I’d like to send you back in time: it’s 2006, and I’m a naive highschooler in Texarkana. I had just accepted Princeton’s unexpected but very appreciated admission offer and was excited – “just won the lottery” excited – to study creative fiction as an undergraduate student.
During my first semester in the orange bubble*, I sent a fiction sample to the writing program, crossed my fingers, waited …
… and received a rejection.
It was discouraging, but rejection is part of life, right? I had another chance.
Just one more chance.
If a student does not complete two 200-level writing courses by the end of their sophomore year, they cannot receive a creative writing certificate, Princeton’s version of a “minor.” They also cannot, to my knowledge, take advanced writing courses.The next semester, I sent in a different fiction sample to the Lewis Center for the Arts. Of course, it was …
… drum roll, please …
That’s when reality hit my like a ton of bricks. Against all odds, I – a lower income, public school so-and-so – had scraped into the Ivy League. But I still couldn’t study the subject I loved.
I wondered why. Was I a terrible writer? Possibly.
Yes, at that moment, I was confident in my terrible-ness!
But how could I improve without instruction?
I searched the internet for stories from other, luckier students. Maybe, if I compared my work to theirs, I could teach myself the craft. During my research period, I realized something: I might not be a terrible writer, but I was absolutely not the kind of writer Princeton’s creative writing program wanted.
Even though I had lost my chance to earn a creative writing certificate, I decided to apply for the beginner fiction course one more time. While crafting the sample for my third and hopefully final application, I put aside my lovely Fantasy and Science Fiction magazines (I had dozens stacked in my dorm closet) and read The New Yorker instead. I temporarily shed all the fantastic, whimsical, and magical influences in my prose. And finally, I dredged up memories of cruelty, pain, and injustice and wrote something I would never enjoy reading. It was a sad little piece of semi-nonfiction.
The program accepted me.
The fabled class met every week. Each student would read something and allow their peers to critique it. One boy wrote about a group of teens who went joyriding on a golf cart, defying their country club parents. A girl wrote about a garden party – the wealthy protagonist felt caged by her privilege. There were several stories describing sex, romance, and unrequited infatuation. Stories about private schools and new cars. Stories about vacations. It was like witnessing a world I’d never experienced before, one somehow more alien than the science fiction novels I enjoyed.
Was this class really what I wanted?
My work was mostly well-received; the professor, an accomplished writer and compassionate instructor, gave me great advice. In fact, the only negative experience I can remember happened after I read a vignette that touched upon (but did not describe) a Lipan naming ceremony. The professor looked at me and said, with puzzlement evident in her expression and voice, “I don’t know where you … got that from.”
I’d lived it. That’s where the experience came from.
I had a flashback to my first week at Princeton. As a freshman, I met my academic adviser in the cafeteria to discuss my class schedule. She said, “How was your summer?” I told her, “I went to a powwow.” She said, “You mean a family reunion?” And when I explained that I meant a powwow – specifically, an intertribal in Texas – she said, “I didn’t know they did those anymore.”
Ignoring the awkwardness, I explained that I wanted to study creative writing: could she give me any advice about the application process?
“It’s really easy,” my adviser said. “They pretty much let anyone in.”
So, that’s my story. Before you get the wrong idea, I enjoyed my time at Princeton, especially my fantastic education in the Geosciences department.
Unfortunately, my experience with the creative writing program was alienating and all-around discouraging. I’m sure tons of people had a great time. But I didn’t. Such is life in the orange bubble. 😛
*I first heard the term ‘orange bubble,’ a pet name for Princeton’s campus, during freshman initiation. The Glee Club sang, “… and if we ever really have a problem, we’ll throw money at it till it disappears. ’Cuz there is never trouble within our orange bubble …”
For the full Glee Club song about the orange bubble, follow this link: http://www.princeton.edu/paw/web_exclusives/plus/plus_012605orangebub.html
Edit 9/16/2016: Remember, I went to Princeton between 2006 and 2010. Academic protocol and the social environment might have changed! In fact, I hope they did!