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.

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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[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...

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 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.

Lots of practical ways to get started and keep going. She shares her joy of writing and learning about yourself through the creative process.

Some of the best and most practical information on writing I've ever received.

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!


Jeanned'Arc L.

6 I grew up on a dairy farm. My paternal grand parents lived next door and memere (grandmother),would cook, bake and preserve anything, in my mother’s kitchen, because it was spacious. The end of October brought farmers over to our house, for a few days of harvest. That included meat harvesting and nothing was wasted. I was nine years old that time I got off the school bus and burst into the kitchen anticipating my chores. But to my chagrins, the smell hit my nose as my eyes acknowledged the realities of the process at hand. Memere was making the famous headcheese, my favorite for sandwiches. The two large cauldrons boiled on the stovetop and she was busy carving hog heads. Something snapped within, and I froze with shock and confusion. Although I appreciate the work necessary in saving and making use of what we harvested for our own survival, I could not take my place in the assembly line of that kitchen table that day. I now help with the tradition, if I have too, and I still enjoy the treat of a headcheese sandwich with my father anytime.

Jeanned'Arc L.

5 The kitchen in the old farmhouse was where amazing things happened. It was a warm room. It always smelled of good food. It was usually occupied by children busy, with crayons or snacks, adults, conversation and laughter. My grandmother stood at the stove stirring something or pulling bread or cake from the oven. The room was longer than wide and a green table sported a vinyl country- print cloth, stretched the length of if. Green-door cupboards lined the right hand side giving way to a double sink and the wood-burning cook stove. A green bench on the left side permitted five children to sit for a meal. There was a green highchair and a green stool for the younger children to sit next to a parent who had fancy chairs. A window covered by horizontal large slated venetian blinds faced one end of the room and the entrance door was at the other.

Jeanned'Arc L.

4 “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart.” I was aware of the distance between my mother and I, since I was eight years old, but I never guest the reason for it, until a family reunion, six years ago. I was introduced to a woman who told me the story of my mother’s postpartum depression. Back in 1953, Jeanne Brisebois, was a private nurse who came to our home and cared for my two siblings and me, while my mother recovered.

Jeanned'Arc L.

3 #1) A black stick sits dry on a rock, in the creek bed. At first I thought it was a rat snake sunning itself. As I got closer, and it did not move, I realized what it was and went over to investigate. The darkened root of a tree laid between two rocks, turned black with time, under mineralized waters of the spring flood. 10) Rob laughed out loud as he worked to pull up the darkened root caught between two stones in the, now dry Creek bed. “Okay. I’ll admit it. It did look like a rat- snake.” As he tossed it further down the stream. Janet had run screaming from her choice spot. “You sure?” She doubted. “Yes. These waters are full of minerals and the spring run-off is high and fast in these parts. Look down the creek at the color of the rocks.” He waved his hand in display. They sat up among the trees, in the green grass and enjoyed their picnic. I saw progression by the time I wrote the tenth paragraph. I used the same key words like: blackened, rat snake, root, investigate, and spring-run off. I also used dialogue to describe the scene.

Jeanned'Arc L.

2 The interview with my mother gave me plenty for a story. The surprise was my mother’s nonchalance, about her deceased sister, in that she had dismissed the tragedy. Her resilience to at least one significant episode of depression fascinated me. I interviewed her, when I was in my early sixties. I was stunned, by her revelation of a sister, which was never mentioned before. Mother never shared private thought about her past with her children. The odd thing was that this sister, my aunt, bared my name. When I asked if I was named after her, she replied, “No. Your father gave you that name because he thought it was appropriate. I wasn’t there.” She said that, standing to straighten her skirt, subject closed. I pursued, “Why didn’t you tell us about this sister?” Her answer came back blunt, on a shoulder shrug of dismissal. “ I never knew her. She was older and died when I was young.” This revelation was as stunning to me, as having recently and by chance, discovered the reason why the mother/daughter bond, between the two of us, was so frail and thin. It was, six years earlier, at a family reunion, that a woman, with a similar name as mine, introduced herself to me. She told me then, that in February of 1953, she was assigned to the care of two toddlers and an infant, while the mother recuperated from a severe depression. She had never expected to meet me and for me, the surprise was a powerful gift of healing.

Jeanned'Arc L.

1 Parents reading to young children an unheard of or at least, not a common practice, while I was young. Stories came from the reading at church. Those stories were meant to teach ways, to be a better person. It seemed that if you were happy, then you needed to place pebbles in your shoe, for God to know you were willing to suffer for someone less fortunate. Or, sometime in Elementary school, the grade-one teacher read to the class, during rainy days recess. My memories of Fables were mostly, from the time I read to my own daughters. I love magic, dragons, castles and happy endings. The idea of having something, not ordinary love me enchanted me. It satisfied my need to nurture. Where I grew up, if you were caught reading a book for pleasure, meant you had time to help with a chore. I was thirty-six years old, when I made time to read for my own pleasure. These three authors inspired me to read more. Ann McCaffrey; Dragons of Pern, David Eddings; Belgariad, Virginia Wolf. Those were my first series. Now I endeavor to create whimsical stories of my own.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Writing the Familiar was a powerful acknowledgment of secrets from the past that need exploring. I was surprised by how easily the unpeeling of subconscious stored events, rose for exposure.

Richard C.

The revival of childhood memories seems to be at the core of this course... as a gateway to creativity, and to making sense of the world in a way that adults, with their seeming logicality, are often unable to.

A fellow student

A very good, specific and open explanation about how to draw inspiration from ones own life experiences. Kind of private and sensitive stuff, but they can create so much emotion and imagination

Lisa D.

I love your teaching style; thought provoking, unhurried, and valuable knowledge of the process. Thank you!