The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp”

Joyce Carol Oates

Lesson time 12:22 min

Joyce and two of her students—Lindsey Skillen and Corey Arnold—read from Ernest Hemingway’s story “Indian Camp.” They review the work as they would in one of Joyce’s collegiate or graduate classes.

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] - This is Lindsay, and this is Corey, and each of them has written a story for today. We'll be taking up Lindsay's story first. Then we'll take up Corey's story. But first we're going to talk about a classic famous American story by Ernest Hemingway called "Indian Camp." So this story has all the quintessential elements of a classic Hemingway story, the nature of the style, the movement of the story, the pacing, what is put in, and particularly what's left out, what is implicit, what's implied. Just a minimum of characters-- no last names, characters who are related to one another in ways that might be a little bit mysterious. But if you read it carefully, you can figure it out. So people who are used to reading a story by Henry James, Edith Wharton, reading this story-- or Willa Cather-- reading this story, the average reader might have really wondered what it was about. And the average reader at that time would have felt the ending was just totally almost shocking, because it's so abrupt. And readers at that time were used to a more rounded ending. Readers were used to being told what to think. And in a story by most of Hemingway's contemporaries, the characters in this story, at least one of the characters, would have certain thoughts that would tell the reader what to think. Hemingway leaves all that out, and he leaves a lot of things out. Therefore, though he wrote the story a long time ago, it still is very contemporary. In some ways, it seems completely contemporary of our time. So just anything you want to say about the story as a reading experience? - Just in general, it just makes me think about how much Hemingway trusts his reader to kind of co-create the story alongside him, which is true of most of his stories that I've read. And it strikes me that that takes a lot of confidence in your reader, because-- and you have to relinquish some control there and leave room for misinterpretations and things. I think maybe as young writers-- I know this is a problem for me-- you want to have-- you want to direct somebody's emotional response very closely. And if you write in a style, that's just not a possibility, or it's less of a possibility, I would say. - Yeah, that's a very good point that he trusts his readers to read carefully. So you really have to read the story more than once. Hemingway is-- Hemingway's easy to read, but he's not easy to understand. - Yeah. - And the famous Hemingway dialogue seems as if it's natural, but it's really stylized, and people don't-- don't actually talk that way at all. It's a very sort of almost like a postmodernist sort of appropriation of how people talk, but it's not really literal. So we noticed the vocabulary is scaled down, so it could be the vocabulary of a boy about eight or nine. I think that's how old he is. I love that beginning. "At the lakeshore, there was another rowboat drawn up," period. "The two Indians stood waiting." It's j...

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.

JCO is a beautiful person. Full of inspiration and ideas to help writers explore and develop their own unique voice.

I have learned to allow myself the time to immerse myself in weird. Also, to read 'Ulysses', which I've avoided.

Clear, approachable instruction. I walked away inspired. Thank you!

I'm so glad I found this mentor, she just puts into words everything I had sensed to be precious in the art of story telling.



Story Study – Indian Camp - I read the story for the third time to understand. It’s a piece of classical work. First reading – I felt it was a dull, lackluster, easy story of some backward community woman (I know I am not fully and politically correct here), the aboriginal American Indians who had great wisdom and culture too. I also realized I have lost my imaginative thinking where the reader co-creates the story along with the narrator. I am pretty darn sure it is because of my more of AV watching and it has been ages since I have read good work. My eyes were a sort of a problem. Second reading – I grasped good amount of details and I understood the end. The boy who feels so assured and secure when his father is rowing the boat. When we are children, we all need one of our parent or a close family member to look up to assure us, provide security and stability. Third reading – I pretty much grasped what I could not from the first two readings. One the entire geography of the environment, time and place he was picking up – probably contemporary for his time. I was thrilled that it was pictured in the lake Ontario area and could then looked up on google to find out that it could have been Mackinac Island because the story mentions St. Ignace. The story keeps the characters involved limited and leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Without pressing with flash light, music and camera style story telling. Keeps the readers riveted to details and making them think more and more with every reading. No wonder it is a classic and it makes me look to read rest of his work.

James Walter L.

Often when I read Hemingway, I feel like there is no room to move. There is a sternness to his writing that tells you how it is and how it is going to be. I do greatly enjoy and admire his work. "Old Man at the Bridge," is one of my favorites.

Jeanned'Arc L.

