School may be out for summer, but it's also a great time to work on your creative writing. What does true mastery of the short story look like? Literary legend Joyce Carol Oates has a MasterClass in short fiction, and as you might imagine, there's no better person to teach you to write short stories.
Thinking of taking her MasterClass but want to know if it's worth it?
Wondering what you'll get if you'll sign up? Read on for my Joyce Carol Oates MasterClass review.
Joyce Carol Oates has penned a staggering amount of work over the course of her writing career. It’s kind of mind-boggling how much she’s written. Oates has been teaching at Princeton for years and is the National Book Award-winning author of fifty-eight novels and thousands of short stories. Thousands. (I needed to take a deep breath after reading that.)
In this post, I’m going to share my personal Joyce Carol Oates MasterClass review. I’ll outline what’s in the course, what I learned and what I didn't, and why you should (or shouldn't!) take the class.
I do want to let you know something before we get started: while I wasn’t paid to write this review, the links below are affiliate links. If you sign up for MasterClass, it will help me be able to keep writing (and help me continue sharing what I’ve learned about the writing process). Of course, this won’t affect your overall price, and it didn’t affect my decision on the course.
Take a look at Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass. Now, let’s jump in.
Turn Instinct Into Craft
Oates had me in the opening video of this course when she said (paraphrasing) if you think you’re a writer, you probably are. You probably just don’t have the craft down quite yet.
This is important. Read it again.
And I needed to revisit my short story craft. I’ve been focused on writing a novel for months now, and am just switching gears to get back to short stories (my first love).
Oates’s insights into the basics of short story writing couldn’t have come at a better time for me.
What You Get in Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass
If you haven’t taken a Masterclass before, here’s the deal: You get pre-recorded video lessons, writing assignments, an interactive community, and instructor “office hours.”
In this particular case, the course material includes a little over three hours of video, as well as downloadable PDFs that include a class workbook with lesson review, further reading, assignments, and two short story case studies that accompany the revision lessons.
1. Approachable Material
I have to admit, I was a little intimidated by this class, worried it might be only for seasoned writers. I mean, did you see Oates’s credentials? She’s in an entirely different writing universe than me. I thought she’d be talking way over my head about advanced theory and I’d want to cry over how much I didn’t know about words.
That turned out to not be the case. This is a class for beginner to intermediate level students.
2. 14 HD Video Lessons
There are fourteen video lessons in this course. This isn’t my first MasterClass, but I’m always impressed with how well they produce their videos. They’re simply beautiful and the accompanying music and transitions are wonderfully conducive to the subject matter and instructor’s personality.
Here’s an outline of all the lessons:
- Principles of Writing Short Fiction
- Journals: Observing the World
- Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness
- Structure and Form
- Ideas: Writing the Familiar
- Form Study: Miniature Narrative
- Form Study: Short Monologue
- Story Study: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
- Reading and Studying Writing
- The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp”
- Revision Workshop: “Labor Day”
- Revision Workshop: “Near Death”
To learn more about what’s inside each lesson, click here.
3. PDF Downloads
The downloads for this class were great. In fact, in my opinion, the downloads were really the meat of the course. There’s an entire workbook that provides a lesson review, additional reading, assignments, and challenges. Then there are four downloads for two different stories showing the revision process.
Each lesson comes with at least three writing exercises. Oates’s teaching style gravitates toward looking at the small things first and then looking at the big picture. So in the first several lessons, the homework asks you to do things like write a scene or character outline.
The later lessons move on to larger projects like writing a complete story or interviewing a family member. And then finally, you’re revising, that all-important and dreaded step.
5. Office Hours + Class Interaction
The MasterClass also includes “office hours,” which gives you the opportunity to ask Oates questions and get a response via video. Since this course is so new, Oates hasn’t recorded a response video yet, but you are currently able to submit questions.
This feature of MasterClass courses has to be my favorite. It’s so cool to be able to interact with the instructors directly, even if it is via video instead of direct chat.
