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June 13, 2017

Q&A with Claire Ashmead ’17: Learning how to live a good life

Claire Ashmead ’17 won a Witherspoon Scholarship to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. A history major with certificates in humanistic studies, creative writing, and Chinese language and culture, she participated in Council of the Humanities initiatives including the Humanities Sequence, Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows, and Humanities Mentors program.

How did your academic and extracurricular interests evolve throughout your undergraduate career?

I definitely came into Princeton thinking I would be really involved with politics in some form, whether that was Whig-Clio or debate or perhaps running for Undergraduate Student Government, because that’s something that I’d done in high school a lot; in fact, that was a big part of my identity. I did not end up joining those communities, really. I investigated them a bit, but I don’t think that’s really where my people were, which was surprising to find out because I went to a quite small all girls’ school in Ohio, and this sense of my people doesn’t apply when your grade only has 70 people. But then here, I found the type of people I really liked being around in comedy writing and writer’s rooms in general, so that’s something I got involved in. I thought I might do improv, but instead I got involved more in the Triangle writer’s side of things, and also writing for All-Nighter, which is a late night talk show. I’m very happy with that outcome, though it feels in certain ways not like what I always expected of myself. When I was younger, I always thought I would run for office, and maybe that’s something I would still do, but I don’t really feel that push anymore the same way I used to.

I came in thinking that I might be a history major because I loved history when I was in high school, though my personal journey with history, and how I’ve come to terms with what the discipline actually is and what it’s good for and what it means to me—I’ve become much more thoughtful and intentional about it. That has a lot to do with finding the intellectual history track at Princeton, just because I loved especially the HUM Sequence freshman year. In a certain way—and this has been true of me my whole life—there are many hats I like to wear, and HUM allows you to do that. You get to see philosophy, history, literature, theater, all of it, art. I love that. Intellectual history, as the history of ideas, really allowed me to continue to pursue broader humanistic studies, which was nice.

In more detail, how did the Humanities Sequence benefit you?

That whole journey through time and space was fascinating to me, and made me feel like all of these thoughts I’d been thinking had been thought long before me, but there had been a million answers to them. Sometimes, the weight of the Western canon can be really heavy for people, and can make you start to feel like you have nothing more to say. But to me, it was just really affirming because it showed that there are a billion ways to respond beautifully to one question, which is how to live a good life. I feel more empowered to participate in answering that question because I have seen how many people and how many ways people have participated in it before me.

After completing the Sequence, you stayed connected to Sequence students and alumni as a Humanities Mentor and member of the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows. How have these pursuits affected you?

I didn’t expect to love being a Humanities Mentor as much as I did. I really like returning to old spaces as a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, maybe like returning to my high school and remembering who I was when I graduated and who I was when I was in that space. Being a HUM Mentor was very much the same deal, where I saw these freshmen piecing together their first essays about the Oresteia and I was really thrown back to me trying to figure out the argument I was going to make, not understanding how college essays worked, being very intimidated, just not knowing at all how my life here would unfold. Returning to the beginning made me aware of how much I really have learned at Princeton.

I really love being part of the Behrman Society partly just because of the great texts that we’ve gotten to read and the great people we’ve brought in. Last year in particular, we just read some texts that I absolutely fell in love with, like Pale Fire, an essay on the meaning of patriotism that I still talk to people about, and A Hundred Years of Solitude. Focusing on something just for intellectual pleasure outside of class was really important to me, creating some lasting intellectual monuments in my own mind. If you’re really committed to this kind of inquiry, then it doesn’t stop when your seminar is over.

What inspired your senior theses?

For my history thesis, I did a comparative study of artists on trial between McCarthyism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. What inspired that was 1) a personal interest in dystopias, 2) I loved researching the Chinese Cultural Revolution for my spring JP, and my adviser had grown up under McCarthyism, and he just kept remarking on how similar the two seemed to him. I realized that nobody had done a comparative study of them before, and they’re two moments of major political repression in both countries that remain hated and reviled to this day. One was going after liberals in America, one was going after “conservatives” in China, but a lot of the mechanisms of how the societies worked were the same, including their focus on persecuting artists in particular. And I’ve always really been interested in biographies of artists and how artists generate art under bad conditions.

