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.