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Arts & Entertainment

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.

Besotted. She is the Mother Teresa of the Story Tellers.

She's a superstar! So happy to hear advice straight from her mouth.

Amazing! Loved Joyce Carol, she is a great teatcher!

I got some *really* good tips from her! AND a completely new perspective!


Fabio B.

Hello, everyone. I've decided to accept the challenge. Here's my version of the "An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart". Feedback is appreciated. Just keep in mind English is my second language. :)

Fleur B.

I valued the idea of protecting ones sources that was shared in this lesson. I haven't always been so careful in this respect, and I regret it now. So I am grateful to hear this spelled out so eloquently and persuasively by Ms Oates. I am thinking it would be a good idea to interview some close family members and friends coming out of this, and also bounce of the prompt - an unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart. I found this another inspiring lesson!

Louis D.

I absolutely love this lesson and every other one I've watched so far. I feel inspired and liberated by Joyce's unassuming poise and her lucid mind. Her clarity is exciting without trying to be. Her mind seems to have sidestepped the social conditioning that kills originality. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates.

Tolga C.

I liked that lesson and I think it´s a nice inspiration to start a story or to get to know ones why. But I don´t think I have to solve the mysteries of my family for now. :-D Well I left the interview of an family member beside, because I am a videographer and that´s why I talk with everybody like it´s an interview situation already (it´s difficult for me not to go deep, so it´s the other way round).

A fellow student

Direct link to the Heat story from the Lesson Plan (So good!):


Aside from the lesson itself, I was struck by Joyce's story of her mother's childhood. I, too, was adopted by an aunt and uncle at 9 months of age because my mother was too poor to keep me. The only difference was that there were four of us siblings, not eight. And I, too, still cry. Thanks so much for sharing such personal reflections and examples, Joyce. I am thrilled to be in your class and am enjoying it immensely.


Please accept my sincere apology for misspelling the family name of Oates in my last post. Very plebeian of me, and I am embarrassed. I have an almost sacred love of wheat and oats, so perhaps I can be excused. I won't forget the e again!


I learn and become inspired each time I listen to Ms. Oats. Who knew that someone could speak for 10 or 15 minutes and manage to say so much? Joyce, I loved that you gave us a first sentence to begin a story. I had to laugh during your other lesson when you pointed out the many creative phrases and read them aloud, and then said "See? This one has not been published yet, so anyone could use it!". How very generous and correct you are. Below is the beginning of a story I wrote with your free sentence as the first one: An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart. Leatherby closed the book and set it on the glass table and looked out to sea, wondering how many thorns were already in his heart. Might the answer be beyond the horizon of the Pacific, or, rather, beyond his own vision? The fog matched his mood quite well that morning - so vague and unstirring. Perhaps the poet Yeats had it right when he wrote ‘too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart’ Maybe Yeats wrote it just for me, thought Leatherby. And so he murmured it aloud because it sounded so cool, and he wanted to pretend that Yeats was across from him right then, offering a conservative warning. Sonia came through the glass door onto the deck wearing not thorns, but oddly enough, a long Japanese-type Kimono jacket hanging over the rest of her floppy clothes, a jacket which had on it a print of bees of sorts, or maybe they were flying yellow-jackets with long stingers. Where the heck did she get that? He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why she didn’t just wear tight clothing with a figure like that, all slimline curvy with not one ounce of fat where it didn’t belong. If he were her, he would wear tight clothing every day. “Ready?” she asked. Yep, he had been ready since 6am when the loud clanging and whirring woke him after the initial bump of the side of the ship sliding into port. This was his first cruise, and it might be his last. While Sonia had snored from too many martinis the night before, Leatherby was wide awake after just as many, and became shocked at the careless speed of the craft, the rolling motion over deep waters in the black of night, heedless of someone who was dying on this lonely expedition, someone, in fact, like himself. It seemed to him it might become a “thorn day”. Not that he’d ever had one. He had a “spider day” once when he was 8 years old, so he knows what can happen. It’s a day that starts out like any other day, with breakfast and all, but then turns into a giant message that in the end gets thrown into the laundry pile with all the other days and hopefully lost and gone forever. Of course the spiders don’t get lost in the laundry pile because they are symbols afterall, even if they were also actual spiders with 8 actual legs. As a writer he knows all about that. He got a kiss from Sonia, a lingering and sensual one, as she bent towards him and let her clothing sway a little towards and away from him, like a rocking ship, though the ship at the moment was only very slowly and slightly rising and falling. They were to be off on their own into the city (not a stupid day-tour provided by the ship thank you) and they were to include a trip to the Elliot Bay Book Company, the bookstore where Leatherby’s mother’s friend Joyce Carol Oates would be that today, signing copies of her book for her fans. In fact, he would ask her to sign his own copy which he had in his hand right then, the book which had the line in it “An unsolved mystery is bad for the heart”. Oh wait, that’s not it. It is “An unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart”. Right. At that moment, with the book in his hand, and standing up to better receive S.’s kiss, the sun was just breaking through the fog and it reflected brightly on the sea in a shimmering veil of promises. Perhaps it will be a brilliant day, he thought, with or without any thorns as sharp as bee stingers. ….to be continued

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.