Princeton Arts Profiles

The Courage to Soar

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.



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

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