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 love that this class is from the perspective of a teacher/ editor. Oates's identity as a working writer herself slips into the background as we get deeper into the lessons. Workshopping with the students models an approach we might take when doing our own work.

Insightful and delightful - feel so much more able to 'get inside a story' to write versus just approach it from the tangible, visible aspects.

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.

I learned the importance of unique metaphors in description. Also the importance of describing the characters not only physically but also internally. Most successful short stories are fast paced. The first and last paragraphs in short prose must be carefully structured to achieve the most impact of the entire writing.


Tolga C.

"Principles of Writing Short Fiction" was already very nice, taking time to fullfill the writing assignments in the pdf. Writing two little short-stories and then analysing them (intro, scene 1, scene 2 ... end). This technique based on a character and this kind of rewriting are quite effective. #learnedSomethinNew I am looking forward to the tasks of this lesson. Probably I will combine imagine a story (this time based on a "moment of being") with taking pictures outside. The funny thing about starting to write in the journal when tired is, that at the end of 2019 I just started writing stuff with the fountain pen and figured out, that I am more powerfull and fullfilled over the day, when I write instead of taking a rest or watching YouTube-Videos or similar. I even can sleep better, when I write a little bit (but I prefer to write very very slow) before I go to sleep. Alone trying to write nice letters wakes me up. #sorryBecauseOfMyNotSoGoodEnglish

Thomas H.

She has a clear way to discuss and outline the issues. It's also interesting how she uses her hands to describe meaning, as if she is making and crafting stories as illustration. I am looking forward to moving through this process.

Raul C.

Exactly! Agree with the fact that in my experience as first time writer I notice that interruptions are the number 1 thing that must be managed. ~ Raul- St. Petersburg, FL

Ivana V.

Really inspiring. I always give up on writing when I feel very tired but the idea to set a timer really helped! Journaling is very comforting once you reduce the amount of time you have to write.

Peter H.

The suggestion to write at odd hours helped me be less fearful of writer's block, in fact I discovered my productivity and creative grew as if I were a plant taken from under a lamp and put outside on the porch where natural sunlight touched me from different angles throughout the day. Thank You!!

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.