Arts & Entertainment, Writing

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.

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

Topics include: Face the Darkest Elements · Write Taboo Subjects Elliptically · Your Darkness Has an Audience


[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...

About the Instructor

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.

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Joyce Carol Oates

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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