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Once Upon A Time

The Quest For the Creative Thesis

By Camberley M. Crick, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

In order to apply for a creative thesis, interested juniors must submit a sizable writing sample as well as a prospectus of the project they wish to undertake. Brad Watson, director of the creative writing program and advisor to several fiction theses, said if there was one piece of advice he could offer to those aspiring to write creative theses, it would be to take some of the fiction workshops offered by the department.

Taught primarily by visiting Briggs-Copeland lecturers, the workshops are open to all Harvard graduates and undergraduates. And while application is competitive, Watson stressed that they give students a critical opportunity to develop a portfolio of writing samples and to work closely with potential thesis advisors.

For those who do have the material and confidence to apply, the odds of selection to the program are in fact not as tough as one might think. “We actually took more than half of the applicants this year,” Watson said. He also said the program could potentially help students develop contacts in the literary world. “The instructor is going to have some contacts and try to get [the thesis] out there,” he said, but “not all students are ready.”

While opportunities to write poetry and fiction have always been available for creative thesis writers, this coming year aspiring playwrights and screenwriters will have a little more guidance than they have in the past. Todd A. Kessler ’94, a screenwriter and producer for the HBO hit television show “The Sopranos,” will offer a screenwriting workshop next year in addition to advising several dramatic thesis writers.

One such writer, David D. Kornhaber ’02, who is also a Crimson editor, said he was thrilled by the appointment because he and others interested in dramatic writing had specifically petitioned the department to bring in a lecturer to advise dramatic theses. Already the author of several plays, including two recently produced at Harvard, David plans to begin work on his thesis this summer in Paris. Inspired by a visit to the Paris catacombs the summer after his freshman year, he plans to write a play about the man who built the massive underground crypt during the 1780s. “A lot of people sort of dread their theses and all the academic work involved,” he said. “I think it will be a great learning experience, but also a really fun experience.”

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