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 her teaching style. Also, she is very encouraging to students.

JCA is so interesting to listen to, sharing lots of useful anecdotes and writing tips. Great class!

Joyce Carol Oates renewed my interest in my writing practice.

Joyce reveals so much about her and her process that encourages.


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.

Holly P.

I find that journaling if directed outwards can be a real hook into writing, while self focus sometimes for me can become more like ruminating. It's really a balance.

A fellow student

I love her lessons. They’re so thorough and inspirational and I finish each one already feeling like a better writer just for having listened to her 😂


She has an incredible way of inspiring! I've journaled since I was little (like so many of you), and it's encouraging to hear it could be used for future writings. I love hearing about her process. It takes something so "up there" and makes it achievable.

Jesse G.

I publish my daily journal every day using my podcast and video blog as a medium. I publish it because I feel like I can capture more soul through my videos and with my voice. I started a daily podcast February 10, 2019 and I started the video version of my podcast March 12, 2019. It has been so much fun that now I do an extra video every week where I take two minutes every night throughout the week to record what happened during the day and how life is going. I post it every Monday. I love doing it and it feels great to get everything out.

A fellow student

I bought a Rocketbook for journaling. I can write longhand, then scan the page to Evernote and erase the page in my Rocketbook. I too was afraid my journal would be found and cause problems for me.

Allison T.

Like many of you, I kept diaries on and off as a teen and journaled daily for about 20 years. I started a morning meditation practice as a way to quiet and focus the mind and fell out of the journaling practice. Now I only journal when there's some big thing happening that I need to process. I've struggled to integrate the two practices. I find both transformative and powerful. This lesson is a great reminder that the journal can be a hodgepodge of observations, illustrations, conversations and inspirations. Life imitates art.

Lisbeth M.

Enjoyed the lesson and grateful to Ms. Oates for coming to us. I continue to appreciate seeing past the mystical shrouds surrounding writing to the daily ordinaryness of it. My mother made me burn my first diary when I was 9 or 10. By the time I started journaling again I was an 18 year old alcoholic with a pack a day habit. I've journaled on and off over the years. Have to be careful b/cause can use up all my writing energy journaling and never get to the stories I want to develop. Am going to journal again but w/emphasis on brevity. Have thought at time about going back to my notebooks when I was doing the 'morning pages' recommended by Julia Cameron -- to edit them incase I wrote out 'want to kill X' or some such just because the whole point was to write with out censoring - but know there are some doozies in there. Fortunately my DH is quite respectful of my privacy and has let alone my journals these past 30 years we've been together.

CeeJai J.

I still have my first diary from about age 13 or 14, and I have journaled most of my life. I am 65 and now wonder what the hell should I do with all these journals... I've got a new reason to look back through my old journals for writing material, although I have been keeping journals just for writing and books I've enjoyed for the past 10 years. Photography has been one of my favorite hobbies for the past 45 years so when she used camera and lens, I could focus in on exactly what she was saying... LOL Loving this class.