Arts & Entertainment, Writing

Reading and Studying Writing

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 10:10 min

How do you read with the intention of finding new ideas and learning from writers you admire? Joyce leads a discussion on reading as a writer.

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Topics include: Read as Apprenticeship · Two Kinds of Reading · Reread for Formal Qualities · Discuss Your Reading With Others


[DRAMATIC PIANO MUSIC] - I wouldn't be writing the way I write now if I hadn't read Lewis Carroll, and I wouldn't be writing the way I write now if I hadn't read James Joyce. I read Chekhov when I was probably 18 or 19, and Chekhov made a strong impression on me. I also read Emily Bronte, "Wuthering Heights," when I was about 15, and that made a strong impression. All writers have mentors who begin when they're children. And they're aware of writing. They're aware of books that they love. Like, is it "The Phantom Tollbooth?" Some children love that. So they'll say "The Phantom Tollbooth," along with "Alice in Wonderland," "Where the Wild Things Are," and for older children, JK Rowling's the "Harry Potter" novels. They all exist in sort of like a stratosphere that allows the young person to read work that is established and very well done. So when the writer starts to write, he or she is drawing upon some of these mentors. [PEACEFUL PIANO MUSIC] I would say almost dogmatically that you can't be a writer unless you're reading all the time and reading with purpose, not just reading to waste time or reading something on the internet, but reading crafted work. If you just sit down and read a little novel by Jean Rhys, which is like "Wide Sargasso Sea"-- it's, like, maybe 120 pages-- that novella, that short novel, is so good that when you start writing the next day, you're going to be writing better. You're not going to be imitating her. But you'll be writing better than you would be if you hadn't read her. And so reading is the springboard to writing. What you read and with what intensity you read is going to determine, probably, what you write, because all human beings are imitative. Primates-- we belong to the big primate family, like apes and chimpanzees and monkeys of all kinds. You know, monkey see, monkey do. We are a very imitative species. So when you're a little older, you may want to read classic writing. You may want to read Faulkner, Hemingway, James Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, Henry James. You may want to aim very high, because the more you read and the more you're absorbing when you start to write, you're going to write on a higher level than you would be if you didn't read these people. And so it's like the old saying. If you want to learn how to play tennis, you play tennis with somebody who's better than you. You don't play tennis with somebody who's not as good as you, because you're never, ever going to learn anything. So reading "Ulysses" by James Joyce-- take a whole summer. Just spend time reading it. And first of all, it's a great work of art, and it's enthralling. It's difficult, but it is truly fascinating. And you'll find that, as the weeks go by, your vocabulary will start to improve. Your sense of language will elevate. And when you write, you may sound nothing like James Joyce, nothing. But yet you sound much better than you would have if you hadn't read James Joyce. [PEACEFUL PI...

About the Instructor

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.

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Joyce Carol Oates

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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