Student Writers Reflect

A young girl wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase stuffed with notepads treks around her neighborhood, keenly observing the surroundings.

The child, Kathleen E. Hale ’09-’10, jots down notes about her neighbors, who pretend not to notice that she is snooping about them.

“I was a total weirdo, obviously,” Hale says, adding that she “basically trained [herself] to be observant about people.”

Though she admits she might have been a “creep as a little girl,” Hale says that these clandestine activities allowed her to better understand people—an important skill for any writer, she adds.

Hale credits her “Harriet the Spy” antics for the skills that ultimately helped her win the 2009 Louis Begley Prize for Fiction, awarded by the Harvard Advocate, for her short story about a young child who, because of her mother’s cancer diagnosis, develops an obsession with terrifying animals.


Though Hale and other undergraduates say that awards and programs at the College have offered them a mixture of motivation and gratification, Harvard’s writers say they do not feel that the College has been the most instrumental force behind their writing. These authors cite a diversity of influences that motivates them to put pen to paper and express themselves.


Student authors say that they are most often influenced by other writers, who represent genres ranging from the classics to children’s literature and who are not necessarily affiliated with the Harvard brand.

An English concentrator who wrote a collection of short stories for his creative thesis, Justin T Keenan ’10 says that E. Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Brokeback Mountain,” has been an influential contemporary writer. He points to Proulx’s short stories, including “The Half-Skinned Steer” and “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” as works that showed him the importance of location in fiction.

Keenan also cites the poet James V. Tate, known for his playful musings on human absurdism, as an additional source of motivation. Keenan says that he identifies with Tate’s “sense of humor” and his “self-alienated relationship to society.”

Another Harvard writer, Isabel E. Kaplan ’12, says she has been inspired by the storybooks of her childhood—principally the popular children’s series “Ramona” by Beverly Cleary. In fact, Kaplan says that she decided to become a writer after reading Cleary’s books at the age of five.

“I remember hoping that someday I might write something that would affect a reader in a way similar to the way in which many books I read affect me,” Isabel says.


But literature is not the only artistic medium that motivates Harvard writers.

“I don’t think you can be a serious artist and not be influenced by other arts,” Keenan says, adding that he has found several foreign filmmakers influential—particularly the German director Werner Herzog and Federico Fellini, an Italian filmmaker who directed the films “La Strada” and “Juliet of the Spirits,” both of which are about characters who progressively gain their independence from external oppression.


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