Dear Joyce Carol Oates: A Fictitious Correspondence

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. May 31, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 22

Dear Joyce Carol Oates: A fictitious correspondence by Phyllis Raphael

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

I don't know if you will remember me but we met briefly about a year ago at Leo and Carol Weinberg's housewarming party in the Dakota. I put some pickled herring on a Tam Tam for you because you were loaded down with your drink and your purse and a cigarette and didn't have a free hand. I was so nervous about meeting you that my hand shook and some of the herring sauce splashed the satin tie on your blouse.

You were really gracious about it and you were so unpretentious and unassuming that you put me at ease. I suggested you could remove the stain with a solution of two-thirds warm water and one-third vinegar dabbed on lightly with a sponge and then we had a pleasant chat about New York.

You said you felt a terrific surge of euphoria whenever you came here to visit but that basically you were just a small town girl and you couldn't imagine living here because the pace was too hysterical.

Anyhow, Joyce Carol, that is really ate under the bridge so to speak and it wasn't the real reason I am writing. I just mentioned that conversation because I thought it might help you to place me in your mind's eye. In the event that it doesn't I am five foot six inches too with dark hair which I had cut in a shag (it's grown in now) and I was wearing bell bottom Levis and a pale blue turtleneck shirt and carrying a brown leather pouch style shoulder strap bag. In fact you asked me where I had gotten the bag and I told you it was from a place called Leather 'n' Things on Bleecker Street and you said you were going to try to get down there and get one before you left town but you wanted it a little smaller because you thought you weren't tall enough to be able to carry off a bag that size.

Well anyhow I seem to keep on digressing from my real point which I'm going to try to get to now. I've just read a recent statement of yours in New York magazine and I quote: "I have never understood what writer's block means." I can't tell you how surprised I was by that, Joyce Carol, because although I don't think I mentioned it that night I am a writer, and I suffer horribly from writer's block. In fact, my writer's block is so devastating that sometimes I go into terrible states of depression and despair but that also is not the point I'm trying to make.

I think the thing that upset me most about your statement is that I felt it was uncharitable, supercilious, and particularly lacking in sensitivity. It seems so clear to me that writer's block is caused by the self-hatred which all of us have lurking around in the pit of our souls eating away at our self-confidence that I can't understand how you, a great writer, the lioness of literature, can be so blind in your view of human nature that you don't see it. In fact, I think you are sometimes referred to as "the Dark Lady of American Letters" and as such I am certain you must be in touch with human feelings enough to know there is nothing so dark as the core of self-doubt which keeps us from accomplishing our most creative acts. I cannot understand how you can depict real human beings without knowing that.

Maybe you think this is none of my business but in my opinion you only said what you did because you are fed up with the critics always harping on the fact that you write so much. I guess it must hurt a lot to have people say you are not a serious artist just because you have no difficulty creating. Listen, you're not alone. I understand that Neil Simon went into analysis to find out why he can't stop writing. Ha Ha.

I'm going to close now but before I do I just want to mention one thing. There's a girl in my consciousness raising group named Miriam Goldberg who is always complaining about being a doormat for her husband and children. She complains and complains and never does anything to change her life. I used to feel very superior because thank God I had the courage to drag myself up out of that situation and make a life of my own.

But one day I had a flash of insight and I realized the reason I felt so much contempt and so little compassion for Miriam Goldberg was that I really hated the weakness inside me that keeps me from changing things in my life that make me unhappy. Until I learned to love my own shit I could only despise other people's weaknesses and never offer them one shred of human kindness. I think we are all brothers and sisters in shit in a way Joyce Carol, and having contempt for others just alienates us from ourselves in the long run.

I hope you are well and happy and have a blouse without a pickled herring stain and managed to find the right size pouch bag. I'd love to hear from you if you have the chance to write and if you're in town and have any spare time perhaps we could have lunch. Incidentally, I heard that Leo and Carol Weinberg are splitting but that just seems to be the way of things these days.

Warmest regards, Phyllis Raphael

P.S. I hope you won't take anything I've said the wrong way but I felt you were such a nice person when we met that you wouldn't mind if I got this off my chest.


Dear Miss Raphael,

You are taken. I am allergic to pickled herring. I despise shoulder strap bags. I do not know anyone named Leo or Carol Weinberg and I have never met you.

However, I do stand corrected on one point. After reading your letter I understand how you could feel so much self-hatred "in the pit of your soul," and as a matter of fact throughout the rest of your body also, that you would be faced with a monumental writer's block. Ha Ha.

Sincerely, Joyce Carol Oates


Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

This is really strange. Here I remember meeting you with total clarity and yet you have no recollection of it at all. Life is certainly something to think about.

However, although I have always been highly neurotic I have never had reason to doubt my sanity and therefore I wonder if you would do me a favor? Could you go to your closet and check your white satin blouse to see if there is a pickled herring stain on the tie? Even if you used the vinegar and water solution as I suggested perhaps there might be some small trace of something to prove to us both that I am not mad.

In the interim I will try to contact Leo or Carol Weinberg to ask them if you were there although it will be difficult to find them as they have moved out of the Dakota and I understand they are so broken up about their separation they have gone into veritable seclusion. They both have unlisted phones and have instructed their friends on pain of death not to reveal the numbers.

As for your remarks about my writer's block I prefer to ignore that part of your letter completely. I gather that I must have said something to make you angry and for that I am most truly sorry. I can only defend myself by saying that the whole question of writer's block is something I am most passionately interested in and I really wanted to get the views of a brilliant person such as yourself. I think if you will reconsider you will probably want to retract those remarks as they were vicious and unkind and certainly not worthy of a person of your stature. I suppose you were in a bad mood when you got my letter and being a moody person myself I can understand that as I often do things which I am sorry for on second thought.

Sincerely yours, Phyllis Raphael


Dear Miss Raphael,

Leave me alone.

Sincerely, Joyce Carol Oates


Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

Ordinarily I would not write to you again as I am not a fool and I can tell when my feelings are not reciprocated. However, I just wanted you to know that I am most definitely not mad. You were at his housewarming and therefore I did meet you and the whole incident of the pickled herring etc. is not a figment of my imagination. I can only conclude therefore that either you purposefully lied to me or else you live in some kind of a dream world and do not even know whether or not you attended a party. In either case I feel sorry for you.

Sincerely, Phyllis Raphael

P.S. In case you don't remember, Miss Oates, Leo Weinberg is your accountant so he ought to know.


Dear Miss Raphael,

You are right. I do live in a dream world. However, do not feel sorry for me. If there is one thing that can be said for living in a dream world it is that I never have to worry about writer's block, while you, living in reailty, have a terrible struggle on your hands.

Sincerely, Joyce Carol Oates

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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