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Arts & Entertainment

Reading and Studying Writing

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 10:11 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.

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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[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...

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.

Writing should be pleasurable. Use your personal interests. Rewrite. Mostly, I enjoyed getting to know the teacher better. Realizing that her teachings are subjective for the most part, I liked hearing and seeing her share her unique perspective and insights.

I learned a lot of things which I can share with my Creative Writing class.

This course was great introduction to the world of writing and the writer. It helps in priming you for preparation and also gives focus to the realities of writing.

I am amazed by how affirming it was. All the things i was doing, all the things i had to learn on my own my trial and error were correct. That insight alone was worth the money.


J.C. S.

My favorite short story has got to be The Sad Chihuahua, by Ghosten Keeler Cook, the great Peruvian poet/ economist who is best known worldwide for his timeless romantic sonnet - "My Love Is Nothing, If Not Systemic." The Sad Chihuahua is a story falling into the "No man is an island, but some are apparently peninsulas" category. I read this short story when I was sixteen, a time when I was bedridden with a malady that had me experiencing amnesia and deja vu simultaneously. For me, this story answers the age old question, "If Jimmy cracks corn, should I care?" The story opens with a young man pulling something long and seemingly heavy, and wrapped in a thick tufted blanket across the ill-kept lawn of a modest single-level home somewhere in small-town, suburban America. It's warm and the man is sweating profusely. Is it a body? Is it something more benign? Everyone witnessing his long trek to the street are curious to know what he's doing, including the next door neighbor, the mailman, a passing motorist. Each time one of these people stop to say hello and subtly question what he's doing and ask if they can help, he provides a different story, leading the reader to believe that either he's lying, or suffering from heat stroke. He tells the neighbor that he's an ex-boxer out of Detroit turned US Senator, had twin boys and named them Box and Weave. He tells the mailman that he's a doctor, an Ears, Nose and Shins doctor. When the mailman asks him why Shins, he says that's because he failed Throat. He tells the passing motorist that he's a schizophrenic who surfed the internet and had all eight of his identities stolen. As the story builds to its denouement, and as we pass point after point of no return, character arc and narrative meld into one, setting us up for a riveting climax. As I remember it, the first time I finished this story I found myself sobbing uncontrollably, transmogrified as I was, by the this small quotidian story of paranoia and mania interwoven. It made me question my own sanity. It made me question why, before anyone delves into a coma they must have a brush with death? Is it because everything in life his hair-related. It made me question every notion I had about right and wrong. Was it really wrong to yell "movie" in a crowded firehouse? Is laughter truly the best medicine? Certainly, we know that if you're a diabetic, insulin is better. As Keeler Cook takes us by the hand and gently guides us through this maelstrom of mayhem and chicanery, our humanity and self-understanding grows, his wonderful story leaving it's most important mark not on our mind or heart, but on our soul.

Brad B.

The assignment for this story asks to look at one of your favourite short stories. One of mine is "The Rocking Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence - a writer I was taken with in my twenties. It's an intriguing story because it's fairy tale with an unhappy ending. The first paragraph sums up the mother in about ten lines. It starts directly: "There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck." And the themes of love, luck and money run throughout the story. It's a perfectly crafted short story. And much like what Joyce Carol Oates talks about when she talks about looking at fairy tales. I'd be curious to know what she thinks of this story. There is much to discover from looking at how this story is written - and the climax and ending is stunning.

A fellow student

The PDF for this is AWESOME! I have always had an ease at writing song lyrics, poetry, and non-fiction, but have struggled to get into a mindset to write fiction. I figured the place to start would be with short stores and Joyce really brings the process of that to life.

Mariana M.

It is extremely important that one reads more than one writes. Joyce Carol Oates exposes the reason why in perfect detail during this class, which I find incredible. As far as I can tell—or at least judging on my personal experience only—the books you love really are the ones that make you a better writer. When she mentioned Harry Potter, my heart did a small jump; the series by J.K. Rowling are my major inspiration and role model as in what I want my work to resemble. This was a fantastic class.


What you read truly does influence your writing, at least in my experience. I had been taking my advanced creative writing courses while taking my British literature courses of the Victorian age and 18th century when everything I wrote received complaints of overly complex sentences and frustrating phrases such as "without value of consequence," instead of something simpler such as "doesn't matter."


When you said 'read to learn', that is exactly how I read stories and have for decades. I want to write my stories and have people read them. I want to say it in an interesting manner that takes the reader out of themselves and into my adventures with me. I read to find out how my favorite writers and new writers do this for me and then do it in my own way.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Here I was thinking that there are too many books out there waiting for me to read. I denied myself the lessons of re-reading those stories I once enjoyed. Now, I don't know if I can read without the intention of finding something to learn from to the author's style. That means going back to those favorite books a few times over.

Dan U.

Joyce makes a crucial point: when people chime in a classroom seeking it can be very advantageous to get different perspectives on many topics. Trying to incorporate master writers entire efforts is a great idea but there is no substitute for innate or unexplained talent. If one can condition themselves....condition themselves to try and think like master writers and remain organized so one retains their own voice than you may be publishable. Many great ideas have died because people do not have the necessary skill sets to see it through. Keep this in mind Professor Joyce.....

CeeJai J.

Mentors - interesting way to look at authors of books I love from childhood. I like the idea of improving my writing via osmosis or reading. Reading the springboard to writing, great excuse for me to keep buying and reading books. My latest spontaneous book - NOT expecting it to change my POV on organized religion and Mary's place in history, but it did - is 'Mary Magdalene Revealed' by Meggan Watterson.