I enjoyed going back through a childhood memory. I was surprised at how vivid the detail of my experience was. WC 958 Intimacy In the deep cold of February, farmers kept their cows in the stable, at night. It was 1959. On this particular Saturday, Jan turned six years old. This morning she was accompanying her father to the stable for the morning ritual of milking. Dad was a dairy farmer and he milked twenty-one Holsteins and one Jersey cow, twice a day, at precisely 5:30 a. m and at 5:30 p. m. without fail. At bedtime, Jan often asked her dad, “ Can I come with you in the morning?” He’d say. “When you get bigger.” Last night, dad said. “Okay, you still want to get up at 5:00 and give me a hand with the stable chores?” “Yea!” she giggled in his beard as he kissed her goodnight. “Happy birthday honey. You ready?” he whispered helping her with her coat and boots. It was 5:30 a. m., Dad and Jan stood at the foot of the stairs where a tight space brought the first step to face a wall or to permit entrance to the kitchen, if you didn’t step the other way into the vestibule. The vestibule was full of coats loosely draped over hock. All in a row, each family member had his own hook. Below each coat were boots that stood without insoles because those items were set to dry next to the woodstove. The only light came from the lantern father set on the floor, while he helped her dress. The kitchen had no lights at all but Jan could see an odd reflection of herself from the kitchen windowpane. It caught the glow of the lantern. Dad held the lantern high in his left hand holding her hand, righting her every time she slipped. They broke through the crust of snow covering the path to the stable at a slow pace. A cold wind bit Jan’s face. She pulled her hood close to her cheeks and tucked in tight to her dad’s leg. Once they arrived at the stable, he reminded her. “ Now, you will stay near me but watch not to get in the way, right?” Jan often heard him use those words when he reprimanded her brothers for having been underfoot. They had been too close, or not close enough. “Use your instincts,” was another thing dad would say to end his scolding. It wasn’t long that dad forget Jan was with him. At first he brought bails of hay out from the barn and stacked them in the narrow corridor boarding the view of hay, from the cows. He cut the string with a short pocketknife and spread slabs of hay in front of the 22 cows. They slowly blinked long lashed eyelids over their dark eyes and up again. Jan though they were moving in slow motion. With unassuming elegance they twisted large jaws in semi circles chewing forever on the one handful of hay as they blinked. They knew to crane their neck and push on the steel collar that held them to their space. The exercise allowed the cow’s long face to dip into the shallow bow located on a post, next to them. The water tap was in the bottom of the bow, pressing it caused water to fill it. “You make a lot of noise.” Jan said to the cow and she tried to mimic the sound. The cow stared in her direction. Jan stared back at the huge dark eyes. From the huge pink nostril of that cow came a “himff” of air explosion. She jumped back and hustled away. Cautious and smiling, Jan kept her distance while her father gathered tools for the obvious routine of milking cows. She watched how he moved around his captive herd. He used a stiff bristled brush on their hide before wiping udders with warm soapy water. Then he attached the automatic milking machine. It looked heaving, made of shiny metal. But it was not heavy at all. The four tubes fit and held in place with ease. Immediately milk appeared in the reservoir. The cow behaved as though noting was happening. He father patted each cow on the back before he moved to repeat the same procedure on the other. But some, for reason unknown to Jan, he hand-milked. That’s when she was needed. When she heard her name. “Jan?” He dad had called. She made her way out, dragging her gloved fingers along the wall of the narrow barn-wood corridor, the to the white washed corridor behind the animal. Hooves and legs and tails all in a row. The lighting here was bright. Light bulbs hung on thin wires, mid air along the corridor. A soft hum of machinery mixed with the smell of manure, beast and disinfectant took away the smell of fresh hay. Slow and cautious, she approached her dad. He stood on the opposite side of the poop-gutter. He grabbed the cow’s tail and handed it to Jan. “You hold it tight now.” He said. He sat on the stool, positioned the shiny stainless bucket between his knees and wiped his hand from the soapy solution he just squired in his hands. His hat was twisted backward, to press his forehead into the cow’s belly. He began hand-milking process. Each squeeze of milk met with the bucket like a plucked note on a string. Jan made up a singsong, a harmony she belted out without care. She held the tail from whipping her father’s head. It was her job. It took concentration. Without notice, the tail would try pull away. It was all that Jan could do to recapture it. It would take a while before the rush of having nearly dropped it, would pass. Those tiny woven braids were added power to a weapon, such as a tail. And, “Gosh” was all she could say when the cow started to pee. He own wide eyes blinked in slow motion. She sighed, .

Maureen O.

When Joyce Carol Oates asks why Nick's father took Nick to this camp, I remembered my midwife mother taking me about the same age to go deliver a baby during the Biafran War. The same question has crossed my mind several times, Why did she take me? I was the 4th of her 5 children, a typical middle child, not special in any way. Why did she take me? The experience was life altering and I still remember the child we delivered, a grown man now. My mother is late and I never got to ask her. I still don't know why.

