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Arts & Entertainment

Story Study: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 15:48 min

Joyce reveals what inspired—and how she wrote—her most well-known and reprinted story, including how she chose the main character’s perspective and how adjusting perspective can be helpful for your own story.

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] - My story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is the most reprinted of any story of mine, so I'm asked questions about it. Like every day in my life, I get questions about that story. So it is very interesting genesis to me, because the first title of the story was "Death and the Maiden," and that seems to signal a kind of fairy tale, like death in the old-- the medieval woodcuts, death is imagined as this-- this figure like a skull, and he may have a scythe in his hand. And he's standing behind a pretty girl with her hair is kind of loose, and she's primping in front of a mirror. And death is standing back here, and you see death in the mirror. She doesn't see death, because we see death in the mirror. She sees herself, but we see death in the mirror. So if you look upon the story that I have written, you see that the fairy tale elements are always there, but they're sort of submerged. Death comes riding in on his horse. The girl is walking in the woods. She's a young girl, but she's all alone in the woods, and she should not be alone in the woods. So it's a cautionary tale. Death comes riding in on his horse. Sometimes he's a knight. He's-- he's got armor. His face is hidden, but he's death. And he-- he asks her to climb up on his horse, and he doesn't grab her and put her on a horse. He asks her if she wants to come and ride with him. So she is the one who goes on the horse. It's very important that the maiden is volitional. She goes on the horse with this man she doesn't know, a stranger, and they ride off, and she rides off to her death. And so my story is a replica of that-- that sort of fairy tale situation. [MUSIC PLAYING] The story is based also upon something that really happened. So most writing has a number of influences. Something really happened in the southwest. I read about it in "Life" magazine, and there was a two-page photographic spread of these terrible killings, the Pied Piper of Tucson, Arizona. And there was a man, who is about 30. He pretended to be a teenager. He dyed his hair. He was quite short. He wore cowboy boots with newspapers stuck in the boots, so he would look taller. And he dressed like a teenager, and he tried to pretend to be a teenager. He hung out around shopping malls, and he befriended these girls who would become strolling along. And one by one, he-- he was murdering girls. But what interested me about the story was this appalling and terrifying fact that some of the teenagers knew that he was murdering girls, and they didn't tell anybody. So they would go home to their parents, and they didn't tell. They protected him. Like, why-- I thought, why would they protect this horrible person, who he's like Charles Manson, maybe that type of charismatic man preying upon adolescents, teenagers. So he seduced them in some way, but then even as he was murdering them, they-- they-- they defended him. Finally, it all came out, and he was arrested. But I didn't w...

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.

I like the way that the classes are taught. The lectures are easy to understand. The teacher at least in the class that I just finished does not move too fast to take notes and I fully grasp the information. I like the classes so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this class. I've had about thirty or forty short stories published and have put these in a collection. I also have self-published a novel. Pointbeing, I'm not a beginner. However, Oates's class has helped me to look at my writing in a new way, less traditional, way. Thank you.

Just trying to concentrate on the beginning of a story, deciding upon a short story & hearing how to construct it by Ms. Oates was of great benefit to me. This is my first real attempt into writing for pleasure & hoping to create something others will enjoy as well. I am in no rush but I am anxious to get going.

interesting to see the perspective of the mini workshop and the feedback given to the seemed gentle, the feedback given, but brave and bold to take any criticism to your work.


J.C. S.

