President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
70 Years of Creative Writing
February 24, 2010
If time is infinite,
You will, at some point,
Become a pterodactyl.
I’m sorry in advance, my sweet.
And I will, of course, dance around you carrying
We will sit down
On a meteorite
And I will write
This poem again.
— from Kindling, a creative thesis by Annabelle Beaver ’09
Long before the Lewis Center for the Arts provided the creative and performing arts at Princeton with a new vitality, students had an opportunity to pursue their “interest and proficiency in various forms of literary art” under the guidance of writers. Beginning with poet laureate of the United States Allen Tate in 1939, our students have worked closely with some of the finest writers in the world, including such giants as Kingsley Amis, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth, and a current 19-member full- and part-time faculty ranging from poets Paul -Muldoon and -C. K. -Williams to novelists Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates.
Graduates of the Program in Creative Writing have themselves earned literary accolades and a place on many nightstands — from William Meredith Jr. ’40, also a poet laureate of the United States, to novelist Jonathan Safran Foer ’99, who credits Professor Oates as “the first person ever to make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way.” Yet what makes this program remarkable is not the professional writers it has produced but the thousands of students whose love of both writing and reading it has encouraged. The opportunity afforded to undergraduates in every discipline to explore great works of literature and practice the writer’s craft with the caliber of faculty we have assembled is typically confined to graduate schools. And in contrast to Master of Fine Arts programs, where students are necessarily focused on launching successful writing careers, at Princeton students are writing for the joy of it.
Under the long and dedicated leadership of Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emeritus Edmund Keeley ’48 from 1966 to 1981, the Program in Creative Writing moved from one-on-one precepts to its current format of faculty-directed workshops in which eight to 10 students share their writing and discuss texts, supplemented with individual meetings with their professors. The constructive criticism that emerges from these sessions plays an important role in our students’ development as writers, affirming that writing need not be a purely private process but can be a journey of common discovery and shared imagination. This year, 24 students have elected to earn certificates in creative writing by taking this process one step further. Each will produce a creative thesis — often in addition to a senior thesis in his or her home department — consisting of a collection of poems or stories, a novel, or a literary translation. One of my most memorable experiences as a senior thesis adviser was overseeing, with Joyce Carol Oates, the thesis of molecular biology concentrator Whitney Lee Barton ’98, who wrote a novel whose plot was driven by a mysterious genetic disease. Whitney deftly managed to navigate between Joyce’s injunctions to reduce the amount of science in favor of character development and my pleas to expand the discussion of the genetic issues, and produced a terrific book that more than satisfied both her demanding advisers.
For program director and novelist Chang-rae Lee, the goal of our program is not to impart a set of techniques, as in “this is how to write a dialogue,” but to introduce each student to the scope of the creative palette on which he or she can draw — a palette formed by life experience and, above all at this juncture, by reading the work of distinguished writers. While students will find common elements in what they read, they are encouraged to recognize the singularity of every text and their own potential for unique expression. Relatively few graduates will devote their lives to writing poetry or fiction, but all will see the written word in a new light, be it with a heightened respect for different kinds of writing or for the challenges inherent in the writer’s craft. And because great writing, like the creative and performing arts in general, helps us to view our world with greater clarity, our graduates will not only be better readers and writers, but also better citizens.
Thanks to the creation of the Lewis Center for the Arts — and the generosity of Peter Lewis ’55 — the Program in Creative Writing has been able to expand its offerings in the past few years, including, for the first time, classes in screenwriting, and to accommodate more students — 156 this fall. I can’t vouch for infinity, but as our program begins its eighth decade, its future has never seemed so bright.