In Mary’s class that day, I listened, ripped, reorganized, affixed… and finally fled, fighting back tears…That was the spark I needed to ignite the fire inside of me.

Jodi Picoult - Photo by Adam BouskaThe first time I had a short story workshopped at Princeton, Mary Morris—my professor—gave me a glue stick, scissors, and construction paper and told me to sit down in the center of a circle of chairs. While my peers critiqued my writing, I was supposed to stay quiet and take directions. I was supposed to cut and paste.

I had come to Princeton like so many other students— thinking that I already knew everything, or why else would I have been accepted? Clearly, this was not the case. In Mary’s class that day, I listened, ripped, reorganized, affixed…and finally fled, fighting back tears. It took every ounce of courage I had to go to Mary’s office hours the next day. “Why did you do that to me?” I asked. She smiled, kindly, and said, “Because you needed it. And because you can take it.”

That was the spark I needed to ignite the fire inside of me. I edited that story, and edited it, and edited it some more. After several passes back and forth, Mary suggested that I submit it to a magazine. I was a poor college student—I remember that I didn’t even buy a copy of Seventeen at the Palmer Square kiosk; I just jotted down the name of the editor, and the address on the masthead, and mailed off my story.

A few months later, there was a message on my answering machine from an editor. They wanted my story. They wanted to pay me for my story.

I took multiple classes with Mary Morris, who is not only a friend now, but the woman I credit with making me the writer I am today.

Under her careful tutelage, I moved from writing short stories to tackling a novel—the difference between juggling apples and elephants. She went into labor reading my thesis, something that seems poetically just. Had I not written a creative thesis with a real, live, published writer holding my metaphorical hand, would I ever have had the courage to try by myself? Would I be an author today? I doubt it. What Mary did for me—what Princeton did for me—was push me to the point where I was willing to take the leap that a career in the arts must be. What Princeton taught me was that you have to get past a fear of falling if you’re ever going to have a chance to soar.

 

Interview

Jodi Picoult in conversation with Jill Dolan at the She Roars conference, May 2011

Credits

This article was originally published in 2015 by the Princeton University Office of Development Communications. It has been reprinted and adapted for the web with permission.

Photograph by Adam Bouska

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