Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 11:55 min

Joyce discusses how delving into the darker elements of your personality and past can provide compelling, heartfelt fodder for fiction—as well as a means to finding a unique audience.

Joyce Carol Oates
Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates teaches you how to write short stories by developing your voice and exploring classic works of fiction.
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[DRAMATIC MUSIC] - Another very strong motive throughout history is bearing witness, particularly for people who can't speak for themselves. Writing about people, telling the stories of people who have been muted, or silenced, or even-- even exterminated, and being the one to tell their stories in some of historic form, or as journalism, or as fiction, or poetry, I think that's a very strong-- very strong impulse. When I began writing, the field of what women would write about was really kind of narrow. And when I first published my novels-- which have a kind of sociological or political agenda-- I was told by some reviewers, quote "I should leave the novel social unrest to Norman Mailer." Actually, that was a review, that I should leave-- the big novel I should leave to people like Norman Mailer, which I thought was very funny. And I thought, well, Norman Mailer has his own novels which he's doing, which are very different from what I'm doing. Women were expected to write more about household, and domestic issues, and family life, which many women do very beautifully. But I wasn't-- I wasn't really interested in a domestic novel. But I'd never really let that bother me. [DRAMATIC MUSIC] Always look into the background of one's family. If you go far enough back to immigrant ancestors, you'll probably find something happened-- something going on that was pretty violent. Because lots of things happen in the 19th century. Today, things are a little more reported on. You can't get away with murder today. In those days, you could give a baby away. Nobody cared. There were no-- you don't have to adopt. I mean, nobody was-- Social Services didn't exist. There were no social workers. Lots of things went on that are not talked about. For instance, I've written a lot about domestic abuse and wife battering. And what we call "wife battering" didn't exist. Domestic violence didn't exist. Date rape didn't exist. None of those terms that are common today, they didn't exist because if you were raped by somebody whom you knew, that wasn't considered rape. It was probably consensual. There was no way you could get a police officer to pay any slightest attention to anything like that. Girls were made pregnant who were very young. It's just considered that they were consensual or nobody cared. I mean, basically, if you were 12, 13 years old and you were raped, you might get married. You'd have to marry your rapist. Nobody cared. There would be no-- nobody would make any arrest. Then within a family, if a father got drunk and beat his whole family, the police didn't care. Police would not come out at all. It sounds a little fantastic today. But the police would not cross this threshold. They considered domestic violence didn't exist. A father could beat his children, sometimes pretty badly. And it would be very rare for the police to do anything. Now we lived next door when I was a girl to a family that was terrorized by their own fat...

Find your voice in fiction

The author of some of the most enduring fiction of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has published 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. Now the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor teaches you how to tap into your storytelling instincts. Find ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft, one sentence at a time.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I enjoyed learning from her. The workshops were excellent examples of dissecting short stories. she provided practical, useful lessons and exercises.

Joyce Carol Oates is wonderful. I really enjoyed this class and it's fun to know there's another Alice in Wonderland super fan out there. I've created two short stories since finishing this class. Thank you Joyce Carol Oates!

How does one reconnect with endeavoring to write with artistry after graduating from teaching college? This is how!

I love Joyce Carol Oates' style of teaching. I'm completely enthralled listening to her.


A fellow student

I can't wait to start my taboo story. I never knew that Joyce Carol Oates wrote about taboo subjects, she's very refreshing to listen to.

Maryn R.

I wrote poetry every day since I was a child. That was my journal. I am starting a journal tonight. I cannot find VW journal on here. Help?


This class just keeps getting better and better (I'm through the first 4 lessons). Joyce Carol Oates is so accessible and real as well as instructive and interesting.

A fellow student

A great lesson that can become a form of healing if you will. Very interesting

A fellow student

Excellent lesson that has moved me to think about writing about some of the darkness that has occurred in my life.


A very powerful thought, this idea that, as Joyce says, your darkness has an audience. Come to think of it, most good literature in some way points to that darkness that may both scare us and fascinate us simultaneously.

Alexandria P.

I have an MFA in Creative Writing and have studied with many "luminaries" in the field--Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, Howard Nemerov, William Gass, Galway Kinnell and James Wright, among many others---and am astounded at Ms. Oates' ease, humor and simple directions on how to write. Nowhere else have I heard such empowering directions. I haven't picked up my writing in many, many years after being published and feeling like a hack who could give people what they wanted to read but not what fulfilled my own soul. Hearing Ms. Oates has ignited that old gnawing hungry wonder I had as a child and am heading straight back to writing for myself and not others. Thank you for your inspiration . I wish I had known you many decades ago!!!

Cheryl O.

Thought this was very helpful, wasn't sure at first, but by the end I realized this would be a good source for material I have not tapped into.

Carolyn M.

By chance, I happened to read one of Ms. Oates’ short story anthologies – the title was probably intriguing – this was years ago. It was as if a new planet had been exposed, a new species of bird discovered. This was how I wanted, no, needed to express myself, but never thought I could. I was, and always had been an avid reader, devouring classics like “White Fang,” and “The Good Earth.” Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and “My Cousin Rachel,” were darker. But even after taking in “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and “The Edict,” I still suffered from a sort of ‘story hunger.’ After reading that anthology I had to read everything Ms. Oates had written. And then I began to write – intensely, from the heart. It was strange, really, how memories bubbled up from a stagnant ooze in my belly, and I was able to release them. That little girl who dealt silently with her pain could come out of hiding, now. Mother had died. No. Mother was dead. I had stood at the foot of her hospital bed and touched the metal railing, watching to see if her chest would rise with one more breath. Daddy sat crying, his head in his hands. Mother lay still at last.

Rixanne (Rikki) H.

Joyce is so easy to listen to, she eplains processes with great precision it makes you feel you can do anything