Annie B.

I don't often dislike Hemingway, but when I do, it's because of the innate discrimination implicit in the story. The whole act seems like an exercise in teaching the white kid, using the Indian family as guinea pigs. I wonder how many white woman would enjoy this story if the races were reversed-----ie an Indian doctor, bringing his son to a white woman's birth to teach the meaning of life or whatever.


In one twelve-minute video, Oates gives the best lesson I've ever seen on Hemingway's theory and practice of story-telling. Regarding the “iceberg” theory popularized by Hemingway, don’t you think that all fiction is a process of triggering emotions and analysis through the telling of a story? A cheaply-written story could involve you while you’re reading it, but as soon as you put it down you move on. If a masterfully-written story somehow stays with you, or it haunts you, that’s because the part of the iceberg which remained underwater is doing its work. A well-written and well-presented essay can also stay with you, but the mechanism for that and the resulting experience is completely different from what a piece of fiction may accomplish. You're either writing fiction or writing an essay, but you cannot combine the two forms of writng, since essays and fiction work on completely different parts of the brain. A combination of the two would make for a very ineffective creation. All that Hemingway did was to have articulated these principles in story-telling and to have attempted to illustrate them through his work and for that we could at least be grateful.

A fellow student

A good look on how an author can practice their writing and see where the actual story is. This tells people that a story can come out from unexpected places


What lies beneath the surface is the fascination of Hemingway, you have to look quite deep to see the real story. At least, some interpretations of it. I think that was Hemingway’s intention and his genius. The story has many layers, many depths and is open to what the reader can see, or what he is blind to. Personally, I see that George was the Father, not because of the cigars, although that was a hint. There are other clues. Why was he there, he had no other reason to be there at all. The woman bit his arm…’Damn squaw bitch!’ Shows his contempt, a typical rapists refrain. The young Indian laughed at him. Why? Maybe he thought Uncle George had got what he deserved. And again, when ‘Uncle George looked at his arm. The young Indian smiled reminiscently.’ Why did he smile and why was he reminiscent. Unless he was remembering the screams as the young woman fought her rapist. Maybe she even bit him then too. Why was the baby not given to her as soon as it was born, and where did Uncle George go? Did Uncle George take his son? The Husband’s suicide also points to at least someone else being the Father. And if it were from a rape? The shame, the injustice, I suspect the Indians had suffered more than their fair share at the hands of Colonial Supremacy. A new Father would be joyous, he would want to be protecting his newborn Son and his wife, would he not? He rolls to the wall when the Doctor says ‘ But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.’ The doctor is saying that the suffering of this woman in childbirth, or in rape, or even the suffering of the Indian community itself, is not important. The good Doctor does not hear it or does not want to. Now that would make a man want to kill himself. Symbolically, Nick does not see into the pan, does not want to see the ugliness, as young as he is, he too turns a blind eye. And at the end, the sun coming up and the bass jumping all symbolic of the continuation of life. The same as it as always been, the oppression of the Indians and no doubt, continued rapes. But Nick feels safe in his world, he most certainly won’t be the Indian cutting his own throat. His world is protected. It is a shame that Hemingway left out the first paragraph referring to the church last Sunday. It would have been a very poignant note to the story.


What strikes me is that the central horror of this story is not being addressed in this discussion. Let’s not forget that this woman is having a C-section without anesthesia. She’s being cut with a jackknife. It must be excruciating pain and surviving that experience while still delivering a living being is quite an achievement. However, the mother is seen almost as an animal; a screaming, biting creature, a bitch. Then, after the birth, as a spent and submissive figure. Despite her personal triumph of strength, the glory goes to the men, who congratulate each other. We are led to have a measure of sympathy for the Indian who killed himself, but there is no sense of compassion for the woman. It's an interesting juxtaposition that says something about cultural and gender roles. Did Hemingway intend this or was his bias leaking through?


What was implicit in the story was how secure Nick felt with his father and the intention of the father to give him that security. It starts with the father's arm around Nick in the first part of the story and then in the end when Nick felt sure he would never die. It seems like Nick's hand trailing in the water signifies his calm and attention change (like a young child does) after the father answered all of his questions. The father was trying to teach the boy when the lesson became way bigger than he intended. Even so, the father tried to soften the blow by answering all of his young son's questions. I feel I am left to make up my own mind about whether George was the father of the baby and why the Indian might have killed himself.