What Can We Steal From Joyce Carol Oates’s “ID”?

Title of Work and its Form: “ID,” short story
Author: Joyce Carol Oates (on Twitter @JoyceCarolOates)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story made its debut in the March 29, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.  The kind folks at that publication have been kind enough to offer the story online for your enjoyment.  “ID” was subsequently chosen for Best American 2011 and can be found in that anthology.

Bonuses:  Here is what blogger Karen Carlson thought of the story.  Here is a cool review and discussion of the story over at Perpetual FollyHere is a Wall Street Journal article about Ms. Oates and the touching way in which she dealt with losing her husband, one of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective

Discussion:
You, kind reader, are witness to one of the worst days of Lisette Mulvey’s life.  Thirteen-year-old Lisette had half of a beer before school; these things are easier when you have an absentee father and your mother often takes off for long stretches.  The story chronicles a few hours in Lisette’s bad day, but Ms. Oates intertwines flashbacks and exposition with the dramatic present.  We learn about Lisette’s crush on a boy and her mother’s poor behavior.  Lysette’s mother works in the casinos of Atlantic City and seems to fit in with the seedier part of the AC culture.  The officers (one male and one female) show Lisette a body in the morgue; the young woman doesn’t ID the body as her mother.  The female officer tells her it’s all right; there are other ways to identify the woman who was found in a drainage ditch.  The officers bring her to school, where Lisette tries to fall back into the comfort of her friends.

Ms. Oates is indisputably one of our American literary lionesses and has been at the top of her game for quite some time, with no end in sight.  What is one of the million things that I love about her writing, and this story in particular?  Ms. Oates produces work that is both of its time and timeless at the same time.  In a way, she is like Alfred Hitchcock.  No matter that Hitch was working with people from a different generation; he always produced films that felt immediate and spoke to anyone who saw them.  Ms. Oates is the same way.  You can tell that Ms. Oates has boundless curiosity because she knows how it feels to go to high school in 2010.  She understands how a thirteen-year-old girl in 2010 feels about herself and her friends.  As I get older and slightly wiser, I realize that I’m losing a little bit of this kind of knowledge.  I haven’t gone trick-or-treating in more than twenty years.  Could I really remember what it feels like?  How to say this…romance has been a stranger for a while.  Could I really depict young love with any fidelity?  Ms. Oates would have no problem with these situations and emotions because of her deep understanding of humanity.

We’ve all heard that we should “write what we know.”  Yes, that is good advice, but if we followed that advice with too much dedication, we would have no science fiction or horror or stories in which the nerdy guy gets the cheerleader.  Ms. Oates points out in her author’s note that “ID” was inspired by the untimely death of her husband.  A funeral director asked Ms. Oates to identify her husband’s body—she didn’t want to see it again.  To my knowledge, Ms. Oates does not have first-hand experience of being a thirteen-year-old young woman tasked with identifying her dead mother.  She does, however, KNOW what it is like to face the stark reality that the person you love is dead and to see their body in the morgue.  We’re all human, right?  It is more important to understand the emotional experiences that you are chronicling than to have first-hand experience on the topic.  (Especially if you’re writing fiction, of course.)

When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of “high school” stories; I believe that’s perfectly natural.  I certainly see a lot of “dorm stories” when my students turn in their work.  (This tendency is perfectly natural, too.)   We must remember that we have the license to write about anything we like.  What fun would it be if we only write about people who are just like us who live lives just like ours?  Boring!

Ms. Oates had a bit of a challenge in the story because she needed to get a lot of exposition into a story that is pretty much in real-time.  As I pointed out, the exposition is woven in with the material that is in the dramatic present.  Why aren’t these sections a bit of a roadblock?  Why don’t they cause the reader’s attention to flag?  Ms. Oates builds a ton of suspense into the story.

  • Why do “they” want to see Lisette’s ID?
  • “Some older guys had got her high on beer, for a joke.”  Will Lisette’s drunkenness get her in trouble or complicate things?
  • How will J.C. respond to the note that Lisette sent him?  Will he break her heart?
  • Mom doesn’t seem to be a very upstanding citizen.  Complications?
  • Uh oh.  Two police officers want to see Lisette.
  • Will the body turn out to be that of Lisette’s mother?

One reason the story is so very compelling is that the emotional and narrative foundation of the story is sprinkled in with grace and in such a way that Ms. Oates creates mysteries to which we want the answers!  These “roadblocks” speed the reader along instead of holding them back.

What Should We Steal?

  • Devote yourself to observing and trying to understand humanity.  One of a writer’s primary duties is to reproduce the human experience on the page with as much fidelity as possible.
  • Write what you know…within limits.  If we followed this advice to the letter, we wouldn’t have any science fiction.
  • Introduce “mysteries” into your work to make exposition all the more compelling.  Your stories should introduce meaningful dilemmas anyway; use them to make your exposition even more of a treat to the reader.

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