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.

Very thought provoking and insightful. I'm excited to dive deeper into my writing with her wonderful wisdom. She's truly lovely to learn from!

Start with a short short story. Don't take on anything long until you have confidence you can tell a short story.

ALL these speakers are so wonderful. I love it all. JC Oates is a gracious and knowledgeable and encouraging. Thank you so much. Love Masterclass

Beyond words. An amazing experience to dive into the mind of one of the greatest writers of our time.


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!


Mesmerized. Like other commentators below, I am so enthralled by Joyce's words and teaching, that I can't stop to do the exercises!

Dan U.

Get to technique. Don’t play psychologist on such a pronounced obsessive way.

Tauna S.

Two stories came to mind in the midst of this lesson, because of this lesson. I stopped and typed the name and premise of the first revolving around something on my aunt's farm and death. It isn't ready as a story yet, something is missing. But, the daydream picked up with an occurrence that happened to me. This story wrote itself, I stopped the lesson to get all 1275 words on the page. You can't ask for any better result from a lesson. I think it is the first not genre story I have written, though none of mine sit comfortably in any specific genre. It is snarky though, I always do snarking with a graveyard twist.

Renee M.

Enthralled. I have been so fascinated by the way Joyce tells the story and her voice that I forgot I am in a class where work is to be done! I just realized I have been listening and not doing! I will go back and do the work yet I am not stopping now. My day is invested in listening until the end. Then I will go back and do the work. I am mesmerized by the intelligence and creative mind of Joyce.