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
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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.


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Suzanne D.

I can't seem to find the actual text of "Labor Day". I downloaded the revision information, but where is the story itself? I can't locate Resources.

Matt T.

This lesson was frustrating only because I wish there was further expansion and discussion of each story. It felt like they warmed up with 'Labor Day' but were ultimately a little too positive without pointing out what seemed like major and obvious issues. I enjoyed the second story more, and that one received more criticism I think after the 'workshop' vibe got going. I think each story needed it's own twenty minutes of workshop with more direct feedback about the problems.

Matt T.

Let's dive in. There were parts of this story I really liked. There were even more parts that I *wanted* to like but sort of fell off a cliff. I enjoyed the humor and a few parts that felt compelling and universally resonant. I loved how much I hated Cliff, and how clearly I could see and hear that character. The narrator was also thought out and easy to know. There were interesting themes that emerged and a few more that wanted to emerge, however they were unfortunately lost among some larger foundational issues and meandering detours. Here are three take-aways to consider in revising Labor Day. 1. It’s Just. Too. Long. As JCO mentions, there are far too many bits. Furthermore, the bits that do work take too long to develop. We’re told at the beginning this story will be about a woman daring herself to try a threesome, but we have some clues early on the threesome won’t happen. The narrator actually says it explicitly on page 8. That leaves *sixteen* more pages for the writer to get to the actual meat of the story. I wondered if the story actually started with the revelation on page eight: "I knew that he was trying already to get us going in the direction we’d need to go in order to make the threesome happen, and I knew then that it wasn’t going to.” Since it’s not a threesome, we should arrive at something more definitive sooner, with more mystery and hints pointing us there in lieu of long backstory and stream of consciousness. I think the writer can achieve the goal of this story without sacrificing style or plot in 10 pages. That length would make this work higher impact and more pleasurable to read. 2. Believability/consistency of characters. A few considerations. Would a “reckless friend” who had a threesome with someone she works with and his partner describe it as making her feel “loved and taken care of?” That take-away doesn’t feel genuine. Would a hairdresser say “Why don’t you think about this for six months and come back and we’ll reevaluate this decision together.”? Say that reply out loud—it’s just unnatural. Maybe paraphrase what all four hairdressers say into one sentence to help economize, since they’re all saying the same thing. Also, would *four hairdressers* truly refuse to cut a persons hair/make money? It’s also clear that while Bianca doesn’t want to like Cliff, she is very sexually into him in a way she can’t control. The sexual tension between them is conveyed very well, (in the beginning) and the description of Cliff is perfect—we all know someone like him. You don’t want to like them, but you also can’t help yourself. Great setup there. Unfortunately it doesn’t pan out. Her first meeting with him after so long and such a long drive involves no excitement, no self-consciousness. There’s a lot of distraction and a complex scene between animals and Ilsa before Cliff and Bianca even speak to each other or embrace. Also, would someone actually *say this? “Bianca! Baby! I know it’s been forever, but nothing could ever get between us. We’ve known each other for years. We’ve been in the pits together!” That sounds like either how the narrator feels, or the way she assumes or wishes Cliff may feel. But it does not sound like something anyone would actually say out loud. Even perfectly idiotic Cliff. Again, when he gets in the car to go to the hospital, uncertain Bianca doesn’t hesitate. Given her complex feelings for Cliff, it may be helpful here for her to start to get in the car, then stop and think—maybe look back inside the house and see Ilsa and the dress (where her certainty and pride seems to live) then decide not to go. Again, it was difficult to imagine Bianca saying “Sorry, bud. You’re on your own with this one.” Maybe she’d be apologetic or try to explain herself, but ultimately she’d slam the door. There’s an opportunity for some tension and heightening of scene there. Some type of hesitation but ultimately saying ‘no’ would be more in line with the character finally starting to reveal her true self. The self that takes her jacket back. 3. Show Us, Don’t Tell Us. There well written, interesting pieces of the story that say something important without giving it all away. They’re truthful but also mysterious. I think you need to expand these attributes to the whole story—humor, human nature and decency, self-revelation through environment and relationship/sex (or lacktherof). Here’s a paragraph that really works. I didn’t know what I wanted to know. A chilly feeling started to seep outward from a point in the middle of my chest, like a blue-black blot of watercolor on white copy paper. This needed to be contained, so I decided to go with a smaller question: Will I ever get my jacket back? For me the metaphor described with such definite detail while describing something psychological was impressive. It was tactile while also alluding to something mysterious within the narrator. It was interesting without being totally cryptic, and despite it’s mystery, I connected with it. With her. More of this! Now, contrast that paragraph with this one. If I was willing to admit it to myself, this had been the most exciting thing to me about the whole weekend. That I could be a child to someone again. That I would be doted on like a helpless dependent. That I would be taken care of. I so often felt that I was bad at taking care of myself. You sort of wrap up what this weekend was all about with a broad and nearly superficial review, by employing self-reflection with “If I was willing to admit it to myself.” But it felt a bit like cheating. Trust the reader more— this is something we can arrive at on our own through your use of detail, character expansion and *dialogue, and the physical environment, which is a great device. Just try to remember what direction each anecdote is meant to take us in, and keep them to a minimum. Try to always come back to the heart of the work. Too many zig zags and we end up disoriented—a dizzied reader misses out on the parts that really work. Thanks for sharing. I hope any of this helps. Good luck!