You also have the option to interact with other writers taking the class in the Hub and via comments on the videos.
Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass: The Good
There's a lot to love about this class. These are the aspects that stood out for me:
- Tips for finding inspiration. I’ve read a lot about where to find story inspiration. I’ve even written articles on where to find it. Still, Oates had some interesting tips on where to get ideas, from confronting taboo to digging deep into inner pain. Kind of depressing, but also powerful.
- Workshops. And more workshops. This course is full of full-blown critique of short stories: famous ones, Oates’s, and two of her college students’. In fact, most of the lesson time is taken up by short story analysis.
- Application to all lengths. Oates’s tips don’t just apply to short stories, but to all lengths of fiction. While I was looking for something that was short story-specific, it was nice to not be so pigeon-holed.
- The assignments are awesome. The workbook is really where this class shines. There are a ton of assignments and I think they’re more help than the videos. They start out small, getting you thinking about the world differently and observing, and then they build into larger tasks.
- Revision-focused. While it’s not quite what I was looking for, Oates’s roundtable discussions with her students was incredibly interesting. It’s a great example of how the critique process is supposed to go.
The Not So Good: Why You May Want to Pass on Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass
Like any class, this isn’t for everyone. Here are a few reasons why you might want to skip this one:
- No critique of your work. The class doesn’t promise this, but if you’re looking to interact more with an instructor, namely getting critique or brainstorming, this isn’t the class for you. As I mentioned before, there are office hours to ask questions, but you’re not going to get a critique of your work from Oates.
- It’s very similar to a college course. Oates even said at one point that the class was basically a condensed version of her undergraduate college course. For me, this made it a bit dry. Also, the benefit of a college course is the ability to be right in the room with the instructor, and that’s not the case here.
- Not in-depth enough. I write a lot of short stories and have read a lot about writing short stories. If you’re looking for an advanced class on structure, this isn’t for you.
- No process. Oates doesn’t quite get to giving a step-by-step process of how to go about writing a short story, nor a gameplan on the revision process.
Think it will be helpful to you? Sign up here or read on for my final review.
My Review: Is Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass for You?
Should you take Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass? Probably. This wasn’t my favorite MasterClass, but there were some gems in there that were worth the few hours of video and the workbook was really great.
Ready to take Joyce Carol Oates's MasterClass and master the nuances of short stories?
The feel of the course reminded me a lot of a college-level English lit class (Oates is a lecturer, after all). I’m not sure that worked well for this particular class, simply because I wasn’t sitting in the same room with Oates, getting my story analyzed by her and other students. The videos were interesting, but weren’t as in-depth as I was hoping.
Just like in college, the real work came with the practice in the homework assignments and the majority of the lecture time was taken up by in-depth analyses of different short stories. It’s very hands-on.
This course is for writers who are interested in a college-like atmosphere where most of the work will be outside the “lectures.” If you like analyzing short stories and more active learning that simply listening to lectures, then you’ll love this course.
MasterClass has three membership tiers and all include an all-access pass to all courses.
- You can purchase an individual membership which allows one individual to log into classes on one device for $10/ month billed annually at $120.
- You can purchase a duo membership which allows for one account on two devices for $180 a year, or $15 per month.
- They have a family pass which is one account that can be shared across six devices for $20/ month billed annually for $240.
There are several other MasterClasses by expert authors, including one by R.L. Stine, and they keep adding more all the time. If you'd like to learn from as many great authors as you can, the all-access pass is a great option. You can read our review of R.L. Stine’s class here.
Final verdict: If you have the all-access pass, definitely give this one a go. It’s worth the few hours of video and it’s definitely worth the workbook.
Have you taken Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass? What do you think of it? Let us know in the comments.
Oates is a big fan of digging into pain and discomfort to produce short stories. Today, spend fifteen minutes writing about a painful episode from your past.
Post it in the Pro Practice Workshop here if you feel comfortable sharing. If not, comment and let us know how it felt to write about that episode. Don’t forget to comment on other posts!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.