Creative writing program produces aspiring writers
Princetonians often look to the distant past to find alumni and former students who have achieved literary fame. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald '17, Eugene O'Neill '10 and Thornton Wilder GS '25 may have published their greatest work decades ago, there is a new generation of Princetonians who are making their names known in poetry and fiction.
Current students and recent alumni said they consider their experience with the University's creative writing program to be influential in their development as young writers.
The program's faculty boasts novelists Alan Hollinghurst, Chang-rae Lee, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, as well as poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, James Richardson and C.K. Williams.
The program's growing list of luminaries may explain why there is a strong generation of Princeton writers beginning to publish their own work.
When Jonathan Safran Foer '99 returned to the James Stewart '32 Film Theater on Nov. 17 to read from his forthcoming second novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," he was returning to a building — 185 Nassau — and a room which had not only shaped his time at Princeton but also his future literary career.
In reference to the success of Foer's 2002 debut "Everything Is Illuminated, " Oates, who had been his creative thesis adviser, said, "once in a while, even in America, excellence is rewarded."
The book sold well — 100,000 copies as of March 2004 — for literary fiction and garnered doting reviews from critics.
In his senior year at Princeton, Foer heard writer Yehuda Amichai give one of his final readings in the Stewart theater. While listening to Amichai, who died in 2000, Foer realized that he wanted "to somehow move somebody" just as Amichai had moved him. "I wouldn't be up here if it weren't for Amichai," Foer told the audience at his reading.
But Foer was an artist even before hearing Amichai. "I did a lot of art, a lot of sculpture and, of course, a lot of writing at Princeton," he said. "I took a lot of classes in this building," he added.
"The whole college experience, especially always feeling alone" affected his development as a writer, Foer said. He called this loneliness the most difficult part of his years at Princeton, but added that he enjoyed spending time at Terrace Club.
Despite his involvement in the arts at Princeton, Foer majored in philosophy, because, he has often said, he thinks it sounds impressive to say that he majored in philosophy.
However, Foer said that he did not excel academically at the University. "I all but guarantee that [most students] get better grades than I got," he added.
Foer considers Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" to be two of the novels which have most deeply influenced his writing and his life.
He hopes that he will eventually write a book which will play a similar role in the lives of the aspiring writers who read it, he said. "It would really be wonderful to write the same kind of book one day."
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" chronicles the adventures of a young boy whose father died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The recent graduates
Classmates Kate Benson '03 and Jennie Kogler '03 both have book deals, Benson from Harcourt and Kogler from Harper Collins.
Benson has been "focusing exclusively" on her novel "Two Harbors" for the last two years and is almost finished with it. "I'm just finishing up the final revisions on my novel in these next couple of weeks," she said.
"Two Harbors" is about a young woman trying to unravel the mysteries of her missing mother and dead boyfriend.
The title character in Kogler's novel "Ruby Tuesday" "explores Vegas with her rock-and-roll-loving mother and her card-shark grandmother." Ruby Tuesday learns that her father is a professional gambler and that the man she thought was her uncle is actually her father's bookie.
"Ruby Tuesday" began its life as Kogler's senior thesis, advised by James Lasdun. Now she has a two-book deal for "Ruby Tuesday" and its sequel.
Benson and Kogler both said they consider Princeton to have played a significant role in their development as writers.
Benson said the creative writing program at 185 Nassau "is why I chose to go to Princeton." She started taking fiction classes in the fall of her freshman year and ultimately took five seminars: one with A.J. Verdelle, two with Joyce Carol Oates and two with Edmund White, her thesis advisor.
"Princeton certainly contributed to my development as a writer, and I think most of that came out of the collaborative atmosphere in the workshops at 185 [Nassau]," Benson said. "Being around so many talented and supportive writers — and I mean both the students and the faculty — is a rare thing, and something I really miss about Princeton."
Kogler took creative writing classes with Lynne Tillman, Oates and White and also benefitted from the University's creative environment. "The people I met and interacted with every day and their many perspectives all helped my writing," she said.
"As I sat in my first creative writing class with Lynne Tillman, a person who made a living writing, I realized that a career as a writer wasn't a mere pipe dream," she added.
Now, Kogler finds herself in a similar position, with some of her shorter works published and her name and book on Amazon.com, she said. "Just seeing your name listed, or seeing [that] something actually comes up when you search for your name is pretty amazing."
In addition to finding her book on Amazon.com, she has also found references to her book on gambling and poker websites.
When Spring Berman '05 was just three years old, she created a pamphlet of poems, including one titled "Ture Love." By the time she was in elementary school, she was "writing and illustrating stories about genies, wandering fish, the Wizard of Oz and anthropomorphic cellos," she said.
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Berman continued to develop her writing, she said. "The main drive was the desire to express the scenes in my imagination."
Berman entered Princeton in the fall of 2001 fairly certain that she wanted to major in mechanical and aerospace engineering. But she also wanted to take advantage of the opportunities offered by 185 Nassau.
Berman took two classes in the creative writing program. "These classes helped me to focus more on the audience and anticipate their perception of a poem, rather than write intricate lines for the sake of complexity," she said.
Berman's background in engineering has palpably changed her poetry. "I started inserting mathematical terms into my verses and my themes drifted toward science fiction, existing technology and the experience of being an engineering student," she added.
Two poems that Berman wrote for her creative writing classes were selected for publication in the Paris Review after one of her creative writing teachers urged her to submit a poem to the literary journal.
Berman said she has "only told a few people on campus about being published in the Paris Review." However, she is included in a winter E-Quad News feature on engineers who are also artists, "so people in the engineering community might find out soon," she said.
Berman's artistic endeavors are not just literary. She also plays the piano, composes music and draws.
Matt Knauff '08 remembers writing his first poem in a dentist's waiting room when he was about eleven years old. He said that he has lost most of what he wrote early on because he had no system for organizing his work.
Soon after getting into Princeton in the spring, Knauff started writing in sketchbooks. "I've made it a point to get something I could hang on to, some way of accumulating all these thoughts and bits of stories and poems," he said.
Though he has yet to have any of his work published, Knauff said he wants to send his work to literary magazines so that he can have exposure before he graduates.
Knauff hopes to be able to survive as a writer. "I do worry about being able to eat," he said.
Knauff said he is fortunate to be proficient at math and science as well, however, and could consider a technical career to support his writing. "But I'm not sure if that would be equivalent to selling out for me, like T.S. Eliot the banker."
"More formally, I've been writing poetry," he added. "Prose scares me a bit more, but still I try to sit down with the blank page and just plow ahead."
"In terms of both the experiences and the ability of the faculty and the peers," Knauff said he thinks his four years at Princeton will be conducive to artistic development. "Being in an environment like this will naturally nurture any type of artistic pursuit," he explained.
Above all else, Knauff wants to meet Toni Morrison at least once before he walks out of FitzRandolph Gate. "She's from Ohio and so am I and that should be enough of a reason for us to meet," he said.
Reader Comments (0)
No comments yet. Be the first to post your opinion on this article.