Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life by Joyce Carol Oates
Published by Ecco Press
Published 20 September 2016
320 pages

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I read this for 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge. The category is ‘a book with career advice’.  


A new collection of critical and personal essays on writing, obsession, and inspiration from National Book Award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Joyce Carol Oates.

“Why do we write?”

With this question, Joyce Carol Oates begins an imaginative exploration of the writing life, and all its attendant anxieties, joys, and futilities, in this new collection of seminal essays and criticism. Leading her quest is a desire to understand the source of the writer’s inspiration—do subjects haunt those that might bring them back to life until the writer submits? Or does something “happen” to us, a sudden ignition of a burning flame? Can the appearance of a muse-like other bring about a writer’s best work?

In Soul at the White Heat, Oates deploys her keenest critical faculties, conjuring contemporary and past voices whose work she deftly and creatively dissects for clues to these elusive questions. Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith and many others appear as predecessors and peers—material through which Oates sifts in acting as literary detective, philosopher, and student. The book is at its most thrilling when watching the writer herself at work, and Oates provides rare insight into her own process, in candid, self-aware dispatches from the author’s own writing room. The New York Times Book Review has raved, “Who better than Joyce Carol Oates . . . to explicate the craft of writing?” Longtime admirers of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels as well as her prose will discover much to be inspired by and obsess upon themselves in this inventive collection from an American master.


This is not a traditional lecture so much as the quest for a lecture in the singular – a quest constructed around a series of questions.


I thought Soul at the White Heat was great. This is the third Joyce Carol Oates book of non-fiction I’ve read and I loved it as much as the other two. I definitely need to read more of her non-fiction. As a writer myself, I loved Soul at the White Heat. As I reader, I love knowing where writer’s get their ideas and inspiration from. As a writer, I love seeing echoes of my own methods. I enjoyed every section in this book. I enjoyed the essays about classical writers and especially enjoyed the essays about contemporary writers, some I’ve heard of and read and some I haven’t. Oates is one of my favourite writers and Soul at the White Heat had made me a rabid ‘fan’ of her non-fiction as well. I’d highly recommend this collection of essays.




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