Creative Writing Undergrad Prizes

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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Reading List

This week the world lost a immense talent in Philip Seymour Hoffman. The loss felt by those of us who loved his art in no way compares to the loss felt by those who knew the man not simply as a performer but as a father, a husband, and a friend. Nevertheless, when an incredible artist dies we undergo a strange, collective mourning process, perhaps better deemed a period of ‘tribute.’ For me, this has involved re-watching two of my favorite PSH films, Capote and Synechdoche New York, and reading interviews with the man himself. And so I came across this fantastic interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Believer — and it’s all about books(!) I’ve compiled a reading list from texts mentioned in the interview, because reading the books someone has loved is one way of being just a touch closer to them, especially when there are no other ways left. Also, unsurprisingly, the books mentioned are excellent. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great artist and, from the accounts I’ve read, a kind man. I for one am going to pick up some Capote, and he’ll be who I’m thinking of when I crack the spine. Rest in peace, PSH.

A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

“If you do any great art you’re somehow exposing a part of you. Like Richard Yates, Jesus Christ, that book, you almost don’t want to meet him. I kept feeling for the characters as if they existed. I kept saying, “Poor April. Poor April Wheeler,” for days afterwards.”

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

 Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Hoffman as Capote

The O. Henry Prize Stories

Easter Parade by Richard Yates

“You gotta read Easter Parade. It basically starts off saying here are these two characters and their lives are miserable and I’m going to tell you why. It’s uncompromising. He’s not interested in entertaining you at all. He’s just trying to get at it.”

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

The Human Stain by Philip Roth (blogger’s note: this book has haunted me, too)

You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett

Pastoralia by George Saunders

The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

“I love Richard Ford. The Sportswriter is one of my favorite books. What he says at the end of The Sportswriter about walking in the veil and how you think that it might not ever get lifted again …”

Early in the interview, Hoffman — discussing his love of independent bookstores — says,

“I like the Strand but I get lost in there. It’s frustrating for me. I end up walking out with like six books under my arm that I know I’m not going to be able to read anytime soon. It’s kind of that fantasy of what life will be like when I get older. All I’ll have time for is reading all the books that I’ve collected through my life.”

I wish he could’ve had that time.

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English Majors Go Everywhere


During my four years at Stanford, I’ve spent three quarters overseas and lived abroad in six different countries, supported by the generosity of the Bing Overseas Program and a variety of Stanford’s student research grants. Stanford itself is steadfast-beautiful, seemingly outside the effects of weather and history alike; our campus is the place where I’ve studied with some of the world’s great literary talents, where I’ve grown some of my best friendships, and where I’ve become close with faculty mentors I will cherish for life. But when I look back on my undergraduate years, I know that it is just as much the experiences I’ve had far away from the Farm that have been my becoming.

Stanford works hard to make overseas experiences financially viable for all students. But without the freedom and support the Stanford English department gives its students, my desire to live in Paris and Amsterdam and Edinburgh and Vilnius and Berlin and Oxford — thrice — would have been ridiculous, wishful thinking. Being an English major has made my adventures possible.

By giving us freedom in the form of a low-unit major, several different ‘tracks’ to choose from, and no corporate intrusions in our classrooms, Stanford English teaches us independence and initiative. By giving us trust, Stanford English creates students worthy of that trust.

I’ve not only received the best undergraduate education in literary critical methods and historical context, I’ve not only developed my writing with Louise Gluck and Elizabeth Tallent and Richard Powers (to name just a few of the truly extraordinary professors I’ve had the good fortune of studying with over the course of four years), I’ve not only spent my days reading and writing and engaging with art and life on the page — I’ve spent these four years engaging with art and life out in the world.

I’m writing this from my attic room in England, where I’m writing my honors thesis on an unpublished manuscript that was just made accessible to scholars in 2010. Not only did Stanford enable me to spend a month at the Bodleian archives last summer, I’m now completing my thesis at the source, in Oxford. The Stanford English department has made that possible. Not every department would allow a student these liberties — I don’t know anyone else writing their thesis from abroad. But, in my experience, Stanford English professors and administrators really get to know their undergraduates. So there’s more trust. And there’s more freedom. And, compared with our engineering counterparts, there are far fewer unit requirements.

