Skip over navigation

How Boys Learn

Adviser: Edmund V. White

Jeffrey S. Kirchick


“What I realized as I approached my thesis was that I was not only prepared for it, I was looking forward to it.”


It’s been about four months since I graduated from Princeton, a month longer than that since I handed in a 195-page creative thesis to the English department and the creative writing program, and yet I feel uneasy about the prospects of writing a two-page summary of my experience. Four years in the creative writing program at Princeton, but can I adequately and succinctly summarize the daunting task of writing a senior thesis?

Yes I can. It’s not so bad…not as bad as you think it is, at least. It requires planning and collaboration with your adviser. Think ahead of time. Start writing in the fall. Plan your course schedule so you take the fewest possible number of classes in the spring because inevitably, you may not follow the piece of advice given a sentence ago, and you’ll end up wanting to devote a lot of time to your thesis in the spring. That’s OK. Princeton professors know that, and they will help you come crunch time.

I had the idea that I wanted to write a creative thesis sometime in the spring of my sophomore year, when I frantically decided on a whim that I was going to change from an economics major to an English major. This was partially due to the number in red ink that I received on my ECO 300 “Microeconomic Theory” midterm that was lower than Kanye West’s remarks to Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards. I dropped that class immediately and realized I didn’t like math or numbers, and that my perception of self as a future moneybags on Wall Street was just like picturing myself as a sellout.

What I really liked was writing, and through the English department, I could actually make a thesis out of creative writing. It was the one major that would allow me to write a creative thesis (by itself), if I were accepted to the program. Admittedly, this appealed to me at first because it seemed like I would have to do less “work”: less research, fewer rules to follow, less bibliography. But throughout my junior year, I became accustomed to the idea of the “research paper” through the completion of two junior papers, one about my favorite poet, Billy Collins, who I somehow likened to the seemingly dull Emily Dickinson (I learned that she was actually pretty awesome); the other paper was about one of my favorite topics: French treatment of the occupation through film. For this paper, I focused on three remarkable films that you must see: Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein, and the utterly tragic nonfiction piece of Louis Malle, Au Revoir les Enfants.

I learned that I liked research. Not only did I like research, but I learned that I could like things if I just gave them a try. Take Emily Dickinson, for example. I thought I would hate that class. But I learned a lot, I began to like Emily—a lot—and I liked her even more when I researched ways she seemed to mimic one of my favorite contemporary poets, the uber-hip Billy Collins. I was not only learning this through my junior papers, but I also was learning it through the other courses I was taking at Princeton and the research I was doing in those classes, namely Susan Wolfson’s courses on romantic poetry, and Sarah Anderson’s course about medieval saga literature. Medieval saga literature! Imagine that! This is all coming from a guy who is pretty stubborn and pretty much only picks from three different basic kinds of foods on a rotating basis (think chicken fingers, pizza, and hot dogs).

Why do I mention all this? Well, I think it’s pretty important. When I came in as a freshman, I thought the senior thesis was this looming obstacle in the distance that was going to “suck.” I figured my friends and I would talk about how much it “sucked” every day when we were slaving away in our carrels instead of spending our last remaining days of freedom on the Street. But what I realized as I approached my thesis was that I was not only prepared for it, I was looking forward to it. If I wasn’t accepted to the creative writing program, then I would have been well equipped to expand upon one of the junior papers I enjoyed writing, or I would have found a new topic of interest from all of the amazing classes I took. But when I was accepted to the program, I found things would just be even more fun than I thought.

At first, I had lofty dreams. I had millions of ideas. A novel about this, a screenplay about that. I met with my adviser, Edmund White, with whom I had taken a couple of classes. Professor White always had been a close friend. We stayed in touch outside of class, and I was a fan of his work and his memoirs, which you don’t have to buy on a bookshelf. Go into his office and talk to him sometime. He’s one of the most interesting people you will ever meet in your life.

When I met with Professor White, we settled on a set of short stories. I said I might try to do two theses. Professor White nodded his head to humor me, but deep down we knew that it was the set of short stories that would work out. We didn’t think about theme. We discussed a few pieces I already had written that were success stories, and how I might change them. He then advised me to just write what I had on my mind. We’d come up with the theme later. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that I was totally going to eclipse Jonathan Safran Foer and come up with a thesis way cooler than “Everything Is Illuminated,” which he turned into a best seller and a movie. I still think my thesis has a shot!

Anyway, that fall, Professor White was abroad, but I started writing anyway. I came up with a few stories, which I e-mailed to Professor White. He would send back comments promptly, but none were amazing successes. I was surprised to hear his feedback. He had always been so nice to me! Now he was writing about how my story about the dead cat with the Jewish grandparents was overly sentimental (it was a cute story, though) and how my story about a truck driver (a guy I actually was corresponding with over the Internet) seemed fake, and I didn’t know what to do.

