There’s only one rule of show business, or writing, and that’s don’t be boring.
Joyce Carol Oates has been recognized as a literary treasure for more than 50 years. Her work has been honored with many distinguished awards, including the National Book Award for her novel “them.” She’s also won two O. Henry Awards, the National Humanities Medal, and the Jerusalem Prize.
Oates published her first book in 1963 and has since published 58 novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She is a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley where she teaches short fiction.
Here are my Favourite takeaways from viewing Joyce Carol Oates Masterclass Session on The Art of Short Story:
The Principle of Writing Short Fiction
- Retain a childlike sense of mystery as you engage in the writing process, seeking to understand the power
structures—the institution of marriage, the government, patriarchy, the internet, the nuclear family—that keep us “in thrall.” Many of these subjects can be intimidating and even frightening and you can’t overcome them by power and force.
Focus on Critical Characters
- It’s important to choose characters who fascinate you; the short story can be an exploration into why exactly this character is so important or unique to your perspective. As you think about your characters or even write your first draft, challenge yourself to understand how and why their motivations drive the story, what their background is like, and how their life experiences will determine the way they move and act on the page.
Write about Pivotal Events
- Art doesn’t exactly imitate life—we don’t need to see characters brush their teeth day after day. Instead, we need to see them in pivotal or profound moments in order to heighten drama and limit (or structure) the time frame.
- Start developing your skills and flexing your narrative muscles by focusing on more finite amounts of time and singular events.
Burn through the First Draft
- The first draft, Joyce says, should be blazing. Let the fires of creativity burn, and write your first draft as fast as you can. Once you finish the first draft, you’ll have a feeling of power and autonomy over this integral first step in the process—you can take weeks to revise and craft the piece once you’ve allowed for the creative energy to manifest your original idea.
- To structure a revision, start looking at your story in parts. For example, reread just the beginning of your story as many times as possible, and change things along the way. You might end up cutting paragraphs to achieve quicker pacing, focusing on the nitty-gritty syntax of your sentences, or adding sections to the story in order to give the piece more depth.
The more you read your story, the faster your reading pace becomes; this emulates the experience of your actual audience.
The Art of Storytelling
- “There are two ways of looking at writing,” says Joyce. The first is that you’re telling a story transparently—plot, action, dialogue, and characters who are precise and easily understood. The other is that your language is telling a story unto itself. The decisions you make about the language you use can be another layer of storytelling.
Protect your Time
The worst thing for writing is interruption.
- Being proactive and protecting your time is paramount. Joyce has learned to utilize times of day that tend to be quieter—morning and night—to write. However possible, we need to learn to go into a room, close the door, and give our writing the concentration it requires.
- Joyce says there is a neurophysiological impact when you finish something, including a short story: When you write or type that last sentence, you will experience a surge of energy. This is a galvanizing force for new writers, and that is one reason Joyce suggests that new writers begin with short fiction rather than a novel.
- Novel-writing can be exhausting and long—it could take years—and the shadow that novel-writing casts is likely to be oppressive for new writers. Allow yourself to have a few surges of energy in the early stages of your writing life by starting small and finishing your narratives.
Taking down your thoughts before they escape you is a good way to sharpen your observational skills
- On some level, a motive for all writing is self-expression. Journaling is an effective way to keep in contact with your own thoughts. Joyce has kept a diary or journal since she was 21 and has found it helpful not only for self-expression and self-knowledge but for observation of the world around her.
Face the Darkest Element
- Write about what haunts you. Look to the past, to history, perhaps even to your own family and ancestry to find the stories that haven’t—or maybe couldn’t—be told.
- Writing about what haunts you—the stories, images, and facts of life that trouble you on a deep level—is frightening. But there is a profound power in facing these fears.
YOUR DARKNESS HAS AN AUDIENCE
– Your darkness—the parts of yourself and your mind that you might consider vulgar, sinister, tragic, or strange—has an
audience. People commonly experience these more troubling characteristics and thoughts, though most have no outlet
READING AS APPRENTICESHIP
- Writers are shaped by other writers. The books we read as children influence our tastes and can often have an impact on our writing style as adults. The writers who shape us are almost like unofficial mentors: By reading widely and closely, young writers can learn at the feet of history’s most famed and beloved authors work you want to emulate will challenge you to up your game and expose you to excellent craftsmanship.
- J.K. Rowling can teach you how to build fictional worlds;
- Nicole Krauss can teach you how to layer multiple narrators and perspectives;
- Rebecca Curtis can teach you how to use patterns and repetition for humor.
- All you have to do is study their work
Find your Window
- Ultimately, though, the most surprising part of the writing process will be you. You have the ability to shock, surprise, and delight yourself every day if you allow your imagination to take the wheel. Writing is a “spiritual manifestation” of something— many things—deep within us. This could be a secret shame, or an ancestral story never told, or an experience that’s absurd and humorous. It could even be a memory that you haven’t yet accessed.
- As you continue pursuing a career as a writer, be gentle with yourself. Expect nothing other than the pleasure of writing and, potentially one day, the honor of connecting with an audience.
- Greatness doesn’t come quickly, and beautiful narratives aren’t written in a week. Allow yourself to explore. Expect to come to know yourself and the world around you a bit better, to see the past and future in a more exciting way. That is the pleasure of writing
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