Thesis, Shmesis: Write a Book Instead

Theses are by definition creative. Every Harvard student who writes a thesis must make an original argument. So what does the term “creative thesis” mean?

This year more than a dozen senior English concentrators are in the process of writing theses that differ significantly in form and function from those of their peers. These are the authors of creative theses—novels, poems, short stories and plays—that aspire to do what all good theses do, present original ideas in a compelling manner.

Over the next two weeks Crimson Arts will feature interviews with four seniors who are working on creative theses in different genres. The distinctions among these writers’ experiences and those of “non-creative” thesis writers are illuminating; both make arguments but they do so in strikingly different ways. We can ask any writer where ideas come from and how they are put together and revised. The answers, however, can be more fascinating and difficult when the writer is telling truths through art.

Emily N. Odgen ‘02 is writing a short book of poetry for her thesis.

The Harvard Crimson: When did you start writing poetry?

Emily Ogden: I started writing poetry seriously the summer after freshman year. I had just taken Helen Vendler’s “Poems, Poets, Poetry.” I loved reading the poems and for me, reading something gives rise to wanting to try to make it.

THC: What is your thesis about?

EO: My thesis will be a short book of poetry. I’m not writing the thesis with an overarching theme in mind, but I think that certain themes are emerging. I often write about the act of trespassing, of walking down a path beyond where it is socially acceptable to go. And I write about rural areas. I’m particularly interested in spaces that are culturally ill-defined or insignificant; a particular dead end, or a particular exit from the interstate. I hope for poems to arise from careful attention to what seems at first unimportant.

THC: Are you from a rural area?

EO: No, I’m from a small city of about 100,000 but I think a lot about rural areas. My father is from a very small town and my mother grew up on a farm. Plenty of what I write is about the city, I just think that rural areas and attention to nature affected the way that I look at things.

THC: How do you come up with ideas for poems?

EO: Often, lately it’s been that I come up with a line I like while I’m walking and I like the sound of it and I’ll write it down and the poem eventually comes from that. I don’t think of a subject first, it’s initially the line that gets me interested.

THC: How personal are the poems?

EO: They’re mostly about observing the world, not about personal life. Obviously they are some expression of what is important to me at the time, but not in a narrative way.

THC: What are the forms of your poems? Do they have meter and rhyme?

EO: I write poems with attention to what sounds good. Sometimes this means that they will have meter or rhyme. Right now I’ve been writing poems using syllabics where each stanza has a pattern of numbers of syllables in each lines—a haiku is a type of syllabic poem. Marianne Moore uses this form a lot in her early poetry. She’s known for precision, she’s interested in classification of things.

THC: Do you try to imitate her work?

EO: Marianne Moore has an authoritative and clear voice. I don’t try to imitate her. I try not to imitate any voice, I’m most comfortable using a colloquial voice.

THC: Who are your influences?

EO: The work of A.R. Ammons is a major influence on my poetry. Ammons’ rural upbringing was at the heart of his poetry throughout his life, though he did not live in his home state of North Carolina as an adult. I identify very much with this indebtedness to a place in which one cannot live. Robert Frost, another poet much indebted to one American region, is also very important to me at the moment.

THC: How do you read your own poems?

EO: I try not to interpret them very much. Usually it is unhelpful if I want to continue to write in a natural way. Interpreting my own work blocks me on what I am currently writing, even it is different.

THC: What do you do about writer’s block?

EO: Usually if I get writer’s block it is because I am taking things too seriously. I try to write something playful. What I like that I’ve written comes from writing something and playing with it. I try to go back to that.

THC: How much have you written so far that will be part of your final thesis?

EO: I don’t know. It will depend on what I have at the end. I’m trying to just keep writing for the rest of the semester. I’ll take stock later. Writing a creative thesis seems to me to be an opportunity to develop a style or voice that will run through all of my poetry and unify it, and I hope that I’ll be able to work toward this throughout the year. And it’s a chance to focus on the kind of work I love most and feel the least conflicted about doing. I would like to keep writing poetry, and to publish books.

David D. Kornhaber ‘02 was theater editor for Crimson Arts in 2000. His thesis is a play.

The Harvard Crimson: What had you done before your thesis writing-wise?

David Kornhaber: I took a fiction workshop freshman year and two playwriting workshops sophomore year, one through the English department and one with the Dramatic Arts Committee. I’ve had two of my plays performed at college, one in the Loeb Experimental Theater and one in Leverett Old Library.

THC: What’s it about?

DK: It’s about the Paris catacombs, which is a large underground morgue that runs in caverns under Paris. It was constructed from 1786-1788 before the French Revolution for reasons of public health. The cemeteries in Paris were overcrowded and they had to move the bodies. I’m trying to look at the construction of catacombs as metaphors for the fall of the ancien régime.

THC: What inspired this work?

DK: The catacombs themselves, which I visited with a friend after freshman year. They are overwhelming, there are six million bodies, all very neatly arranged—the skulls are stacked neatly with femurs and they make designs and patterns. It seemed like such an overwhelming project, it was hard to put people into its construction. I originally thought I might write a novel about their construction, but the interplay between Louis XVI and Charles Axel-Guillaumont, their designer, was a relationship with a lot of dramatic potential.

THC: So Louis XVI and Charles Axel-Guillaumont are two of the main characters; are there others?

DK: I want to have a lot of other characters. I am trying to make this a spectacular dramatic work, not to say that my writing will be spectacular, but I want it to be close to a popular eighteenth century spectacle with a huge cast and lots of effects. I want it to approach that style—it will be an intense counterpoint to the morbidity of the subject matter.

THC: What is the difference between writing a piece to be performed and writing for people who will read it and never see it?

DK: I’m writing more for readers in this case, trying not to limit my imagination to what is easily feasible on stage. I mean, there are some theaters that can have a room from Versailles fall from the roof but those are not theaters I am going to have access to. With readers you have no limits, they can imagine anything. That makes this a little closer to a novel—it’s useful not to have practical limits. It makes this piece unperformable but I think that’s okay.

THC: You seem to have had a lot of influences for your plot. What influences your dialogue, how do you make it realistic?

DK: Well, that’s my weakest point, which is bad for a playwright. My thesis advisor, Todd Kessler is a screenwriter, he’s worked on “The Sopranos” and other television and screen projects that are character based in a way that many of the plays I’ve read don’t have to be. Most plays I’m interested move away from straight character interaction. He [Kessler] is pushing me to focus on relationships for my foundation and that has been incredibly useful.

THC: Who are your influences?

DK: I think that I’m like all writers in that my influences are always changing based on where I am. At the moment Jean Genet is a big influence. That is why I directed The Maids this semester. The best way to get inside the writer is to put him on stage. Genet manages to find humanity in places people wouldn’t look for it or that are not socially acceptable. He dives in and pulls out the human core.

Another influence right now is early Brecht. The early plays throw practicality to the wind. They can go from skyscrapers to a dock to the jungle. They are plays that you can’t stage literally but that wasn’t a concern for him in that period.

THC: What do you do about writer’s block? Do you get it?

DK: I’m not a fan of the term. For me writer’s block isn’t a wall, it’s a slowed down thought process. It’s like being stuck in molasses turning over ideas in what looks like a fruitless manner.

THC: It’s November. What do you have done so far?

DK: Not much is written. I’ve done a lot of historical research about my subject, which I think is unique for a creative thesis. I have several revised outlines of at least the first act. I’m starting to do that for the second act now. At the same time, I keep a notebook of phrases and dialogue that could be useful.