Jeanned'Arc L.

No I understand economy of character. I am reviewing stored writings of mine looking for the economy and unity. I find it interesting how each draft reveals the progressive progress of the story. The compacting of events elevates character development and lessens the word count to liven the story's flow. I prefer the author who commits to a clear ending over the author leaving me to decide how to close their story.

Alice S.

I love the Joyce Carol Oates Masterclass! She is gentle but rigorous and authentic. I did feel that the discussion of Lindsey's story, Labor Day, missed what struck me most forcibly; the threat the situation posed to something innocent, formed and valuable in the MC..the physical squalor in that flat, the moral and psychic squalor of the couple that was a kind of black hole/ death threat. And the horrible cat Raisin. JCO considered leaving him out. But that would have erased the danger that he exemplified…this corpulent, corrupt cat who is a telling reflection of his owners' seedy animality. And the innocent black cat whose straying in to Raisin’s orbit could lead to death in the pound. The cats’ situation is a fractal of the overall story. There has to be that final moment where Bianca rescues the little stray as she rescues herself… her autonomy, her psyche maybe her soul. From the chaotic, contaminating consciousness that is that couple, Ilsa and Cliff. I see the Jamesian formula in this story…the sane ‘one’ at odds with ‘insane’ others.

A fellow student

It seems to be a mixture of comedy, horror and drama. Very interesting story.


Hi Amy, I had the same question. Here is the answer: "If you're already viewing a video, then you can click on your instructor's name at the top left corner of the page to be brought to the complete lesson plan." Once your in the section you'll see a tab marked resources and Voila!


I believed the "revised" version of Labor Day is the same as the original version. It still has Joyce's comments at the end, but I was also wondering why the first six pages had no changes that I could identify as I started to read it. Thanks!

A fellow student

Really interesting! I did disagree with Joyce about cutting out the "bit" where she sleeps in their bed with them. That's the threesome the story has been building up to all along, not necessarily the jacket. To me the jacket felt like a red herring, something our protagonist has obsessively focused on but in actuality has little to do with her motivations for going to the house. I think the bedroom scene is where she can finally allow herself to explore why she came to this house...unresolved family issues, fear of death, fear of loneliness, wanting something that doesn't fit her (like the haircut)... I think all the "bits" should be driving us to this scene. And let those bits help her unfold her desire to spend the weekend contemplating a threesome when it's not something she wants or needs.

A fellow student

think of the audience here and what needs to be made available for goodness sake