how Joyce Carol Oates would launch a writing career today




A friend of mine was on a panel with Joyce Carol Oates. My friend is – as I am – a huge fan of JCO, so this was no small thing.

My friend was there to discuss ‘self-esteem’; Oates was there to discuss ‘self-promotion’.

(I forgot to ask the theme of the panel, but I guess it was self-centered.)

Someone in the audience asked the venerable Ms Oates what she would do today, if she had to launch a writing career all over again.

She said

(drum roll please)

“I would blog.”

She said

(I am paraphrasing)

“I would blog before I wrote a book. I would create a voice that connects, and I would build an audience online, and then I would write a book in that voice.”

Someone from the audience asked, So you would consider self-publishing?

“Yes! Of course!” In today’s publishing climate, she added, publishers won’t do anything to promote you “….until you’re…well…until you’re me.” However you’re published, the job is the same: finding and developing your audience. Breaking free from anonymity.

Someone from the audience asked, So you would abandon traditional publishing?

“No. Why not take advantage, when you can, of what they do best? But first, I would create a voice that connects with people. I would blog.”


Blogging is a form of marketing, yes. But the nature of marketing has changed. It is no longer about trumpeting a one-dimensional message to hordes of people who will then roll their eyes, ignore you and get on with their busy, busy lives.

It is about, as Marie Forleo – one of the most brilliant marketers I’ve ever come across – recently put it

Making an emotional connection with the people whom you’re meant to serve.

Entertainment is also about providing a well-crafted emotional experience for people.

And art seeks to move people on an emotional as well as intellectual level

— since the only way you can change people is to make them feel as well as think —

and I have yet to meet an artist who will say (with any conviction): Yes, when people engage with my stuff, I want them to feel absolutely nothing! I want to move them as little as possible! I want to leave their souls completely untouched!


It’s not that I think you should put the cart before the horse. But perhaps the cart has become a living part of the horse, like in some weird genetics experiment.

(See what happens when you mess with science.)

There’s a book called BAKED IN that talks about how, today, the best marketing is baked in to the product itself: the product is so relevant and compelling that it doesn’t need to manufacture ‘buzz’, it genuinely inspires conversation.

It creates an experience, it shifts your perspective in an unexpected way, it gives you what you didn’t know you wanted. And needed. It ‘gets’ you.

And it’s not born out of focus groups, elaborate theorizing, incremental improvements. It’s born out of observation, intuition, innovation, experimentation, practice. It has a spirit, a fearlessness, a sense of meaning, a story. It has balls (or ladyballs, as the case may be). It breaks with the past. It redefines the category.

There’s a movement within entrepreneurialism that refers to the lean startup (also the name of a book by Eric Ries). The basic gist is that you come up with an idea, make the most minimum, stripped-down version of that idea, do it quickly, and put it out there. You get feedback based on what people actually do with it (or don’t). You revise your product based on that feedback, do it quickly, and put it out there. You get feedback. You revise your product based on that feedback, do it quickly, and….You see where I’m going with this.

You iterate and reiterate and reiterate your MVP (minimum viable product) until you hit gold; you keep your expenses as lean as possible to make your resources last as long as possible so that you can reiterate as many times as you need. And it isn’t that you pander to the market so much as have this ongoing conversation with it: about what you have, and what you want to make and do, and where you and the market plug into each other. That’s when you find yourself electric.

Substitute ‘audience’ for ‘market’, and I think a blog is an artist’s lean startup – especially a writer’s lean startup. Like a startup, it requires an incredible investment of resources (time, energy, effort, blood, tears, guts, your firstborn child) with no guarantee of when or if you’ll turn a profit.

In this case it’s not a product but a voice* that you’re developing.

Your ‘voice’ isn’t just how you write but what you write about: the influences that you take from the world; the themes, obsessions, ideas that bend and shape your worldview. You keep going in the direction of what works. You revise or abandon what doesn’t. Each blog post is another piece of deliberate practice, another chance for feedback.

