It is a blessing to be able to truly know yourself at a young age — to know exactly who you are, who you are willing to be and with whom you choose to associate and identify yourself. This is the job of a writer — to be constantly finding himself in the quest to help others do the same. As Princeton students, we are encouraged to discover something new about ourselves, and whatever may eventually be our “thing,” Princeton assures us that this is the place to find it.
Perhaps this is why we have such an impressive staff and faculty, with each professor and administrator desperately hoping that we recognize within ourselves something that needs to be shared with the world, just as they had done in their early careers. One such individual whom I had the privilege of interviewing and studying under is Edmund White, a creative writing professor in the Lewis Center for the Arts and renowned writer of gay fiction. His novels include “Forgetting Elena,” “Jack Holmes and His Friend” and my favorite and one of his best known works, “The Joy of Gay Sex.”
When White started writing gay fiction, there were few examples of earlier works in this genre and even fewer gay writers to look up to. He had originally written to “save himself,” and only until after he was published did he become aware of the large gay audience he was writing for. We Princeton students seem to struggle with a similar fear that we are losing a piece of ourselves whenever we make a decision to quit a club or not take a certain class. And so we scramble to find ourselves in a group that understands our talents while encompassing our passions, whether it is in rehearsal, practice or an event. For White, that was the Violet Quill, a group of gay writers who acted as sounding boards for each other’ writing amid the AIDS crisis and a homophobic government. As he himself tested positive for HIV and would later live in France where there was neither a strong gay movement nor many HIV-positive individuals, White said that “writing felt like being part of a larger community during the AIDS crisis.” This idea of passion-as-salvation and being part of a larger community is the entire point of college. It is having the hope that we will find a group that practices exactly what we love and understands us for all of our peculiarities and distinctions.
For White, writing about gay content became his “thing.” As he explains, “Novelists like to write about things that are new,” which our authors here at Opinion aspire to do. There is something fascinating about realizing a new talent — a certain quirk, ability or interest that we never would have guessed we had, like being able to juggle with chainsaws and fire, or learning how to play Quidditch with expert skill and even more strategy, or fitting in perfectly with the vibe of ever-witty, ever-clever Fuzzy Dice. Similarly, when White began to write, “The gay experience was pretty much unmapped territory.” Because it was such a novelty, White’s gay fiction frequently suffered hostile criticism to the extent that Harpers & Queen magazine titled him the most “maligned writer in America.” “But I had very thick skin,” he says, a characteristic that served him well in his career as a writer of controversial subject matter. However, White would occasionally “brood over bad reviews” to his shrink; in response he received the sound advice that, “When you turn in a book, you have to ask yourself: ‘Is this the best I can do?’ If yes, then you should be well-armored against criticism ... For every bad review, read a good review and give it as much attention. Focus on, but don’t just memorize, the insults directed in print.” All writers dwell on the possibility that they might not get published tomorrow. There is always the fear of being silenced, the fear that if their ratings get too low, they might not be so readily welcomed by a shiny new contract the next day. It seems there is a similar fear embedded in each Princeton student. Growing up with such high expectations and being regarded for our many intense extracurricular activities and even more wearing classes, we are constantly afraid that there will be a time when we are shut out from potential achievement. It seems we are most afraid of trying new things and giving up old hobbies or talents. We still feel the need to be at the top, never losing what our experiences and qualifications in each activity have given us.
In high school, few of us were ever asked to say exactly what we really thought or what we actually wanted; being controversial or overwhelmingly opinionated was not recommended for us when we were trying to craft ideal images of ourselves. And I ask, do we cringe at the thought that we won’t be everyone’s best friend if we do what feels right to us? Or do we strive forward and take the challenge to be a bit rebellious, a bit controversial and at times, devastatingly frank?
Princeton asks us to find our “thing” and gives us the resources to do so. All we need is the resolution to fall victim to whatever passion or obsession our “thing” may be.
Isabella Gomes is a freshman from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/09/31433/