke of Pinckney it was with a special—warm, tender—intonation in his voice.

When Ray spoke of a number of writers and poets with whom he’d worked closely over the years, you could see how much they’d meant to him—even those whom we’d never met.

How touching it is, if heartrending—the dedication to the 2009 Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson, reads:

for Raymond Smith (1930–2008)

Now, all this has ended. No one can take Ray’s place. Most of all, continuing to bring out Ontario Review without Ray could have no meaning, for me—it would be like celebrating someone’s birthday in absentia.

The May issue was nearly completed, when Ray had to be hospitalized. Just a few more days’ work—which I hope I can do, with the assistance of our typesetter in Michigan. I have a dread of letting down Ray’s contributors, who are expecting to see their work in his magazine.

I will have to pay them too—of course. I will have to calculate what they should be paid, write checks, and mail them. I will have to package contributors’ copies, and mail them. A kind of wildness sweeps over me, almost a kind of elation. If I can do this, how impressed Ray would be! How he would know, I love him.

When I called Gail Godwin, to tell her about Ray, Gail’s response was immediate. “Oh Joyce—you’re going to be so unhappy.”

How true this is! It’s a blunt fact few would wish to acknowledge.

Some friends we see often—and some friends we see rarely. My friendship of more than 30 years with Gail Godwin has been mostly epistolary, writerly. We are like cousins, or sisters, of a bygone era—the long-ago era of the Brontë sisters, perhaps. And Gail’s house on a hillside in Woodstock, New York, overlooking, at a distance, the Catskill Mountains, has something of the air of romance and isolation of the fabled Yorkshire moors.

Many times Ray and I had visited Gail and her longtime companion, the distinguished composer Robert Starer, in their Woodstock house. Robert’s unexpected death in the spring of 2001 had the sorrowful feel of the end of an era, though I had not dared to think that my husband would be next.

How similar our experiences have been, Gail’s and mine! It is uncanny…

Like Ray, Robert had been hospitalized as if “temporarily.” He’d had a heart attack from which he seemed to be recovering; his condition was “stable”; then, early one morning as Gail was preparing to drive to the hospital in Kingston to see him, she received a call from a doctor whom she didn’t know—who happened to be on duty at the time: “I’m afraid Robert didn’t make it.”

Didn’t make it! But he had been recovering… hadn’t he?

So we protest, in disbelief. Clinging to what has seemingly been promised to us, like children. But, but—! But he was recovering! You’d said—he was still alive.

Gail too had driven to the hospital in a trance. Gail too had not believed that her husband wouldn’t be waiting for her in his hospital room. Driving in the early morning along a darkened highway each of us thinking incredulously Is my husband dying? Is he dying? He can’t be—dying! The doctor has said—he is alive…

Long after hope has vanished, these phantom-words remain.

Alive, he is still… alive. He is recovering.

He will be discharged next Tuesday.

Gail has offered me sympathy, counsel. I am so very broken, I have trouble speaking. Rarely do I speak to anyone on the telephone but I am able to speak with Gail and to tell Gail that I wish we lived closer together. We might commiserate together, but neither of us is likely to move. Who but Gail Godwin would tell me: “Suffer, Joyce. Ray was worth it.”

This is so. This is true. But the test is: Am I strong enough to suffer? And for how long?

Is this grief?—such exhaustion, melancholy? A feeling of dazed dizzy not-rightness, like the sensation you feel before acute nausea? A sensation of being off-balance—both spiritually and physically—as if something has worked its way loose inside my head?

Grief is a kind of physical disability, like losing a limb, or chronic flu. But also an indifference to illness, or a sense that, being a widow, having outlived your husband, you deserve ill health, you deserve to be punished.

Ray would reject this as ridiculous. Ray would put his arms around me and say Now you don’t mean that, honey. You don’t really mean that.

And in that instant I would think Of course! I don’t really mean it.

But Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?

(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)

I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.

He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…

I am trying. Honey, I am trying!

Like a desperate individual in a sailboat, a small sailboat foundering in a raging sea, after the sailor has died, swept overboard and drowned, and the left-behind companion must try to keep the sailboat from sinking … It’s ridiculous to think of completing the voyage when the most you can hope for is to stay afloat.

And so, I am trying. I will do what Ray would want me to do—if I can.

At the moment, opening mail. The Sisyphus-task of clipping these little blue rejection slips to manuscripts. Sometimes I fall into an open-eyed trance reading lines of a poem, a short story, until my eyes lose focus.

In the hospital, we had read submissions together, and discussed them. I’d brought two short stories for Ray to read that I was recommending for publication—two stories about which I felt very enthusiastic—but now suddenly, all that has ended. I am distressed to think that possibly the manuscripts have been lost, were never brought back from the hospital.

Terrible to think, things are being lost! I had tried so hard, yet Ray’s glasses are gone.

As the days—weeks—months pass, the effort of responding to OR submissions will become increasingly vexing. I’d thought that word should have spread in the literary community—through our Ontario Review Web site, and obituaries—that Ray Smith has passed away, that the magazine is discontinued. Yet, with clockwork predictability, the submissions keep coming. Of course, most of these are multiply submitted, as if by robot-writers who begin their form letters Dear Editor and seem to have no idea what Ontario Review is. (More than a year later, robot-submissions will continue to arrive in the mailbox, some of them addressed to Raymond Smith, Editor, though this beleaguered “associate editor” has ceased returning them, figuring that by now a statute of limitations has been evoked. Enough!)

Yet, in March 2008, I am diligent—if that’s the word—about opening mail. Occasionally, I find even book-length manuscripts, unsolicited—which I return to the sender with a little blue slip Thank you for your submission. Sometimes I add a few words, and sign my initials. Even in my numbed state I feel an impulse to encourage writers, or anyway a wish not to discourage them. Thinking It would have meant something to me, years ago.

Though nothing means much to me, now. The possibility of being “encouraged” has become abstract and theoretical to me—“encouraged” for what purpose?

Your writing will not save you. Managing to be published—by Ontario Review Press!—will not save you. Don’t be deluded.

As with the trash, I dare not allow this mail to accumulate; you might (almost) say, the mail is the trash. Most dreaded, beyond even the Harry & David sympathy baskets, is that particularly nasty sub-species of ridged cardboard book-package in which a few publishers persist in sending books, bound with metal staples thick as spikes. To try to open one of these monstrosities is an exercise in masochism—hurriedly I discard them with the dispatch with which one would thrust away a venomous snake.

Pleading No! No more of this! Please have mercy.

Each week the trash cans are so filled that their plastic covers fall off, and clatter to the pavement as I wheel the cans to the road.

Why would Sisyphus push a boulder up a hill?—much more likely the poor accursed man was hauling trash cans up the hill, day following day, in perpetuity.

Amid all this, what a joke—a cruel joke—that publishers continue to send me galleys and manuscripts requesting blurbs. Yet more mail, packages to be torn open and recycled. In my state of absolute lucidity—which might be mistaken for commonplace depression—nothing seems to be so pathetic as these requests. Nothing so sad, so futile, so ridiculous—a blurb from me.

If the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to her own books can’t sell these books, how can the name “Joyce Carol Oates” affixed to another’s book help to sell that book? This is a joke!

My heart beats hard with resentment, despair. Though my effort seems so futile, like cleaning all the rooms of the house in preparation for my husband’s return from the hospital, turning on all the lights—or, turning them off—yet I can’t seem to stop, and the thought of hiring someone to help me, or even bringing anyone into the house for this purpose, is not possible. All I know is—I can’t let Ray down. This is my responsibility as his wife.

I mean, his widow.

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