*Let me stress that I am talking about developing a voice. I am not talking about publicly creating a character or writing a novel online or posting excerpts of fiction or throwing up trunk stories, which possibly won’t translate well to blog form anyway.

You are not compromising your vision or selling out to an audience (which you might not even have yet). You are discovering your places of relevance. You are locating those points where you connect, and resonate, and inspire conversation.

You throw down roots. You take nourishment. You grow.

May 9, 2012

22 comments · Add Yours

This is SO right on the money. You can bypass all of the Big 6 until it’s needed. It’s about creating a tribe around your voice.

Great article, thanks.



Hey, this is good news, I’m on the right track then!


Hmmm. Is this the modern day writing worlds solution to making a place for unknown writers to get a toehold on publication?


Hi Justine! My first visit here. Great post, informative and inspirational – enjoyed reading it! For having met Marie Forleo in person – at a Kennedy or Ali Brown event – I can relate and agree re “brilliant marketer”. She seems much in harmony with what she thinks, what she says, and what she does – a most worthwhile ambition. ~Beat


Kicking up my heels at this. A little woo-hoo, a sigh of relief, a giggle of gratitude. Yay!


It is always good to have various opinions!

We live near Princeton & we see J.C.O. occasionally at plays & around town.

I once wrote a note to her when I was teaching school in Sicily at an American Military base there. I had discovered a paperback book of hers at
the Base library. I read it & loved it & wrote her a note about it. Sent the note c/o Princeton U. I never received an answer. Oh well!


So smart! I would agree, whether you are writing a book or starting a business, start blogging…developing your voice. Make sure people get to know you and what you stand for. I have been trying this on my new blog for a while now and its starting to take shape. Thanks for a great article!


Ms. Musk, I’m a Muskateer! Your writing is sublime and I’m a big fan of yours now. Thank you for these illuminating posts. The advice and inspiration you give is the best I have seen anywhere online. I love the fact that you are a feminist which is really icing on the cake! Thank you again and again. You are obviously the very best!


Thanks for the post and the insights. Related: at the BlogHer Publishing conference last fall, publicist Lauren Cerand pointed out the new “wild west” of publishing, while it doesn’t offer much structure or support from traditional publishing houses, does offer endless opportunities for self-marketing, which is it’s own kind of opportunity and freedom. I try to remember that when I’m out on the blogging plains.


Lauren Cerand is the bomb. Smart + interesting with a visionary streak.


First time reading your blog and now I’ll be following it. So appreciated this post today. I recently revised my entire blog that I’d been writing since 2004 so that I could reach a larger audience and refine what I really wanted to say. This post give me inspiring food for thought. Thank you.


Wonderful. It is so helpful to find such fresh advice from such a talented “old school” writer. The world/market/audience is changing so rapidly, and we must fight to not only keep up, but keep ahead.


With every well spaced paragraph I was saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Speaking of striking gold and finding electricity… you’ve done it with this one. This is the second time I fell down a blog hole and found myself here. I think I’m gonna have to add this link.

Thank you for this.


“lean startup” is a great analogy. I never thought of it like that but now I see that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since I started blogging. Thanks for a great post.


very interesting post! it feels like this is just what i’ve been doing. i took a break from fiction, because i felt i had to find my voice outside it before i could successfully create a world, and now i love blogging–and people are enjoying my voice.


This is soooo right on! I am giving a workshop this month on self-publishing. I’d love to print this out (with credit and links to your site of course) and share it with the students, with your permission of course.


Apparently this is not true regarding JCO. Maybe it was another writer who said it?


It’s a direct report from a friend.


Great piece! I kept a journal through my teen years and into my 20s (this was before the internet) and I give a lot of credit to that for helping me find my writing voice. Blogs are sort of the journal of the older generation (although not nearly as private.)


Very nice. Will be including this in my research paper on blogging


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