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.

She was very interesting to listen and learn from. Her insight into the act and art of writing has proven to be helpful to me.

I have learned that my writing is a lot better and worse than I thought. That seems confusing but I am feel less confused. Thank you, Joyce.

I found this course inspirational. The assignments gave me lots of ideas and I think encouraging short pieces as a starting point - a monologue, a super short narrative will help me start writing vs just thinking about writing.

I love Joyce Carol Oates and just hearing her give a tiny bit of advice is worth volumes. Thank you.


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.

Sharice H.

I really appreciate this section of the class Joyce, especially as a non-fiction author working on a book geared specifically at helping countless millions of hearts devastated by Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) heal. Masterclass seems to predominantly educate and inspire fiction authors, so when I saw this chapter as a non-fiction author, my heart breathed a sigh of relief. Like, finally, some helpful grains of wisdom I can feed my soul with on this often lonely journey. Sigh. I am grateful to have at least one teacher who actually addresses this issue from a serious standpoint even if its hidden in fiction because it is a horrendous reality within our world. If you would are reading this Masterclass, I sincerely appreciate these classes beyond words, however, please consider how it would be very helpful to include on the Masterclass stage, prominent non-fiction authors along with Nobel Peace Prize winners (If I'm not missing one already) and people out there who are working to help heal our world in a myriad of ways because many of us out here are continously craving realized inspirations which have improved the quality of life for humanity as a whole.


Where to start...I suppose use Neil Gaiman's suggestion about writing all you know (maybe just about your life journey up to this time), that should be at least a massive memoir right there...


Love the lesson on taboos, Joyce. I had never considered that the Picture of Dorian Grey was a veiled story about "non-heteronormative" love and desires. I read the graphic novel version at about 10 yrs of age, which I found in a stack of early 1940s comic books at my Uncle's house), and then later I read the whole book from the library; but I never guessed there was a separate message which was not about mortality and the carelessly led life. But then I never had to deal with non-normative sexuality in an unforgiving society. We all withhold so much about ourselves from other people, and we even withhold it from ourselves, and these are the very things which will help us (and others) learn and grow.

Isaac A.

When one loses the fear to explore inner and outer darkness, and expose what needs to be exposed in order for broader conversation to happen, that is the deliciously unforgettable moment of reaching maturity. I have been putting that into practice lately... Best lesson by far.

Jan B.

I always enjoy Joyce and her calming presentation. I have listened to four of her classes now.


looking forward to this class. I have stores to tell that could resonate with others who had no voice, as I had no voice. I need discipline though and knowledge about the process. I love to tell stories but I need to learn to write them down.

Jan B.

I listen attentively through the entire lesson, always find Joyce extremely interesting, in a calm way. I glean so much from her lessons that I am able to apply in the book I am currently writing.

Bart M.

Are all taboo topics okay? Things like drug abuse, HIV, being a wage-slave, etc.? And how do you write it in a way that is uplifting instead of coming from anger of the unfair political system?

Daniella S.

Joyce is such an eloquent, graceful author and person that she has me mesmerized and I am binging on her content. I have even done the assignments, thirsty for more. She rings true in her words and in her experience. Could I finally be given the confidence in handling the tools to tell a story!?