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English

Brian DeLeeuw ’03

Writer and Editor

As an undergraduate at Princeton, I majored in English with a certificate in creative writing. The excellent reputation of the creative writing program was the reason I chose to attend Princeton in the first place, and soon after the start of my first semester it became apparent that any disappointment I might ever feel within the program would really be a disappointment with myself, and with my writing abilities, rather than with the professors or other students. 

The instruction and advice of writers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White was wonderful, but the truly invaluable thing they offered to their pupils was an unflagging seriousness toward our work—which, let’s face it, might not have always objectively deserved it. The subtext, lost on few of us students, was that writing fiction is difficult business; the work demands respect, it demands a seriousness of purpose on the part of its creator, if it is to have any hope of being worth anything. (An equally important corollary lesson was to never take yourself as seriously as your work. Big difference.) Plus, if writers such as Oates and White and Chang-rae Lee and Lynne Tillman were devoting such serious time and thought to your scribblings, then you’d better be sure you weren’t slacking. Never did a Pass/D/Fail class have so little problem with motivation!

But writing workshops were only half the story. Fiction does not only spring from the mind of an individual, free of context; it is also the product of a culture, specifically a literary culture. That’s where the University’s English department came in. I will certainly not claim to have enjoyed every last reading assignment (The Faerie Queen, anybody?), but I would argue that there are few better ways to gain a broader grounding in the Western literary tradition than via an English degree. (And, for me, a European cultural studies certificate helped somewhat to balance that degree’s necessarily Anglo-centric focus.)

Imagination and analysis

Following graduation, I was torn between the desire to attempt to write a novel right away and the desire to work on other people’s novels. In many ways this latter interest was also the result of Princeton’s writing workshops, in which I found that I often enjoyed editing my friends’ writing as much as working on my own. I spent an illuminating year in a publishing graduate trainee program at HarperCollins U.K. in London before I decided that if I wanted to make the focused effort to complete a novel, I should do it now, before I became too entrenched in a career in book editing. I moved back home to Manhattan and enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at The New School, where, in workshops not unlike Princeton’s, I wrote the first draft of what would become, two years later in 2009, In This Way I Was Saved, my first published novel.

As it turned out, the decision to try my luck at novel-writing did not end up precluding editorial work. While in graduate school, I interned for Tin House magazine, a literary quarterly with offices in Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon; soon after my graduation from The New School, an editorial position became available in the Brooklyn office, and I’ve been working there ever since, currently as an associate editor. This balance between writing and editing is ideal for me; it is also, in some ways, a reflection of my time at Princeton, and of my undergraduate balance between the imaginative work of writing fiction and the analytical work of studying literature.

I chose to study in the creative writing program for a simple reason: I fell hard for books as soon as I could read and I wanted to see if I might someday be able to provide for other people the same immersive—practically hallucinatory—experience I’d had myself as an adolescent reader, and that I continue to search for today. My four years in the program showed me how difficult it is to construct such an experience for readers, but they also gave me the basic tools and the confidence to try. This is a gift that I hope will continue to repay itself over the rest of my career and, indeed, my life.

DeLeeuw-Brian