In seventh grade, I was assigned to choose a favorite “famous old person.” As part of a cross-discipline project blending science, social studies, and art, we were to make apple-head dolls of the figures of our choosing and then give a small presentation on why we saw our chosen individuals as role models. While peeling apples in front of bowls of lemon juice, we brainstormed potential options with our classmates, considering how we would carve different facial features to make our dolls identifiable.
“I don’t really look up to any old people,” someone, of course, raised his hand to complain. “They’ve kind of used up all their potential.”
I had no such problem. One of my all-time top idols was a Famous Old Person. I inherited my interest in her from my father, as I have with plenty of my interests since then, but I felt a real connection to her, especially since I had met her, awestruck, while in elementary school. She was speaking at a college about an hour and a half away, and my dad brought me along to hear her. This was, at least as far as I remember, the very first reading I attended, a naturally formative moment for an aspiring writer. I sat in the pew next to one of my favorite people in the world, sweatily clutching my copy of Small Avalanches and alternating my gaze between my mesmerized father and the small, haunting figure of Joyce Carol Oates.
Small Avalanches came from a formerly awesome used bookstore down the street from my grandparents’ house in upstate New York. The place has since decayed into a sort of half toy store, but it used to have the best young adult section, and that was where I picked up the book, recognizing the author’s name from my dad’s shelves. My nana had set me loose in the bookstore, offering, as grandparents, the best old person role models, do, to buy me whatever books I wanted. When we got back to the house, I hid the book from my dad, not wanting him to see me copying him. He eventually spotted me reading the stories over and over or checking out Big Mouth & Ugly Girl and, probably worryingly, Sexy from the library. I now own what I like to believe are the exact copies of those books I borrowed in middle school, excitedly procured from book sales at that same library. When my dad saw Oates’ lecture advertised, he asked if I’d like to go along and took me to Dairy Queen afterward.
In line to have our books signed—proper reading etiquette, one book each, even though my dad has as close to a full collection as he could get—I started to worry the author would see the black Sharpie line on the bottom of my book and know I had bought it used. Now, I realize it would have been a moment of magic for any author to see our little performance. My dad gets hilariously star struck and freezes up when he meets his idols; he did the same with Lynda Barry, who was extremely gracious too. So here was a father, frozen, grinning, and his young daughter, holding a worn copy of one of the only few books marked suitable for the YA section.
In the most technical sense, that pivotal event was neither the first reading I attended nor my first experience with Joyce Carol Oates. One of my parents’ favorite family folklore stories documents the reading of hers that they attended together the month I was due, my mother enormously pregnant and hopeful some sort of inspiration would seep into the baby she had yet to meet.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, I insisted on having about a half-dozen books travel on my person instead of in the truck for safety. Small Avalanches naturally earned its place with me, alongside my professors’ titles signed as graduation presents, my mother’s high school copy of The Bell Jar, and my dad’s old edition of Lynch on Lynch. As did my parents’ second copy of The Assignation. Both copies are inscribed: one by my father to my mother while they were dating, the second by Joyce Carol Oates, “to Bob,” the one now in my possession.
I never stopped reaching toward earning my title as a writer, certainly not tracing the footsteps of one of the absolute mega-geniuses of our time, but tiptoeing through the outlines of the smaller-time footsteps of the rest of the writing world. As an undergrad studying English, I took an intensive May term short story course, during which I mostly ran my fingers over my wrists compulsively to feel a pulse and tried to wait until the lunch break to cry so I could do so privately in my car. It was in this course that I read “Tick” for the first time in a while. I had just come off my first serious relationship and was, therefore, feeling both very introspective and very wounded, so the story about “a shy cold girl very like [my]self” wound itself into my consciousness throughout that course and the following summer, like, say, a tick. I attached myself to all the emotions surrounding separation documented there and clung to the end of the story, when the unnamed protagonist “foresees a reconciliation,” as a promise that if I waited out the insanity following the conclusion of that tumultuous relationship, somehow my partner would return to me, if I could only get out of my “thoughts of despair, self-hatred” long enough to hear the phone ring. This was a pretty twisted and youthful interpretation, but I was pretty twisted and youthful at the time, trying to emerge from what had been an extremely traumatic relationship and come into my own as an individual in the world. Her work, one of my lifelong touchstones, approached me like an apparition and wrapped its bony arms around me.
Writing and living have changed, of course, since Joyce Carol Oates first wrote the stories that appear in The Assignation and Small Avalanches, and the author is now widely known for her Twitter account, through which the intensity of hertriting overflows into commentary mostly on social justice issues and the current writing world, though she also occasionally posts pictures of kittens. I may have been quick to label Joyce Carol Oates an Old Person in seventh grade—contrary to my classmate’s assertion, she continues to be a prolific and inspiring writer years later. She also, it goes without saying, looks much better than my apple-head doll predicted. I attended a panel hosted by her former students from Princeton at the 2015 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference and sat in a crowd of people who also saw her as a goddess in the writing world, people who, like me, circled the panel on their program the second they saw it and listened intently to the character testimonies of those on the panel, spoken with the same sense of awe I shared with my dad at that first reading.