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Arts & Entertainment

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.

Joyce is a phenomenal teacher! Very laid back, specific, and passionate. I believe she could inspire anyone to write...

I learned that to give time to writing, you need to take time for writing. I learned that the creative process requires introspection and patience. I learned that telling stories is a communal act, even if conceiving them is deeply private.

It was a delight being with JCO listening and think about what she said.

JCO gave wonderful tips and made me reflect on writing techniques I was not acquainted with.


Challa F.

I have written a short story that is about the taboo of a father's abuse of his daughter after the death of his wife who was an alcoholic. It wans't anything that I experienced and so it is "ecliptic" but I remember feeling a little afraid to let anyone read it. It is a little dark thought it has a supposed happy ending. When I finally let a group of people read it they were speechless and really enjoyed it because they had personal experiences of such a father or knowing such a father. I was very surprised by their response.

J.C. S.

At seven years of age I wrote my first autobiography. At the time, I could only come up with fifty-four pages and for thirty-seven of those I rarely, if ever, mentioned myself. I talked mostly about my family, like how my dad still used a blowdryer even though he had gone bald. His UPENN friends decided he was mercurial and obtuse. My mother just thought he was an idiot. She left him when I was five. A year later she lost both her legs below the knees in a bizarre speed-reading accident. She was reading at nearly 2,500 words per minute when she hit a bookmark. It was brutal. When I saw her that next summer she had wooden legs but the doctors managed to save her real feet. When I visited her on weekends she would lay in the backyard sunning herself while having me sharpen the blades on the electric lawnmower. I was six at the time. One day a neighbor she had been bickering with began throwing lit matches at her out his kitchen window. When that didn't rile her, he threw a live beaver over the fence but instead of going after her legs, it made a beeline for her pool and drowned. This was my first true memory of irony and it comes up often in psychoanalysis, which I started at age seven when my father was sent to prison for scalping low numbers at the Italian bakery on our block at Christmas. My dad did hard time but the owner of the bakery was so thankful for the business my dad had helped him build, he kept him well supplied while behind bars with biscuits.

Rose M.

Yes, in total agreement about writing about darkness encountered in your life. It was a short self help book and I was glad I did this. I wrote about Pedophilia and it became an International Best Seller in 2017!

A fellow student

The Black Mamba No, routine doesn't kill me. The story that led me to her without permission does. My self says to her at four yeras old, what are you doing there, run away. The sixty four year old woman sat at nap time at the kitchen door, in the soft afternoon sun and told her sad story without stopping, we all had to pity her, donate the chocolates and candies, because in spite of being my grandmother, she needed more attention than me, poor grandmother. -The Turks killed everyone in my house, they dragged my mother, my sister and me out. I was the youngest, I was eight or nine years old. They took us to walk in the desert until we couldn't stand it any more, there were only three of us left, our feet were bleeding but we kept going, that was the reason why they had killed others, we kept going without stopping, without tears, the desert dried up the tears, that's why now I cry every afternoon because my mother told me I couldn't cry. – My grandmother told me the story every day, as if to remind me why I should hate the Turks, fear the killer beasts, and give all the goodies to her, because she was the poor thing, she needed all the attention. Without telling her anything she would drag me to her two friends' house, and I, the girl who had to be good and respectful, would sit on the side and listen to them talk badly about my mother, the neighbors, my father, and all the sacrifices she had to make like taking care of me and carrying me. And I ask the girl, "What were you doing there? Why didn't anyone ask you? Why didn't anyone rescue you? In one of the houses where I was forced to go trying not to hear what was said, I imagined in some Spanish tiles how a dwarf was hiding among the figures, and could disappear. That wanted to disappear, not exist. The routine continued with accompanying her home to take her nap, because she was the Queen, and my mother was the ugly maid who had married the defective son. You couldn't go to sleep without someone being by your side, it was time to put me to sleep by telling me how she and her sister stopped at a tree in the middle of the desert hugging all night and finally fell asleep and when she woke up her mother had died. And there she would fall asleep, while I would stay there looking at her, I couldn't even close my eyes, I was afraid of waking up next to a dead man. What was she doing there? What was she doing? Arriving at night was a torture, because I knew I was going to go to sleep in her bed, and there she would remind me how much I looked like her crazy sister-in-law. She didn't speak much, she was an obedient and lonely child, sad and abandoned, desperately waiting to escape from her parents, her paternal grandmother, who was tormenting her days and nights little by little. She squirmed like a reptile, like a boa constrictor she began her day of torture in words, and when night came she would tell her last story of terror that left me sleepless nailing her fangs like a black mamba. Translated with (free version)

Steve W.

There's a skeleton or two in every closet. This could make for some interesting characters.

Kaylah + A.

Funny how sometimes I just need someone to give me permission - permission to use things from my life, all my family's pain, which is also my pain. These personal things, that I thought were too mundane or ugly. She's right - my personal darkness and all the things I think are taboo about my own life, are the things that I feel the most passionate about. And that is such a great place to start writing from.

A fellow student

Exploring Taboo and Darkness: 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. FACE THE DARKEST ELEMENTS: Write about what haunts you. Look to the past, to history, perhaps even to your own family and ancestry to fnd the stories that haven’t—or maybe couldn’t—be told. —the stories, images, and facts of life that trouble you on a deep level—is frightening. But there is a profound power in facing these fears. WRITE TABOO SUBJECTS ELLIPTICALLY YOUR DARKNESS HAS AN AUDIENCE: create an outlet for both yourself and others. fantastic tips.thanks

Cynthia E.

I liked this lesson on darkness and taboos. I believe the really strong authors write from within themselves, exploring taboo subjects others might be prone to censor. I can think of points in my life I might like to explore in writing but am deeply afraid to, since the people I know would recognize themselves and despise me. I wonder how well known authors handle this. The points in my life I find the strongest, potentially the most interesting, are exactly the bits I am most prone to censor out of fear. I can't imagine trying to publish them.

Tolga C.

Jodie Foster said something interesting in an interview, when she was young: that for her Robert De Niro would be the best actor in the world, because he is able to show his vulnerability. I suspect that you should allow yourself to be afraid when you want to write horror and to be vulnerable when you want to produce good stories. Perhaps that´s why Virginia Woolf thought in her "Moments of being", that there are many important things going on in this world, but she has the feeling, writing is the most important thing in the world for herself. #thinkingLoudly Looking forward to the tasks in this lesson. PS: Lesson 05 was quite nice (accidentaly I first made 05 before 04), but I struggled with the "Henry Cowell"- or "Heat"-style - I guess it´s easier to have a story and a character in advance (like in the first lessons) and to use this structure afterwards; I tried it sponanously and it worked not that good for me. But luckely there are many other structures to explore...

A fellow student

I am finding her Master Class very inspiring and helpful. I have always wanted to write my grandmother's story of coming to the United States as a young teenager. It's such a powerful tale. I might just try my hand at it.