I picked up steam during the second semester. I churned out a story about an all-male society—a success. One day, I went into Professor White’s office with about a month or two to go to discuss all the writing I had produced. He had torn to shreds most of the pieces I had written and told me that he was worried about me. He wanted me to do well, he assured, and urged me to look at his feedback.

I had been worried that Professor White would be too nice to me. That he was very easygoing and wouldn’t tell me my stories were awful, so he would like them but I’d get a bad grade. That wasn’t the case. He really ripped into my writing and motivated me to succeed. I left feeling like absolute dog poo. I’d been writing all year, and yet the best stories I had were the ones I had already written in creative writing classes years before I’d begun writing my thesis.

I went down to my carrel in Firestone Library and in a wave of emotion, I wrote a story—a set of journal entries, actually—about a misguided doctor trying to cure a boy who mysteriously cried all the time. I didn’t think much of it, but I had put a lot of emotion behind it, and I sent it to Professor White. His reply? “This is the best story you’ve ever written.”

A story about a wrestler, he assured me, would have to be sent over to his friend John Irving for appraisal. An older story of mine, one that Joyce Carol Oates had praised, would have to be included as well, along with a piece that had been published by one of the school magazines. I tweaked a story from the fall that Professor White had not liked, and now, he saw it as a necessity in my collection. The piece that Professor White had torn to shreds? I remodeled it completely; it now made sense.

I had an idea for the collection originally that I was trying to cling to, but Professor White assured me that the title had to be something about boys learning from their mistakes. My original title was “The Fiery Gates of Heaven, and the Pearly Gates of Hell.” My new title was “How Boys Learn.” Indeed, all of my stories were about how boys learned. Everything was making sense.

When I got the thing bound and handed in, I felt very good. I wasn’t sure how I would do. Was Professor White still too nice? When he told me that I had done well, I didn’t believe him. But I did. And when it came down to it, I realized that the experience of writing a thesis was very much my own in collaboration with Professor White. That is, while I was not able to cling to all of my original ideas, while I was not able to include every story, while I was not able to keep every story the way I wanted it to be—I was able to remodel these stories to my liking in a refined and sensible way with the advice of a good friend.

How Boys Learn

Jeffrey S. Kirchick

Edmund V. White

Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts

“Several of his stories are burned into my memory, so vivid and passionate are they.”

I’ve had some thesis students who came in to talk to me only twice during the school year and yet who turned in perfectly polished theses. Others liked to get together every week and used me as an artistic counselor and as a copy editor. That’s part of what is enjoyable about advising theses—the surprises, for each thesis is as unique as the individual. And what is unique is the process as well as the result.

The most disappointing theses I’ve directed have been those by students who thought they could get the whole book together at the last moment. There are exceptions to every rule but, in general, writing fiction is a slow, cumulative process. If a student has a streak of brilliance, he or she might be able to write some highly charged, lyrical outburst in a week or two, but it is unlikely he or she will learn how to build characters, create significant action, or polish a pleasing style in such a short time.

Anna Sheaffer is a very assured, graceful writer who has a strong sense of place (western Pennsylvania) and a wry, complex feeling for character, including men and women much older than she is. I felt that I did very little to help her page by page, though occasionally I would tell her to drop an entire story and stick with the ones that truly worked. I kept encouraging her and I’ve tried to interest New York editors in her work. I’m delighted that she is going on to do graduate work at the University of Michigan.

With Jeff Kirchick, I did a lot of line editing of his stories. He has a big heart and turns out long stories about major emotional crises, though he also is capable of zeroing in on elegant moral quandaries. Several of his stories are burned into my memory, so vivid and passionate are they. Jeff likes to “work with a wet brush,” that is, turn out a rough first draft and then retouch it through several revisions. I was sometimes alarmed because he delayed the rewrites until the last month because he was so eager to write more and more stories. I didn’t want to discourage this inventiveness but at the same time I was worried that he wasn’t giving himself enough time to polish. Finally I said, Basta! And, in the last few weeks before the submission date, he did rewrite and polish all of his work to a high sheen. I was proud to show one of his longest stories to John Irving, also a wrestling aficionado—and John had a very warm and admiring response to the story.

Working with two such different writers, one a perfectionist in total control of her material, the other a Romantic writer dependent on inspiration, required different approaches on my part. I didn’t want to impose my own taste and idiosyncrasies on Anna, who obviously has an efficient inner artistic gyroscope. Nor did I want to inhibit Jeff’s exuberant, sometimes-hit-or-miss composition of first drafts. 

I feel confident that both of my thesis students worked at their own pace, and neither of them tried to conform to my artistic expectations or practices.