Does this mean I’ve had a less rigorous experience at Stanford than a technical major? Decide for yourself. I’ve traveled not only abroad but between Stanford’s departments — I’ve studied cultural anthropology, history, sociology, a smattering of world literatures, philosophy, logic, art history, and performance. I’ve lived alone in Lithuania for two months, starting out with only one contact, and interviewed thirty-five young Lithuanians about their experience growing up in a post-Soviet nation. I’ve created art with one of the most significant, eccentric figures in contemporary music while living in Amsterdam; I’ve earned my keep with a theatre company at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; I’ve interviewed German, British, and American writers and editors creating more radical and open literary scenes around the world. I’ve spent one quarter in Paris and two quarters at Oxford, where every student in the Stanford program pursues a self-designed tutorial, most demanding 10-12 pages of critical writing each week. (More on this in a later post! It’s awesome. It’s also hard.) These experiences have been ‘a lot of fun’, of course, and certainly they’ve ‘changed the way I see the world’, etc. etc. But it’s also been a lot of work, equal parts work of the mind and work of the spirit. I’ve had to strengthen not only my academic muscles and critical eye, but also my initiative, my confidence, my flexibility, my compassion. I have had a truly full education.

These opportunities have been real blessings. Let me be the first to say that I’ve been beyond lucky. But, when it comes down to it, I’m also just another Stanford English major. I’m a student who has had the liberty of a low-unit major, an enormously supportive department, and faculty mentors who have invested time in really getting to know me: not as an anonymous undergrad, but as a scholar and as a person. One of the lesser discussed perks of being an English major — or a humanities major, in general — at Stanford is that we go everywhere. We are not bound to Palo Alto. We are not bound to one department. We are given that support; we are entrusted with that freedom.

For me, at least, that freedom has been everything. And I could not be more grateful to this department, or more proud of my choice to be a part of it.

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No Summer Plans? No Problem.

Travel to one (or more!) of these 5 Literary Cities

1. Oxford, England: (aka one of my favorite cities) Countless writers attended Oxford University. A few poets that come to mind are Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Percy Shelley and even Dr. Seuss. Among the prose writers were Lewis Carroll, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name a few. While there, visit the Eagle and Child pub where Tolkien and Lewis wrote, and read and write in the Bodleian!

2. London, England: Another city in England, I know. But who doesn’t want to visit London? Which writers haven’t passed through there? I don’t even know where to begin. Maybe with the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey (it holds the tombs of Chaucer and Dickens as well as memorials to many other writers including Milton, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Blake and Eliot). Then there’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Dickens House Museum, the British Library, and the list goes on…

3. Paris, France: Visit Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père-Lachaise Cemetery and cafes like La Closerie des Lilas where writers like Ernest Hemingway wrote. Also, read in the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore!

4. Dublin, Ireland: Go on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl! Visit the Dublin Writers Museum and see the Book of Kells in the Old Library at Trinity College.

5. Edinburgh, Scotland: The city’s inspired more than 500 novels. Go experience the city’s atmosphere you’ve only ever read about. Visit the Writers’ Museum and maybe even do a little writing yourself.

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A Creative Wednesday

It’s Wednesday, “Hump Day” as some people call it, and you need a break from reality. A break from the stress of the week and all the work you need to do. Why not productively procrastinate? Well, here’s your chance! Write creatively! Get those creative juices flowing!

Step 1: Create a list of of your favorite pieces of literature. You know, those works that inspire you. For example, Brave New World and “A Temporary Matter”.

Step 2: Now make a list of the specific elements in these works that you enjoy. Essentially, pinpoint why these are your favorite pieces. For example, dystopia, questions of society and education, and realistic romance. You can get more specific too! Name all the things you look for in a good story! My list would include things like education, music/singing, light/dark imagery, question asking, Christianity, and squirrels.

Step 3: Save this list and go to it when you need a new idea for a creative piece. You could start now by selecting two or three of the items on your list to include in your writing.

Step 4: Get creative and write! Even if only for 15 minutes a day. This may be exactly what you need to keep you sane.

Good luck! And Happy Creative Wednesday!

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A Poem for a Hot Day in January

In California: Morning, Evening, Late January

Pale, then enkindled,
summits of palm and pine,

the dew
scripture of

Soon the roar
of mowers
cropping the already short
grass of lawns,

men with long-nozzled
cylinders of pesticide
poking at weeds,
at moss in cracks of cement,

and louder roar
of helicopters off to spray
vineyards where braceros try
to hold their breath,

and in the distance, bulldozers, excavators,
babel of destructive construction.

Banded by deep
oakshadow, airy
shadow of eucalyptus,

miner’s lettuce,
tender, untasted,
and other grass, unmown,
no green more brilliant.

Fragile paradise.

         .   .   .   .

At day’s end the whole sky,
vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent
tint of wisteria,
over the malls, the industrial parks,
the homes with the lights going on,
the homeless arranging their bundles.

         .   .   .   .

Who can utter
the poignance of all that is constantly
threatened, invaded, expended

and constantly
persists in beauty,

tranquil as this young moon
just risen and slowly
drinking light
from the vanished sun.

Who can utter
the praise of such generosity
or the shame?

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