Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Ideas: Writing the Familiar

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 12:02 min

Your past and your family can be a rich trove of story material. Joyce walks you through examining childhood influences, interviewing family, and remembering physical places that have left a lasting impression on you.

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Topics include: Revisit Your Childhood Influences · Interview a Family Member · Protect Your Subjects · An Unsolved Mystery Is a Thorn in the Heart · Assignment: Imagine a Significant Place


[PEACEFUL PIANO MUSIC] - I think the motives for art are very general, and they have much to do with commemoration. Like, telling a story is a way of embodying some facts, some history. You want to tell the story of your ancestors. If you're an immigrant family-- so you came to North America, let's say in, you know, 1850-- there's a whole family story. So many writers want to write about that story, and they're commemorating their own ancestors and commemorating the generation. So I think that instinct is very strong. [DRAMATIC PIANO MUSIC] When I first read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass," I was only about eight or nine. They were the great gifts of my grandmother-- really, the great gifts of my whole childhood, as it seems in retrospect. I have my original copy at home. And it's all dog-eared. It's a nice book with illustrations, beautiful illustrations. And as soon as I open it, I've just memorized everything. I can remember all these passages, and I remember the little drawings on the top of the page and so forth. So it's one of the works of art that I've memorized because it's very deeply imprinted in my brain. Those classic children's books have really been deeply imprinted in my soul. And so I probably think of "Alice in Wonderland" every day of my life. And Lewis Carroll became a writer with whom I identified in different ways. He was very, very playful and very funny and subversive. And some of the humor is dark. It's a shockingly dark humor for children's books. And some of it's whimsical and childlike. So I like to think that I embody all those traits in my own writing that Lewis Carroll obviously had. There are many things we can take away from "Alice in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass." But one of the primary thoughts that I came away as a little girl, I think, is that a little girl-- Alice is about 10-- a little girl can have wild adventures in the world that are actually pretty nightmarish. And yet, the little girl doesn't panic. She doesn't run away screaming. She doesn't burst into tears. She sometimes is concerned, and she may be a little worried. But she doesn't become hysterical. So it's an example of a children's book in which a child who happens to be a girl-- and that was important-- a little girl sees all sorts of adults behaving very badly. I mean, they're calling for one of those heads to be cut off. They're doing really awful things. But the little girl comes away from it with some degree of maturity. And it sends a signal of control, that a child can have some control over her environment, and she doesn't have to panic. So I think because Alice is maybe a typical upper middle class British girl of the 19th century, those qualities maybe are very attractive, that one doesn't become hysterical. One always keeps control. And Alice is always thinking to herself in a very logical and rational way. So I think I inherited some of that for my own personal...

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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