S2/E8: Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story (MasterClass)
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Joyce. Carol. Oates. Teaching a MasterClass. In your living room. Or while you’re driving to work. Or wherever. I mean. . . how can you not?! Joyce Carol Oates!
In case you haven’t ever heard of her, here’s a thumbnail sketch. She’s written almost sixty novels and many, many, many short stories, novellas, poetry, and essays. Plus, she still figures out how to be pretty active on Twitter somehow. She’s taught at Princeton and Berkeley (and this class is basically the same thing she teaches in the spring). She’s won her first major award (National Book Award) for her novel them in 1969. But she has some O. Henry Awards, the National Humanities Medal, and the Jerusalem Prize racked up, as well. She’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize several times for her both her novels (Black Water, What I Lived For, and Blonde) and her short story collections (The Wheel of Love and Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories). And, you may know her from her Oprah Book Club selection, We Were the Mulvaneys.
JCO covers both the principles of short fiction writing and (like the best mentors do!) mindset. I appreciate the way she breaks down her own most famous story (“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), one of Ernest Hemingway’s earlier stories (“Indian Camp”), and the stories of two of her students. If you haven’t ever had the chance to be a part of a workshop, the last lessons in this offer a good, general introduction to how workshops happen.
1. There’s Writing and There’s Writing. She does break her writing work into different stages. She likes to research thoroughly, daydream about her work when she’s out for a run or doing menial chores, whip through a fast first draft, then revise. She’s another successful author advising you to write fast, if you can. Can you write the first draft of a short story in one sitting? She believes that the writing of the first draft should be somewhat proportional to the amount of time it takes to read it. Most short stories can be finished in one sitting, for instance. You probably won’t be able to do that, but consider trying to keep the writing of your first draft to a few hours or during a few sessions over the course of a week or so. On that same note, she urges you to write the first draft of a novel quickly, as well. She warns that if you polish your early chapters too soon, you’ll become too attached to them. Then when you need to change them because of something that happens later, you’ll be more resistant to what needs to happen to make your book (or story) as good as it can be. She pairs this suggestion with the understanding that you’ll likely need to revise, revise, revise. “Revise as much as you need.”
2. From the beginning of her career, Oates’ books often have social commentary, despite the fact that women were expected to write about domestic issues when she started. She tips her hat to those writers who write well about home and hearth, but she’s fascinated with broad sociological/political issues and darker, “taboo” topics. At one point early in her career, a reviewer admonished her to “leave the novel of social unrest to Norman Mailer.” (She thought that was funny. And I love her for that.) She encourages you to write what fascinates you and to bear witness where you can, especially for those who have been silenced or eliminated. Do this whether it’s something a writer like you “should” write or not. She has great confidence that you will find an audience out there for it. However, when you write about issues, be mindful of the fact that your readers are most likely to connect with the characters who are experiencing the effects of the issues. Or as Tayari Jones says her mentor once told her: “Write about people and their problems. Don’t write about problems and their people.” (And I would add, if you’re a person that doesn’t fit the demographic you’re writing about, please consider having your work read by sensitivity readers.)
3. Get your writing out to other people. There are several reasons to do this. Here are two of my favorite.
A. It makes it clear when you’re being too clever or too subtle. Because so many writers worry about being too obvious, readers can sometimes get lost or be confused about what happened in your story. Joyce Carol Oates suggests that you err towards overexplaining sometimes: “You can be very obvious and your editor can always take it out.”
B. It helps you to “practice finishing.” You have to finish something (even a first draft) for someone to be able to read it. It’s a great motivator. It’s why I started and joined critique groups at different times in my writing life.
*Save things for later. She does a lot of research for her books, as well. When you’re revising, go through your notes and note in some way (she uses checkmarks) if you’ve used that particular piece of research or invention or character quirk in this story. If not, it’s there for your to use at a later time, if you like.
Here’s the weekly quotation. Caregivers, people-pleasers, givers of all varieties especially, listen up:
“The only thing that’s bad for writing is being interrupted. You have to have time to write. And while that probably seems obvious, you’re probably living a life with a lot of interruptions. And you say, well, I’ll try not to be interrupted, but that’s probably the great danger right now of creativity: is being interrupted a lot. Some of it is self-interruption… looking at a cell phone… looking at Twitter…looking at the news…or email or whatever. You elect to interrupt yourself, [and] so the brain’s neurological continuity keeps getting jostled…. If you’re in a relationship with people…they make all these inroads interruptions. Now you love them very much, but you’re going to have to get away from all these interruptions. You can’t possibly work or create anything of worth if people are constantly interrupting you…. It’s this constant giving. You have to at some point go into a room, close the door and tell people not to come in. If you can’t do that, you have to run away…. Constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination. Your worst enemy [to your creativity] will have your most beloved face…someone you can’t say no to, so we have to sort of run away and hide. The great enemy of writing isn’t your own lack of talent, your own lack of industry, it’s being interrupted.” Joyce Carol Oates in her MasterClass, Lesson 2: Protect Your Time
This class will take you around four amazing, encouraging, stimulating, but also somehow zen-like hours. She spends a lot of time on various aspects of short story craft far beyond what I could summarize here. I would 100% recommend this class to any fiction writer, but if you’re a short story writer, I think you should strongly consider it.
There are two ways to access a MasterClass.
Individual classes cost $90 each and you have access to them forever.
The all-access pass costs $180 annually ($15/month) and gives you access to every class. Other categories of classes besides writing include classes on film/television, music/entertainment, culinary arts, business/politics/society, sports/games, design/photography/fashion, science/technology, and lifestyle. It’s important to note that you don’t get access to them once you cancel your subscription.
I hope this was helpful to you! Next week I’ll be applying this same approach to my Rookie Book Report on Lifelong Writing Habit (2015) by Chris Fox.
Until then. . .
Happy writing, people!