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.
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[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.

I loved this Masterclass by Joyce Carol Oates. I've never been a fan of the short story, preferring to plunge straight into novels - reading and writing -, but this class has taught me the immense value of them. I'm already beginning to write my own, and I'm looking for workshops near me to help me improve them. Absolutely lovely to spend the last few hours with Joyce. Thank you.

structure and form and how to concisely improve works in progress

Professor Oates was an incredible teacher. What an honor to be able to learn from her on a level that felt so personal. I feel so lucky that this Master Class exists.

fantastic class, my only wish is that it was longer. it gave me so more more perspective on crafting short stories and thinking about the angles to approach a character or story from.


Ella L.

Thoroughly enjoyed it. I must remember to write for pleasure, not just for income. I have a gazillion stories to tell.

Crystal C.

An inspiring lesson. I don't normally keep a journal, but I love the idea of going for a walk and telling yourself a story. I think that will be a useful way for me to think more in depth about the story ideas I have.

A fellow student

Enjoyed the thoughts of this type of self observance. I know my Mother has kept a journal for over 50 years.

Valerie R.

I love this lesson, I am a fan of journals and have kept one steadily for years.

Vicki H.

Very interesting and helpful. I look forward to reading VW's diary...and some of her writing.

Rocio T.

Extremely helpful, there are nuances and small details that big writers take for granted and don't mention at all or mention rapidly as if unimportant. Joyce has made that impact in me, leading me as if by the hand on small steps on this journey that I start today...


👍Daily journals,I find,are hard to keep going. .Therefore I tend to write journals about trips and funerals and weddings.But they don't really work as being very intimate.

Kasy L.

I really enjoyed this lesson. I love keeping a journal to write down ideas for my writing, but I have neglected it. This lesson reminded me to go back to the journal and see what's there. Thanks for the lesson, Joyce Carol Oates!

Jefferson B.

Really liked this lesson BUT...She said "If I had time I'd tell you about all the famous authors who had their first novels rejected." I really wanna hear about that. Masterclass, why didn't you add an extra chapter where Ms. Oates could elaborate on that?

Jeanned'Arc L.

This lesson made me feel in step. I have kept a journal since the age of 16. I am 66 yrs. old. Once in a while I pick out a random file, for fun. In some writings I still recognize my self. I find information valuable to understanding how I process everyday thoughts. I laugh out loud and I'm grateful at the same time for knowing I've matured. I also see, at times, I have used writing asa therapeutic tool. I believe we everyone should keep a journal.