My creative thesis was a story about four women in one house. This past summer, I was afforded a grant through the Lewis Center on the Mallach Senior Thesis Fund to travel to the homes of female authors whose work had influenced me growing up. I went to the homes of lots of women in Denmark and England, like Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Beatrix Potter, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot. There, I often read their books I had annotated in high school while seeing their rooms and where they worked and how they decorated their houses. I was inspired to do that project because I had read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, about how women need their own space to work in, and knowing in my own writing how important space has always been to me, I wanted to see what had produced their books. Then there were a lot of issues about relationships between women that I was really interested in. A good friend of mine lost her father this past summer, and I became very interested in how children respond to grief at our age, and my grandmother has difficulty with dementia, so my story explored how a grandchild relates to a grandmother who’s not always there. Close female friends have always been so important to me, so exploring sisterhood was also a big part of why I wrote what I wrote.

What have you learned from serving as a head writer for the Triangle Club and a writer for All-Nighter?

Comedy and comedy writing have given me so many skills. The first thing Triangle taught me was to not be afraid to laugh. A lot of times, people are self-policing and self-constraining about showing what gives them joy, out of fear that it’s the wrong thing; they don’t want to embarrass themselves, they don’t want to be seen liking a thing they shouldn’t like. To learn to be unafraid to laugh at things is to learn to be unafraid to have an opinion that maybe everybody disagrees with. That’s crucial to being an independent person of independent mind. The second thing that Triangle taught me was that making jokes can be dangerous. In so many ways, comedy is about surprise and edge and controversy. So it’s taught me to know what the joke I’m making is actually doing and how to defend it, and when to back down about jokes because some things are just hurtful and you shouldn’t say them.

How has acting in L’Avant-Scène changed the ways that you interpret and produce texts?

What I love about acting is that the actors have to really humble themselves to the text. There’s nothing there that you can change. You have to accept that the character that the author wrote is a whole, complete, compelling person, and even if you’re not seeing that, it’s there, so you need to work to make that possible. You have to bring a lot of self-reflection about experiences that you’ve had that would mirror what this character is going through, and that’s just very good for you. Acting has also made me very aware of how to write good dialogue that captures how individuals talk, the importance of action and drama in narrative, and the messages revealed by how characters interact with their setting.

You have often bridged the humanities, like history and literature, with the arts, like creative writing and theater. In doing so, what challenges have you overcome?

People in the academy are very concerned with making their work factual, and that being the proof that what they’re studying has a bearing on reality and is eminently and immediately important. It’s just so funny to me that there’s a skepticism of more creative work just because creative work is so often what people in the academy actually end up studying, and where they draw a lot of their inspiration from, and what we all claim we’re endeavoring to preserve. The heart of the Western tradition is an epic poem, quite possibly fictional, at least many aspects of it.

You hope to write fiction that incorporates historical research. How will lessons from your humanistic studies certificate inform your work?

I like connecting deep time and deep history and things that happened quite long ago with futuristic impossible or counterfactual worlds, a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale or Black Mirror. I think I like doing so because to show what’s omnipresent in the human condition. When you combine how these people have come up with a drink that allows you to never eat food, or they’re investigating whether our world is all a simulation, or predicting an apocalypse with radical Islam, and then you connect that to the deep past and you see different circumstances, different people, different faiths, but asking a lot of the same questions, you get this deep sense of ways in which humans are timeless. What is eternally relevant is always the focus of any good work of fiction or academic writing. Humanistic studies teaches you the connections between not only these disciplines, but also these nations or cultures or periods of time.

What role do and should the humanities play in the lives of students today?

People are walking away from church, the nuclear family and marriage, the academy, political institutions—everything that used to be venerated is now up for debate. In many ways, that’s actually good. I think people are a lot more intellectually liberated in certain senses of the word, in that they’re not in these institutions that inculcate dogmas so much. At the same time, I think people come to college with a lot of questions that are profoundly humanistic. A word that’s more often used is “spiritual.” There is a deeply overlapping Venn diagram between “humanistic” and “spiritual.” What makes me happy? What do I value? Who should my friends be? What should I pursue as a vocation? Do I believe in God? What would it mean for me not to believe in God? The humanities is the only place where you don’t get answers, but you practice answering those questions until you come up with your own answers that you can live with, and you’ll have to do that your whole life; you’re not going to solve it here. There’s nothing more important.

Interview conducted by Ruby Shao ‘17