This semester, I took my first
fiction workshop in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program. I had taken two
poetry courses in previous semesters and wanted to try something new. (Pro-tip:
if you haven’t yet taken a CWR course, definitely consider applying for one
Creative writing is, in many ways,
a break from academic writing. It does not center on data, analysis, or
argumentation. Instead, workshops focus on developing compelling images,
characters, stories. Creative writing also has access to a wider variety of
forms than academic writing, which tends to adhere to a narrow set of
relatively conservative styles.
However, some of my workshop instructor’s writing advice has translated well to my academic writing. After all, writing is writing, and many of the same challenges confront both creative and academic writers. Below I’ve collected five of her best pieces of writing advice:
For this year’s Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Post-Princeton Life: The Experiences of PCUR Alumni, each correspondent has selected a PCUR alum to interview about what they have been up to. We hope that these interviews will provide helpful insight into the many different paths Princeton students take after graduation. Here, Raya shares her interview.
Teaching, travel, Congress, the Writing Center, political theory, Yale! Former PCUR chief correspondent Isabelle Laurenzi graduated from Princeton in 2015 with a degree in Religion. She has since gone on to pursue an array of adventures and projects. Most recently, Isabelle completed her first year of a Ph.D. program at Yale in political theory. For our seasonal spring series, I caught up with Isabelle to learn more about her time at Princeton and explorations after. In our conversation, Isabelle and I connected over our shared interest in interdisciplinary studies and the joy of pursuing one’s interests through varied avenues.
In my last post, I started an exploration of writing on campus to understand how students approach the writing process outside the classroom in their own work and in extracurriculars. In that post, I considered creative writing and the ways academic writing can present a similar opportunity for expression and creativity.
In this post, I interview Sam Shapiro ’21 who is a Features Editor and writer for the Daily Princetonian. In my interview with Sam, we discussed the differences and similarities between journalism and academic writing and how to bring the thrill one feels when chasing a story for a publication to a term paper in class.Continue reading Writing for Fun? (Part 2): Journalism and Academic Writing
We are constantly writing––composing emails, blackboard posts, essays, and dean’s date papers. In this two-part series, I am interested in understanding the different forms of writing students explore on campus. Specifically, I interview students who write for campus publications to see how they approach the writing process in their extracurriculars.
In this post, I Interview Serena Alagappan ’20, the Editor-in-Chief and a writer for Nassau Weekly. Serena is a comparative literature major who, for three years now, has shared poetry, cultural critiques, profiles, and fiction through the Nass. In my interview with Serena, we discuss creative writing and the connection she has experienced between her academic and personal writing. Serena encourages students to explore writing through the Creative Writing program and shares advice on how students can carry over the freedom and expression of creative writing into more formal and rigid academic subjects.
When one thinks about research, there are certain images that come to mind: a student hunched over an old book in an empty library, or a solitary scientist in a lab coat mixing chemicals or observing animals. Emily McLean ’20 has done her fair share of the first type, as a potential Anthropology major with a strong interest in American History.
A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Kristin Hauge about her independent work in the Music Department to highlight creative independent work in the arts. This week, I got in touch with Edric Huang, a senior in the Anthropology Department with certificates in Urban Studies and Creative Writing. Unlike most students on campus, he will be writing two theses this year. One is the classic research-based thesis that seniors in the sciences and humanities are familiar with, but the second will be a collection of poems for his Creative Writing Certificate. If you are unfamiliar with the kind of work that goes into creative theses, here’s what Edric had to share about his personal experience: Continue reading Writing a Creative Thesis: An Interview with Edric Huang ’18
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.
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.
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.
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.
Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.
Uh-oh. I am trying to write the first essay for my environmental nonfiction class. But, sitting down to write, I can already feel the despondent haze of writer’s block descending. I swivel in my chair. I check my email but have no new messages. I type fdsajkl; on the first line of the page, and then delete it. What’s wrong with me? I think. Am I a writer or not?
In honor of National Poetry Month, my professor, Marie Howe, suggested writing a poem every day for the month of April. “Who’s up for it?” she asked our Advanced Poetry class. “It can be just a few lines. I’ll do it if you do it.”
I was in.
I decided to write a poem right when I wake up each morning – figuring this is the only way I’d consistently get it done – and to forego my computer (and its associated, infinite distractions) in favor of a pencil and notebook. Every morning, I roll out of bed, perch myself on the wide windowsill of my ground-floor room, and write a poem.
I was shocked by how easily I could reshape my early-morning habits, and how much doing so affected the rest of my day. With this new routine has come a kind of freedom: my first thought of the day is no longer my calendar or breakfast or to-do list, but something creative and unlimited. I bring this creative lens with me through the rest of the day: watching milk gush over my cereal, stepping out into the April air, listening to a lecture about respiration across the animal kingdom. Continue reading A writer’s window: How poetry is changing how I see the world