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Arts & Entertainment

Revision Workshop: “Labor Day”

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 25:44 min

Joyce holds a workshop of her student Lindsey’s story “Labor Day,” which can be downloaded in advance of the lesson.

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] - I think it's very important for writers whether young or older to have an audience to have people who are sympathetic and supportive, but also fellow writers who have critical ideas and constructive suggestions. It's very good to have other people reading your work. There are many, many ways in which it's very instructive. And the most obvious way is sometimes a reader just doesn't know what's happening in a story and doesn't understand what the writer's trying to do. When we read a work of fiction, we don't know the intention of the writer. So editors receive material all the time, and we may reject material that's potentially very good but we don't understand it, or something's been left out, or it's the wrong title, or something's wrong with it. But in a workshop, the writer can be asked. We can ask, what did you mean by this? And why is this title what it is? And why did you end it this way? And in the discussion, the writer may learn that his or her intention did not come through at all, that people don't understand what happened, that the main part of the story has been sort of left out. Sometimes a new writer will want to not be too obvious or too explicit, and so the story might be too subtle. So the workshop is a way where you get feedback from interested and intelligent readers. And I find the workshops amazing because the young writers in my workshops often behave like editors. They're very, very sophisticated in the way they're looking at the structure of work, and I think very supportive, and warm, and really a friendly atmosphere, and I think very necessary for writers to feel that their work is wanted, and it's interesting, and people will applaud it, and laugh at it when it's funny, and so it's part of just the experience of writing. So with our reduced but exemplary writing workshop, we're going to discuss two stories today. First, we're going to take up Lindsay's story, "Labor Day." And so instead of there being like 10 other people here to discuss it, there's basically Corey. So you're going to have to stand in for a lot of other people. - I'll do my best. - So Corey and I will just have sort of a discussion about it, and you can listen, but we can ask you questions, also. - OK. - OK, so I'm just going to ask Corey, what was your reading experience? Just, did you like the story? - Yeah, I loved it. I think the best place to start on it is a level of experience, just because on an affect level, it's very funny, moment by moment. I laughed often reading it. And it's also paced very quickly-- - Yes, yes. - --to the point that, I mean, it's a page-turner for a short story, which is quite a feat. And then, like, as I was reading it and thinking, oh, this is a comedic sort of jaunt, almost like a comedy of manners type situation, all of a sudden it started to descend into what I would pretty much describe as a horror scene. It very quickly becomes traumatic with detail...

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 more pleasure, rather than expectation.

This was my favorite masterclass. Her advice is so practical - which is what I need most. And I feel like I have steps to follow. Particularly the writers workshops at the end were so useful to see how one might edit and revise once there is something on the page.

Joyce Carol Oates inspired me to write at a higher level. It's not only about having a NYT best seller. It's about thought provoking literature.

I love how calmly and fluidly Joyce expresses her feelings about writing. She seeks truth but also fun, which seems so important for a young writer. Not being scared away. I really enjoyed this.


A fellow student

It looks as though several other people have already asked the question I was about to ask – where are the resources? Perhaps it would be worth adjusting the design of the website so that it is no longer necessary for you to have to answer the same question repeatedly. Just a thought.

Eileen P.

First. Where is the Resource Section. Everybody wants to know. Get your act together

Brad B.

I enjoyed this three person workshop. A good example of how others' perspective on a story are valuable for a writer. I agree that the story is fast-paced and a page-turner - perhaps too much so, as it does have a lot of "bits" that aren't as unified as they could be. I liked the development of all three characters in the story. Lindsey did a good job of making Cliff unlikeable - he's such a wimp as well as a boor! As a reader, I like to dislike a character. Though agree that we also want the protagonist to have more investment in him some how. He can be unlikeable to us as readers but to the protagonist he could be someone she has more of a tie too. This lesson of a workshop makes me think more objectively about my own work. Good lesson!

A fellow student

I found this lesson very interesting. I would like to learn more about how to critically read other people's work, to understand and pinpoint what does and doesn't work and why. Most of all, I would like to hear more from the author about what this story means to her, what it is supposed to be about. I agree with JCO that there are too many "bits" that result in the driving themes and meaning of the story being unclear. I am not a seasoned writer/critical reader, so my inability to understand is probably largely due to my own limitations, which is why I would have liked to hear the author explain why she put each of those "bits" there, what they are meant to be adding or revealing. I got the sense that each one is meant to help develop or illuminate a theme or a character trait, but in the end I could not see how to fit them together to understand the overarching point of the story. Perhaps there are numerous themes and points that distract from each other? Nonetheless, I really liked all the individual "bits", I found them interesting and entertaining in their own right. Maybe some could be kept for another story? I must say that I did not agree with all of JCO's advice, as it seemed she was missing the point of what the characters and their relationships were meant to be. I feel that Cliff was not meant to be a sinister predator, or Ilsa a sexual competitor. I think they are supposed to be innocuous, self-absorbed bo-bo LA losers, and that their superficiality is kind of the point; they don't have deeper darker motives because they are not deep, and what is dark about them is their lack of any self-reflection or meaningful pursuits. However, while I believe that JCO's recommendations for how to develop the characters misinterprets them and would take the story in an unintended direction, I did not feel I was given quite enough information from the author to understand what exactly was intended, what these people are supposed to represent to the narrator and what her relationship to them is. It seems like the narrator does not like them or care about them or even know them that well (she hasn't seen them in years, she has to guess what Ilsa does from her Instagram), so why is she driving for hours to go visit them? For an uncharacteristic threesome with people she does not like? For a jacket that she loves so much that she hasn't bothered to get it back in years? If she is searching for a sense of family, as she states explicitly at the end of the story, then I think that needs to be hinted at and developed more somewhere earlier, because that is not the impression I got from the first 20 pages, it's an idea that seems to come our of left field at the end. The idea of seeing Cliff and Ilsa as parental figures seems totally incongruous with the way she has been describing them (with repulsion and a strong sense of superiority and disdain). I think there are a number of interesting scenes and images, I just would have liked some more direction on understanding what they mean as a whole.

Christopher B.

Can someone tell me where the resource section is so I can download this story?


As someone already pointed out, the revised version is the same as the original, there must have been a mistake while up-loading it. Could this be corrected? I'm now curious to see how the discussion impacted the text. Thank you.

Tolga C.

It was interesting to see, how something is rewritten in a group discussion. Perhaps a flash-fiction would have been enough from the length, to get the changes and the impact faster. But that´s only my impression, I am very thankfull for the lessons.


@veradong and @inawool - click on JOYCE CAROL OATES in the upper left corner. Then look half way down the page on the right and click RESOURCES.


Am I missing something? As of 1/16/20, these two docs in the resource section appear to be the same except for a Pixar note at the end of the ‘revised’ one: 1564005020-Labor_Day_Original.pdf 1564005020-Labor_Day_Revised.pdf -Wendi @ BP


I actually read the dressmaking scene as a stand in for the would-be sex scene. She’s 'good at it'; she knows intuitively what (a partner) wants, what makes them feel good and what doesn’t. She reads Ilsa’s body language quite sensitively, and the push/pull of their interaction (Ilsa subtly conveys dislike for the first design, Bianca pulls back, then tries something more to her liking, until she feels Ilsa's 'power coursing through' her) becomes a very intimate moment. -Wendi @ BP