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Arts & Entertainment

Journals: Observing the World

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 16:44 min

Journaling is a tried-and-true method for self-expression and discovering your voice. For illustration, Joyce reads from one of Virginia Woolf’s diary entries.

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.


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Artists usually resist analyzing themselves, but I've really found that there are some predominant motives for writing that really have guided me through my life. One motive for writing is self-expression. And maybe that's one of the most original. It's the self that you're expressing when you write in a diary. And I always encourage my students to keep a journal. I think we all need to keep journals. To write quietly and calmly at the end of the day, before you go to bed, to write in a journal. If you can write longhand, that's really nice, because it's so intimate and so private. And to keep in contact with your innermost self. So this self-expression in a journal could turn into a work of art. [MUSIC PLAYING] I've kept a journal since I've been about 21 years old. Before that, I had a diary sporadically. Then I started keeping a journal, which was just immensely helpful. The journal is helpful in ways that you can't anticipate, because when you're traveling particularly, you're moving so swiftly through space and time that you don't really have time to absorb very much. So whatever you can write down in a journal that's descriptive-- it doesn't have to be elegant writing. Lots of dashes and breathless writing is really best to take notes very quickly, impressionistically, describing places and your own reactions to the places. And if you can put a little dialogue in, some exchanges you've had with people. Well, keeping a journal sharpens our senses. It's like an exercise in writing. If you're describing a scene, you are practicing the act of writing, which is very important, and thinking in language. Otherwise, you just sort of go through the day. The stray thoughts are floating around in your head of no particular distinction. But if you're writing things down and really thinking about something and observing, that gives a certain sharpness to your powers of observation. As time goes by, when you look back over those entries that had seemed so ordinary, they become really interesting to look back at, like, 15 or 17, 20 years. Some people can look back 40 years. Like looking back through a tunnel into the depths of time. It is so interesting. But as I said, you can't anticipate how important it will be when you're doing it, because you're just caught up in the moment. So you have to have faith that sometime in the future, you'll look back upon this really, really interesting. [MUSIC PLAYING] The kind of writing people do when they don't have time is also important. So I suggest to my students, you start writing when you only have 40 minutes, and write really, really fast. So you don't have time. Like, you have eight hours, you're intimidated. It's too much time. Well, I could also say that writing when you're feeling very tired is a good idea. Writing when you've been up late, writing when you're ready to go to bed and you're really, really tired, or you're feverish or not f...

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

Her advice, the homework provided in the workbook, and the variety of writing explored in her class, genuinely improved my own writing. What I write after having taken her class feels so much different than what I wrote before. So thankful I got to learn from her!

I've been writing for a long time - mostly reporting. I am learning to write fiction. I learned so much from her commentary. So brilliant.

Dear Joyce Carol Oates, It has taken me a long time to take the weight off from expectations. It is a blessing when you don´t have any inherited. It is also a blessing to know that pleasure and finding spiritual meaning through words can be an incessant beautifully assembled piece of music. Thank you.


Rachel M.

"In fiction she's very asexual. There's no eroticism and no sense of people. No romance, really." Um...I hope those were separate thoughts, because it almost sounds like you're saying being asexual means having no sense of people or romance. Sorry, I'm asexual myself and can't help but be a little thrown off by the use of that word. I hope you were just referring to the lack of eroticism.

J.C. S.

The cage door leaped open suddenly and I jumped out, the power of an instinct fifteen million years old driving my long thin legs. I was off like a deer, springing into the depths of the thick forest. Darkness came swiftly in the forest, if it wasn't always there. Underneath the leafy canopy of topless trees, day was night. Blackness hung motionless overhead, like a preying flock of crows, like the shadowy specter of a lion, suspended in mid-leap, photographically imaged on the mind in the ephemeral memory of some long-retained nightmare. I stumbled onward into the abysmal reaches of the innermost forest; sightless, but sustained in fear; silent, except for the heaviness of clumsy human footfall on the jungle floor. Further on, I had to get down on all fours to slither through the thickening underbrush, the thorny thickets that grasped and clutched and clawed at my arms and neck and face unperceived in the darkness. With my ear so close to the ground, I could hear the hunt closing behind me; the patter of hoofs, the angry barking, the stained howling, the incessant heartthrob of my killers behind me...

Susan M.

I have a question for everyone -- and maybe the class moderator can help. I am interested in finding the exerpt from Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary that she uses to introduce the Journaling instruction. I have a copy of that book and cannot for the life of me find it in there. (I know this is really picky, but I want to use it for a piece of critical writing that I am doing for a grad class). Can anyone help me?

Monica C.

I used to keep a journal and then let it go for many years. It takes discipline I think. My critical voice will say, "oh who cares what you have to say." But when I go back and read what I've written time ago, I find it very telling. This lesson has encouraged me to write in a journal again but I do have to admit I often have to fight with that critical voice.

Rose M.

I love journal writing since I was fifteen I have had the delight of self expression. I love what JCO said about Virginia Woolf's diary.

Anna-Lee R.

I keep a journal, so far I've filled one book up completely. Sometimes, looking back, it's weird to see all of these events written from my perspective, but as a different person because of how much I have changed. Some entries are longer and more detailed, others are just brief overviews. I find myself reliving the events that I write with great detail, l enjoy those stories and hopefully, I can entertain others as much as I entertain myself.

Kenny R.

Very powerful lesson probably going to do another lesson to do a little bit of catching up after I complete this lessons assignments.


Funny - I just finished journaling before sitting down to finish this video. It happened to be about a "moment of being." And thus was it assigned. Looking forward to the next video about "taboo and darkness."

Jonathan M.

Being an intermediate writer, having a small but loyal fan-base online, I watched this episode and learned so many things about the process. She hit on some tools that I had already been utilizing by myself then laid into new approaches I had not thought about. At 9 minutes into the lesson, I had jotted three pages of notes down. Just with this single lesson, I know will improve my work. I even took a break looking back at some of my previous work saying, "well, that shouldn't have been posted yet. I'm going to have to revise." I do not believe I could have bought an introductory lesson five times over getting the same great quality of instruction at a local university. Joyce Carol Oates took my apprehension away and sold me on continuing with her lessons. She hit the "Middle C" and I am resonating with the vibrations of the wire waiting for the following notes.

A fellow student

I had never really thought about the checklist of details tip. I think its great. Hope I can use it for my next story.