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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[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...

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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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@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

Vera D.

I am sorry that I could not find the "Resources" section so I can download "Labor Day". Can anyone help me? Thank you so much.

A fellow student

Ok I actually just want to first off agree with JCO that there are too many bits, tangents that seem chatty, don't seem formal enough to be on paper. Upon my first reading, I thought many details were unimportant, by if I were asked which to cut, I would definitely disagree with her as to what she suggested. For instance, I thought the Tarot bit was very important, because of how lacklustre the reading was. It was also very comical which question Bianca chose to ask the deck, and then how Ilsa pulled a 9-card spread to figure out if Bianca would simply ever get her jacket back. It really emblemized the whole process, how she feels she must owe a favour, cutting this dress, and maybe even will have to sleep with the couple because she is not straightforward enough to ask for her possessions back. I like this also how she thinks she would initially be enticed by the idea of the threesome, because she doesn't trust herself enough to voice to herself that she wouldn't be into that kind of thing, just like she doesn't have the tenacity to tell countless hairdressers that she is the one paying them and can ask for whatever cut she wants. I also love the tarot deck part, because, just like the promise of this weekend, it did not live up to expectations. Ilsa did a poor job reading the deck, and was very minimally invested, just like all of them were in having their group sex. As JCO suggests, they probably would've tried a little harder if they really wanted it. I love it all how, often you make a plan, like for a vacation, something that seems spontaneous and therefore glitters with promise, and it turns out the promise is hollow and crawling with ants. It is similar with Grizzly Man, which was one of the most upsetting movies I have seen in a long time, and all Ilsa can think to say is that, "This guy, he really loves bears". Furthermore with the brunch!. There are lots of tokenized ideas, things that are supposed to be pleasant and nice by virtue of there existence, but no one is willing to put the work and love in to make them turn out how they want (not taking Grizzly Man or the Tarot deck seriously, not cleaning up for a guest or asking her if she needs a towel, cooking things you don't know how to prepare). The other thing that REALLY bothered me was that JCO was really trying to change Cliff. Cliff, according to Lindsey, is supposed to be a lazy, childish man, but he is not supposed to be harmful or predatorial. There of plenty of characters like that, and I like how Cliff is just like an extension of his teenage boy self. JCO's suggestion that Cliff should try to lure Bianca without Ilsa knowing changes who he is entirely, and I think it makes it even more pitiful that Bianca can't stand up to him when he is a loser with a giant electronic vape. This story is not supposed to be about how she is struggling with some power dynamic, it's about how Bianca lets people walk all over her, so much that she has to sneak out of their house and doesn't even want to say goodbye. She doesn't even know herself well enough that she doesn't have the slightest desire to hang out with these slobs, that they are not her real friends, but apparently she is seeking something (threesome) because she is lonely. Finally, the grandma bit stays because there is something SO MAGICAL about leaving a place and going back and the people who used to inhabit it continue to exist there, and getting to know that there is something so different on the interior than they portray. Sure, Cliff and Ilsa looked like they had the good life on IG, but they were terrible hosts and in fact the inside of their house made Bianca's skin crawl. The old woman, on the other hand, is foil, because she portrays a nasty old hag on TV, but is in fact very neighbourly. Looking forward to see which edits Lindsey accepts and which she denies.

Alan J.

Help, I can't find Resources. Tried following John Sidoti's reply to Suzanne Dees, but can't find it.

susan W.

Interesting to watch the workshop working as it does. In reading the short story, my sense is in writing the story the writer has discovered what the story is about. The idea would now be to try to communicate the heart of it, which is a hungering for a triangle, a family triangle, bohemian parents rather than cold and restrained. She wanted something from Cliff and Ilsa, from the experience, that she managed to get at the very end. Better to do away with the paragraph p. 22 that tells us about this (it's really a note to self from the writer to herself) but to bear this in mind and let it wash through the ordinary events one moment at a time. Time has to be much more clear, where were Cliff and Ilsa in all that time it took to clean whole apartment and order the closet. Anyway, I simply think there's a lot of excess in search of the reason for the story. But the reason is made clear, so with that in mind, the writer needs to simplify, move moment to moment, do away with all the excess. Make clear what the relationships are, the ages of Cliff and Ilsa. Make time real. Jacket may or may not appear. I'd rewrite it from the start with the idea now clear in your mind (writer) and slow down. Allow the scenes to unfold in real time.


I really enjoyed watching the workshop process, and the feedback. I love the pacing of the story, and felt compelled to read to the end, it wasn't at all a struggle. I like the characters internal dialogue and responses to the situation. I also like the comedy the three-some occurred as satirical improv dynamic of the three of them (with Bianca trapped in the house), and the opposite of sexual - more like a slow motion train-crash. I agreed with a lot of the feedback provided, and was interested that most of it wasn't taken on board in the final revised document (I do see some was). I think I would have like Skillen to engage more in critical debate if she didn't agree with the feedback, or to provide more context around her choices. I like that she was receptive and listened, but then I wanted more of her take on the components and why they were the way they were, and around her choice to keep the many elements. I was keen to review and see how she handled the changes of; Ilsa reacting to Bianca's mastery over tailoring, Cliff being cut by one of the women, a past intimacy between Cliff and Bianca to raise the stakes, reduction of animals, redacting the meandering walk to the store, and the reason why Bianca did not give them medicine for their stomachs etc... I definitely benefited from watching this and reading the revisions. I just wanted a little more.

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.

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!