January 25, 2006: Perspective
good thing going on’
By Jennifer Anne Kogler ’03
Jennifer Anne Kogler ’03’s first book, Ruby Tuesday, was published in May by HarperCollins.
At 16, like many of my peers, I set out on what has become a rite of passage — the college tour. Armed with my U.S. News & World Report in one hand and my BS detector in the other (which, coincidentally, almost short-circuited the fourth or fifth time a student tour guide proclaimed that the chow mein at the dining hall was not just edible, but “delicious”), I was determined to return home with a list detailing where I most wanted to matriculate. With my parents and twin brother Jeremy ’03 in tow, I hopscotched along the Eastern seaboard, handing out my résumé as eagerly as if I’d invented the vitae myself. By the time I had visited every school on my checklist, leaving a wake of Hyatts, Holiday Inns, and Best Westerns behind me, I found one gothic structure blending in with the next. I was becoming a confused muddle of pros and cons — I couldn’t distinguish a bulldog from a tiger, a secret society from an eating club, crimson from green. I’d heard so many student-to-faculty ratios that they were beginning to sound more like the odds on the Kentucky Derby than remotely helpful statistics. At least, until I walked into the Harvard admissions office.
“I’ve always wanted to write,” I said.
“If you want to write, you should check out Princeton. They’ve got a good thing going on.”
It was the one comment that dominated the wealth of data, eminent faculty members, and billion-dollar endowments. Eight years later, I now realize that this Harvard official was neither a covert agent hired by Princeton to sway the impressionable minds of prospective students, nor was he convinced by the mere look of me to use his persuasive powers to ensure that I would never call myself a Crimsonite. Or Crimsonarian. Or whatever. This unexpected remark tipped my scale toward Princeton, where it remained until I got my joyful YES!
Harvard Admissions Guy was right. The Princeton creative writing program is the best undergraduate program in the world. Sure, I’ve never attended a course at any school besides Princeton, and yes, I realize that I’m incredibly biased, but now that I’ve said it, I can move on.
Since the creative writing program was one of my primary reasons for choosing Princeton, it dominated the educational landscape my first semester. A student only need browse the list of those who taught writing at Princeton before she is trembling in her Wellies on her first rainy fall Princeton day. The list reads like a veritable Who’s Who of 20th-century literati: former visitors Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess, and Philip Roth; professors Edmund White, John McPhee ’53, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Muldoon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Chang-rae Lee, and many more. Let me put it this way: If professional writers all attended one big high school, the “Princeton” table in the cafeteria would be a pretty intimidating place to plop down and eat your green Jell-O, next to Toni Morrison and her posse. Add young alumni writers like Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, Jennifer Weiner ’91, and Jodi Picoult ’87 to the mix, and you also begin to realize that the Princeton table may even be the popular kid table. Pretty scary stuff.
It wasn’t until my second semester at Princeton that I applied to my first course, “Beginning Creative Writing.” I submitted a story, along with an application, and waited to see if my name was posted on the acceptance list. When it was, I had a handful of preconceived notions and a caseload of jitters. After my first few trips to 185 Nassau (the building, next to Thomas Sweet, where all the “artsy” kids are thrown together to form an artistic amalgamation of dancing, painting, acting, photographing, sculpting, and any other creative gerund imaginable), I grew accustomed to attending my twice-weekly two-hour writing workshops.
College creative writing workshops are curious things — ubiquitous yet maligned because some scholars don’t view such writing as a real discipline. At Princeton, while a professor looks on, eight to 12 students fall into a cycle of submitting work, critiquing other students’ work, and reading assigned fiction, poetry, or translations. Read, write, comment, repeat.
My experience with the Princeton creative writing program — from my first beginning class as a freshman to my senior creative thesis (and now novel, Ruby Tuesday) — was a blend of the expected and the unexpected. I expected to mutter to myself, “Oh, what do you know” a few times after a stringy-haired 19-year-old from Poughkeepsie told me that the short story I submitted that week was both convoluted and insignificant. I also expected to be inspired by the idea that sitting in front of me was a legendary professor whose career was writing — a person who contradicted the idea that working for a Goldman Stern Morgan Lynch Stanley Witter (where my twin brother now works) was the only acceptable way to make a living. I expected to be impressed by the quality of the student fiction. I was right on all three counts.
The things that I didn’t expect, however, have remained with me more than two years after exiting 185 Nassau for the last time as a student. Writing is and always will be a very personal venture. When I wrote a short story that bombed — by that I mean that the nicest thing the professor could say about it was that he really admired my syntax — I was distressed. It’s one thing for the kid from Poughkeepsie to ream your work, but when a Pulitzer Prize winner does it, even a phone call from Mom telling you that your professor “doesn’t know everything” can’t help salve the wound. Criticism hurt. A lot. There were times when I felt the workshops were overly critical and times when I thought criticism should have burst forth with reckless abandon, but did not. Once I got past the fact that a world-renowned writer was commenting on the story I wrote over a few caffeine-drenched nights on my virus-infected laptop, I realized that most of the comments were geared toward making me a better writer. Some professors were harsher than others, some scribbled more notes on my manuscript before they handed it back to me, but the feedback was treated seriously and administered carefully. With very few exceptions, I had the feeling that every one of my professors actually liked teaching.
I expected to find the air of 185 Nassau thick with pretense and snobbery — and being the kind of writer who often puts “green Jell-O” in the same sentence as “Toni Morrison,” I anticipated having a rough go. Occasionally, I did. Classes, however, were buoyed by the range of the students. Whether it was the religion major writing a screenplay that was three-quarters mystery, one-quarter social commentary, or the soon-to-be geologist’s mind-bending spin on a traditional sci-fi apocalyptic tale, everyone had a genuine passion for writing. In fact, the greatest danger facing the program may be that its growing fame and popularity will transform it into more of a finishing school than an idealistic experiment. Its melting-pot quality is one of its greatest strengths.
One question pervades any creative writing course: Can the subject be taught at all? Can you make a writer or is she born, pen in hand, paper in fist? There may be no definitive answer, but each writing course I took considered the query in a different manner. In my first course, the professor gave specific prompts — different exercises meant to inveigle the type of writing each student did best. One of my favorite moments was watching Joyce Carol Oates react unflappably to a student’s story involving a Dumpster and a graphic liaison with a female plastic blowup doll by commending the imagination of the author and rattling off a drop-dead-funny quip. The episode illustrates a larger point. There was a recurring theme in every course I took: A student’s strengths are emphasized, encouraged, and nurtured. If that’s not teaching, it’s certainly a monumental push in the right direction.
Everything wasn’t always peaches, cream, and acceptance. Because of the limited number of spaces in the classes, not everyone was admitted, which fostered competition that sometimes reared its ugly head in class. The drive to write a creative thesis was particularly intense. That being said, having recently entered the publishing arena after turning my senior thesis into a two-book deal with HarperCollins, the harsh realities of book sales and reviews sometimes leave me longing for the cozy, armchair ambiance of 185 Nassau. If the competition rankled, it also provided a toughening prerequisite for the real world. And if I occasionally sensed rarefied air leaking into my classrooms, it was nothing compared to the publishing caste system.
People are curious about Princeton’s creative writing program. While on my very first book tour this past spring, most every stop would bring forth some question about the program, about my thesis, about whom I studied under and what I learned. Sometimes I would give an elaborate anecdote. Then there were those few times when — beaten up and worn down, a dizzy mess of promotion and used-up adrenaline — I found myself resorting to verbal plagiarism. “Well, I can tell you one thing about Princeton,” I’d say. “If you want to write, they’ve got a good thing going on.”