Joy Williams on Why She Writes

Joy Williams. Photo by Nick Doll.

A better beginning to the last day of a writing conference can scarcely be imagined: a reading from the fearless, peerless Joy Williams. Joy is, for so many writers, a titan, a legend—a writer we feel we are writing in the great shadow of, and whose work proves instructive and essential to our practice and our lives. She took to the stage Sunday morning, donning her signature dark sunglasses, and read first from 99 Stories of God, once an e-book put out by Byliner but soon to be brought into print by Tin House.

The stories are very short—some just a few lines, hardly any longer than a page—and, like all of Joy’s fiction, they are expert portraitures, providing brief but nuanced peeks into lives and moments marked by longing, need, surreality, and existential confusion. In a story titled “And You Are…,” a bride and groom ask an uninvited man to leave their wedding. Just a few sentences later we learn, “the divorce cost seventeen times what the wedding had, and the children didn’t turn out all that well either.” In “Fathers and Sons,” The Lord communes in a den with a pack of wolves, wondering why the world is out to exterminate the glorious creatures. And in “Whale,” an elderly couple reminisces about a game they haven’t played in years, a game of seeing who could make the other cry in the fewest words possible. The story’s title comes from a remembered line once played in the game: “The last whale swam deeper.”

After these stories, many of which elicited pronounced laughter from the crowd, Joy switched gears and ended by reading her powerhouse manifesto “Why I Write,” collected in her book of essays Ill Nature. One would be hard-pressed to find a more insightful, more nourishing essay on writing; its deep wisdom and honesty make it a piece of required reading for anyone endeavoring to write. I first heard Joy read it years ago at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and have read it countless times since. It’s full of shrewd instruction and observation—“Of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well,” “Good writing never soothes or comforts,” “The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned,”—and I spotted many an audience member jotting these lines down in their notebooks as Joy read. So captivating is her presence, her prescience, that for the entirety of the reading the room truly felt suspended in space and time, all of us in the palm of Joy’s generous hand.

“Why does the writer write?” Williams asks at the essay’s end. “The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”  

I was most assuredly not the only one in the audience left a little teary-eyed as we applauded Joy Williams, in gratitude for the reminder.

Vincent Scarpa is the recipient of the 2016 KWLS Cecelia Joyce Johnson Emerging Writer Award for Fiction. He is a third-year master’s candidate in fiction at the Michener Center for Writers. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingStoryQuarterly, Indiana Review, Brevity, and other journals. He is a previous recipient of the Norman Mailer College Fiction award. He tweets at @vincentscarpa.

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