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

Fantastic! Inspirational. Motivating. I want more!

Absolutely loved this course. Such a fabulous and inspirational teacher.

She offered an interesting POV for looking at my own works in progress.


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!

A fellow student

It’s been forever since I’ve written and I miss it but don’t know how to start!


the stories that contain mysteries within the familiar or adapt familiar things in unconventional ways are the ones i'll be more forgiving with. harry potter is forgiven plot holes and twitter retcons for themes of invisibility, feeling powerless as a child, wanting to be recognized for your merits rather than your connections or titles or fame/infamy. morrowind, with its alien landscapes and encyclopedic lore -- its questioning whether one is destined to be great or one becomes great to fulfill a role/destiny available to anyone & everyone -- is forgiven its janky mechanics and game-breaking bugs.

Maureen S.

I have followed most of the Masterclasses in writing available, and although I’ve learned something from each author, Miss Oates’ class has so far been one of the most inspiring. Her calm demeanor, the way she explains concepts and even just the sound of her voice make me want to write all the time. I’ve been intrigued by my mother’s life story for many years, but hearing this lesson helped me realise I want to write about it.

Tauna S.

I am so thankful that I liked nothing better than to sit and listen to my aunts and ask questions seldom. They all told me secrets that they never told their children. Things they needed to speak to the universe, and probably didn't think I would remember. L did and I remembered. I tried telling some of their children, these wonderful things about their mothers that they never knew. But, they really didn't want to know, or couldn't believe that I would be told things that they had not been told. They couldn't understand that it was because they never stopped to listen. But, bits and pieces do seep into my writing, and I know that these are things others have lived, but never had an ear to listen, or a safe place to speak their truths, without judgement. Just received with wonder.