Celebrating Senior Theses: An Interview with Claire Ashmead ‘17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.

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Claire Ashmead completed two theses this spring: for her History concentration, a comparative study of McCarthyism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and, for her Creative Writing certificate, a novella entitled The Camel-Hair Coat. Here she reflects on writing and revising, family and loss, and the completion of her first book.  

“Any creative product is more bound up with your soul than an academic product. My creative writing thesis is about my relationship with the women in my family, my relationship with space itself.”

What is your novella, The Camel-Hair Coat, about?
It follows a girl, Daphne, who, four years ago, under mysterious circumstances, lost her mother in a terrible accident. Her intense grief over her mother’s death and profound yearning to know why her mother was taken away from her summons the ghost of her mother back from the dead. Daphne is faced with this choice: she can bring her mother back to reality, which she has wanted more desperately than she’s ever wanted anything before, but with terrible consequences for the rest of her family – her sister and grandmother. The price of bringing somebody back might be the exchange of other people you love, and even yourself. But if you really miss somebody – what wouldn’t you do?

How would you distill the book’s themes into a few words?
Grief, wishes, and growing up.

What was the hardest part of writing the book?
How much I had to revise. The book underwent a dramatic transformation, in part because I had two advisers: Joyce Carol Oates in the fall and then Jeffrey Eugenides in the spring. They’re completely different writers, which for me I think ended up being great: Joyce Carol Oates really tries to pull your creativity out of you, and she encouraged me to envision an alternative reality that ended up being a little confusing. Jeffrey Eugenides, on the other hand, is a very linear storyteller. When I gave him my draft, he told me he didn’t really understand what was going on, and that I needed to rewrite.

It was February, and I was hearing from my adviser that the 140 pages I’d generated needed to go. But in another sense that actually felt great.

At first that was very scary. It was February, and I was hearing from my adviser that the 140 pages I’d generated needed to go. But in another sense that actually felt great. I’d had the sneaking suspicion that the story needed a major change, and I wasn’t sure in what way. So I decided to structure it like a four-act play, where each act takes place in one day of one season. Once I had that structure, it was like, bingo! I know how this is going to develop.

In the second writing, I only kept maybe 3% of the words I’d previously written. But because I’d already created the spaces and characters in my head, writing the story the second time around actually took almost no effort, and required much less editing.

How did you juggle writing two separate theses?
It was all about time management. I also really believe that just getting words on a page is so crucial. Often people feel like writing needs to be perfect when it comes out onto the page. My experience writing for Princeton Triangle Club has taught me that actually the hardest part is just starting, and as soon as you begin to write, your thoughts become clearer.

Also, the processes of the two theses were very different, which was helpful – if they were the same it probably would’ve been much more difficult for me to do the two. For my creative thesis, I wrote almost every day. With creative writing, I want to explore characters and change dialogue, so the earlier I get it out, the better. In history, it’s a very different beast: I like getting all of my secondary source reading and research done, getting it all into my head, and then putting it out onto the page. I would research for months and months, and then sit down and write a chapter in a day or two.

Describe your happy place as a writer.
I have a two-room single in Edwards, so I have a room with my bed, and then another with a desk, facing the window. I wake up early, at 6 or 7 a.m., and would either go for a run or just go get coffee at Rojo’s, and then come to my desk in my little monastic sanctuary and write.

Claire in the “monastic sanctuary” where she drafted her thesis by hand. “I don’t like writing on lined paper,” she told me. “It’s art – I mean, you wouldn’t draw on lined paper, right? You might want to go off in any direction!”

The first time I write something, I write in pen, by hand, on blank sheets of unlined paper. The great thing about writing by hand is that it’s physically exhausting, so you only say what you need to say, and the words you pick are more exact and intentional.

I’d sit down and write for about an hour and a half every morning, which would be about five double-spaced typed pages, sometimes more. The first sentence can sometimes be difficult, but as you start writing, you reenter the world. It’s like learning to ride a bike: you remember it, and you just push forward on the momentum of describing the scene.

The first sentence can sometimes be difficult, but as you start writing, you reenter the world. It’s like learning to ride a bike: you remember it, and you just push forward on the momentum of describing the scene.

Do you have a favorite section of the book?
A lot of the book was plot that I just had to get through, and then there were a few scenes that made me feel that they were exactly why I wrote the book. Here are two paragraphs, after Daphne’s mother has come back and she is able to speak with her mother again.

Her mother took her hands. “At least you’ll have your father to walk you down the aisle. Mine was gone by the time I was your age. I missed him so much.”

“What’s it like?” Daphne asked. “Missing somebody?”

“You know, I’ve never thought about it.” Her mother frowned. “I’d say missing somebody is like remembering to pick up milk at the grocery store. Most of the time, you don’t think about it at all. And then all of a sudden the thought will just occur to you. I’ve got to pick up milk at the grocery store. And the thought will occur to you once a week, every month, every year, for forever. I’ve got to pick up milk at the grocery store. There, that’s it. I think about my father every day.”