Our opening story today is the sudden and oh so sad loss of our dear friend and colleague, Brad Shelter, whom I had the pleasure of working with for nearly twenty-two years. Brad was, for anyone who knew him well, a very unique man. Born to two staunchly Jewish parents, at age six he elected to endure BRIS reversal surgery and turned Protestant a year later. In high school, Brad participated in the drama club, a consequence of some rather loathsome self-induced peer pressure. Brad later attended Harvard University where he studied Business and Finance, and played three years of varsity football. As a senior, he was thrown out of the game against Yale after being flagged three times in the second half of play for "illegal use of syntax." After college, Brad worked on Wall Street for a few years but was arrested, stood trial, and found guilty of ironing money that had earlier been laundered. He received sixteen months of jail time and had to perform one-hundred hours of community service, during which time he taught macro-economics to the homeless on the streets of New York City. Some of his students were so taken by his kindness, and applied themselves so diligently to his teachings, that they were able to apply for positions with the New York Federal Reserve and landed extremely high-paying jobs. He ultimately became an investor for a hedge fund in charge of billions of dollars, but lost all of their money when his inordinately large investment in "Smarties," which he bought on margin, collapsed when it turned out not to be the mega brainfood that Brad originally imagined. Brad died early this morning at age 62, having only one thing left on his - at one time very expansive bucket list - using the word "ribald" correctly in a sentence. He will surely be missed.

J.C. S.

Exterior - Entertainment Strip: The year is 2021. The place is the fourth ammonium belt surrounding the planet Saturn, down-space. A configuration of galactic barter shops and entertainment modules line the travel descent strip. Interior - Nightclub Stage - Comedian: A traveling computerized satellite is circling the moon when it runs out of altitude control gas. (Pause Silence) On the moon, there's this agricultural computer see, and so...the satellite says to the computer, "Listen, I need a place to stay over century." The computer answers, "'Er, okay, you can stay here, but my circuits are full, so you'll have to share biasing voltages with my newly manufactured LSI chips." (Laughter). Meanwhile, the computer says to the chips, in code of course, "If he tries to interface with you, just output, "Down-time!" and I'll short-circuit him." (More Laughter). Sure enough, around mid-century, the satellite tries to interface, and the LSI chips simultaneously output at high amplitude, "Down-time!" (Loud Laughter). "What do you think I am," the satellite responds, "an infinite capacitor?" (Uncontrolled Applause). Thank you. You've been a wonderful cluster. Good century.

Rose M.

I liked what JCO says about knowing where to end the story. Mystery leave something for the reader to imagine or resolve, be haunted by.

A fellow student

The lesson says that Where are you going, where have you been? is available in the resources section. Only an excerpt is in the workbook. Where is the resources section?


Something Joyce said in earlier lesson about burning through a first draft; not daring to stop, has really helped me. I have just completed an eight page short story! This is something I have never done before. So many great exercises so far that stretch what I have been thinking is possible. There are so many possibilities. Joyce has made me see that.

Tolga C.

Switched from third person limited to second person, was quite refreshing. That way it was less words and it felt more tense, in a way like the first person pov, but more easy to fill in some interesting and perhaps judging informations. On the other hand, some third person pov informations fall away, but in a way, it made the story more interesting. Reminded me of some music videos, for example Depeche Mode - No Good. Or of a joke, someone tells somebody, so the listener can imagine the story better.

Jeanned'Arc L.

Lesson 09 Assignment # 1 I am not a fan of psyco movies, I also do not read a psyco story (unless it is an assignment.) Perhaps this is because I live alone. The writing exercises for this assignment, have encouraged me to explore outside my comfort reach, of first person point of view. By changing the tense of the story, I also changed its rhythm. I have taken a whimsical story called “Colletta,” written in the present tense. For this assignment I rewrote it in the second person, past tense. There was less dialogue used but I do prefer the new past tensed ending. Lesson 09 Assignment #2 When I reread an old story to locate the its ending I found many more slashing opportunities. But I shifted the endings location as suggested, and realized it gave the story a greater fizz

A fellow student

Such great insight and metaphors that can be used in creating stories. Providing a way of looking at things you would have never considered before


Really useful tips at the end there, exploring pace/character through split perspective.


Ever since I was 14 and read this story it has been haunting me.. From Freudian to Structuralism - I kept wanting to grasp what it was about... This lecture gave me yet another insight into its depth. Thank you!