Once Upon A Time

The Quest For the Creative Thesis

Those seeds of inspiration from which senior theses spring are found in many places. Some students search the bowels of Widener, conversing with cracked tomes and sun-starved dust particles. Others wrestle with armies of spreadsheet numbers, prodding this column and that variable in search of deeper trends. Charity D. Shumway ’01 cracked open her mother’s private diaries.

Each spring, the English department chooses a small and promising crop of English concentrators to write creative theses. Over the course of the next year, while most thesis writers are tracking down sources and reformatting bibliographies, these select few struggle to develop original written works in the genres of either poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction or dramatic writing.

For Charity, whose thesis was a collection of short stories, this meant searching for inspiration in the precise daily records that her mother and her grandmother had kept since their youths, as well as pillaging the personal lives of her nearest and dearest. “My friends’ lives are fair game,” she grinned, leaning forward and shaking a lock of sun-streaked hair from her face. Meeting weekly with her thesis advisor, novelist Suzanne Berne, Charity said she discovered “how hard it is to write good fiction—even just readable fiction.” Some of her stories, which average about 15 pages each, went through 20 drafts before she found them satisfactory, and even now she feels that her collection isn’t really finished. Intense as the experience was, “it was awesome to have a thesis I loved completely. It’s so fun deciding your characters’ fates—I just left them in the kitchen in the middle of an argument, now what?”


Charity is not alone in her enthusiasm for her creative thesis and the imaginative toil and academic intensity it inspired. Jerome L. Martin ’01, who is also a Crimson editor, wrote a collection of 39 poems for his thesis, and says that one of the highlights of his experience was the opportunity to work with Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Jorie Graham.

“She’s always sort of jetting off to New York when you have your scheduled appointment but once you finally trap her in a room and have her look at a poem, she’s amazing,” he said. “Jorie gave me an increased awareness for a poet’s responsibility to every aspect of a poem.”

Initially a government concentrator, Martin escaped into the English department his sophomore year so that he could attempt a creative thesis. “I realized that I was regularly ditching my sophomore tutorial to go to poetry readings—a clear sign something was wrong.” Having made the switch, he began to focus wholeheartedly on poetry, taking poetry workshops and beginning much of the work that later developed into his thesis. “I basically didn’t do anything in my classes this whole year—all I did was work on my thesis,” he said. “It’s been a daunting project, and I would have loved an extra year to work on it.”

In fact, he will have an extra two. In the fall he plans to continue to refine his collection while completing a two-year MFA program at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, “a big writers community stuck out in the cornfields with nothing to do but drink in the two bars there and write.”

While completing a creative English thesis in no way promises literary success, or even entrance into a formal writing program, it does allow students to work one-on-one with a distinguished author as well as get a book-length work finished, and polished, before graduating from college. In fact, several recent graduates of the program have gone on to publish or win awards for writing which developed out of their creative theses, including recent O. Henry award recipient Murad Kalam ’95, and published novelist Judy Budnitz ’95.

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