If you’d like to read more of The Camel-Hair Coat, you can find it archived – with all senior theses – on the senior thesis digital archive, where it will be available starting after graduation on June 6th, 2017.

— Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent

Celebrating Senior Theses: An interview with Alex Ford ’17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.

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Alex Ford, a senior from Los Angeles

On Thursday, April 20th, the University Student Government presented Zanmim, a short film by Alex Ford ’17 who is a concentrator in Sociology and has a certificate in film studies. After completing both of his theses (a film and a research paper on Haiti), Alex agreed to sit down with PCUR  to talk more about his work. Here’s what he had to say:
Continue reading Celebrating Senior Theses: An interview with Alex Ford ’17

When Work is Playtime: Reflections on the Creative Process

In between classes, extracurriculars, and my Spanish and Portuguese thesis, I’ve spent the last year developing a new musical that runs Thursday May 11 through Sunday May 14 — Beautiful Girls: A Musical Playdate. Developed with two other theater certificate students, the play uses music by Stephen Sondheim to explore themes of friendship, queerness, and identity, and how all of these can and cannot be distilled in the clothes we wear. Looking back on this yearlong project, I realize it has helped me reconnect with what makes both research and creative work so fulfilling: the freedom to explore, improvise, and think beyond what has already been made.

The show runs only 45 minutes. Tickets are free, and may be reserved at: https://tickets.princeton.edu/Online/default.asp

When we started the project, we knew just a couple things about the show: 1) There would be only three actors: the three thesis students. 2) We would use songs by the versatile composer Stephen Sondheim. 3) We would queer this material by performing songs from a number of Sondheim’s shows, regardless of each character’s gender, personality, or “type.”

At our first production meeting, Vince, the music director, suggested it could be wildly fun to put our own mark on each song: adding voice parts to solos, layering different songs on top of each other, or even changing musical styles. This would require weekly sessions for musical improvisation. Rather than calling these “music rehearsals,” which implied some sort of set music to learn, we decided to call them “musical playdates.”

Continue reading When Work is Playtime: Reflections on the Creative Process

Celebrating Senior Theses: An interview with Aubree Andres ’17

In our spring series, Senior Theses: A Celebration, we take a moment in the interlude between thesis deadlines and graduation to appreciate the diverse, personal, and impactful work of seniors’ capstone research projects.

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Aubree Andres ’17 is an Anthropology concentrator with a certificate in visual arts. Here, she shares the story behind her visual arts thesis, an installation that transformed a room in the Lewis Center into a kaleidoscope of color and collage. The installation is titled after Aubree’s favorite non-word: &Thunk.

Aubree, a senior from Cambridge, Massachusetts, stands with one of the completed walls in her thesis exhibition. The panels are a collage of strips she cut from fashion magazines, interweaving images and words. 

What is your thesis about?
The intersection between chaos and control, the complications with human memory and fragmented narrative, and giving the viewer a lot to get lost in.

Tell me about the space where you created your thesis.
I share a studio in Lewis with two other girls in the program. It’s facing Nassau Street, so we get tons of natural light. The heater’s broken, so it’s always really cold. But it’s just – it’s a mess, in the best way. The floors have been splattered with paint for years before you’ve been there. You know, each year, every studio is made to reflect the humans that are living and working there. It’s like moving into a dorm room, with the history of all the people who have lived there before you – except it’s a dorm room with no repercussions for throwing paint everywhere. You can tell it’s a space to get chaotic and messy.

What are the things you can’t thesis without?
Mod Podge [a collaging glue]. Scissors. Lots of magazines. I mostly used fashion magazines – Vogue, and a bunch of old Oprah magazines from my mom. I spent hours and hours in the studio, often with friends, flipping through magazines…putting the show together was very different from the normal kind of stress I feel at Princeton. Oh, and I listened to a lot of music. Music is the real MVP.

What’s the soundtrack of your thesis?
A lot of Hamilton, relaxing folky music, and long, random mixtapes. The three albums I listened to the most were Always this Late by Odesza, Malibu by Anderson Paak, and In Colour by Jamie xx.

“My mom is probably the most influential creative force in my life. She and I had done mosaics in the past – not on this scale or style – but I took a lot of my pieces home over winter break, and we laid down the papers and talked about it. That’s when a lot of the work started to come together.”

Did you have an Aha! moment in your artistic process?
The weekend I installed the project, my parents had come down to help out, and it was an exhausting two days. My “Aha! moment” came just after I’d installed both of my bigger walls in the space, and then brought my beanbags in and sat down. My mom has a picture of me passed out there in a beanbag chair. When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.

“When I woke up there, in that space, I realized: wow – I’ve done it. I’ve created something that I could look at forever.”

What’s one thing you would do differently if you were to start again from the beginning?
I was way too nervous at the beginning about what I was ultimately going to do. With a thesis and a whole installation it’s hard to see the endpoint from the very beginning, and I put way too much pressure on myself to perform – all with Mod Podge and paper, these most basic materials! I learned that not knowing where you’re going to end up is totally fine.

— Interview by Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent