Studying for the Thesis Defense

Every true work of art – and thus every attempt at art (since things meant to be similar must submit to one standard) – must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws. If it has no laws, or if its laws are incoherent, it fails – usually – on that basis. 

~ John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I’ve got a little under two weeks until I defend my thesis, the last step I need to finish my MFA in Creative Writing.

The defenses are open to the public, but only the committee can ask the defender questions. Graduate students are encouraged to attend thesis defenses given by their classmates well before it is their turn to sit in the hot seat.

So how does one defend a creative thesis? Isn’t it all subjective?

Yes. And no, not at all.

You have to write consciously. Lucking in to good characters and structure won’t hold up over the course of a publication-length work. In the thesis defense, you have to describe the decisions you purposefully made as an author, whether you think they worked well or not, and how you learned from these choices.

The examiners also ask you to place your work in relation to the rest of the genre. Which authors are you learning from? Which writers do you reject?

And finally, how does your work intersect with the craft issues of your genre?

The books on my desk right now

To prepare myself to answer these questions, I’m reading over my stories, my revision notes, my notes from my graduate Forms of Fiction class, and a few craft books.

  • The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as it Takes by Joan Silber
    • An immensely helpful book that makes me want to experiment more with different forms of time in my short stories. 
  • The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter
    • The essay “Unheard Melodies” in this book completely changed the way that I approach writing dialogue. 
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner
    • The first time I read this book, I thought it was hopelessly droll. But as I get better at writing, I begin to understand more and more of what he is saying, and can understand why it is a classic (and appears on my university’s graduate comprehensive exam).
  • Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter
    • Another text that is on the graduate comprehensive exam list at UAF. There are so many amazing essays in this book. Here’s a snippet from the first essay, “Dysfunctional Narratives”:
      • “Sometimes – if we are writers – we have to talk to our characters. We have to try to persuade them to do what they’ve only imagined doing. We have to nudge but not force them toward situations where they will get into interesting trouble, where they will make interesting mistakes that they may take responsibility for. When we allow our characters to make mistakes, we release them from the grip of our own authorial narcissism. That’s wonderful for them, it’s wonderful for us, but it’s best of all for the story” (Baxter 12). 
  • The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell
    • The title essay of this book is wonderful:
      • “I come to know my stories by writing my way into them” (Boswell 4). 

The English department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has guidelines posted as to how to prepare for the defense, and also this bit of encouragement:

Although the examination might seem intimidating, it should also be rewarding: this is your chance (perhaps one of the few you will ever have) to discuss your work with experts in the field who are familiar with your writing.

I’m nervous, of course, but also very excited. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, and I’m glad I was able to get here with a set of stories that are the kind I would like to read.

7 thoughts on “Studying for the Thesis Defense

  1. “this is your chance (perhaps one of the few you will ever have) to discuss your work with experts in the field who are familiar with your writing”

    was that supposed to be encouraging?

  2. Haha. Well, encouraging in the sense that the thesis defense is more of a conversation and less of a tribunal.

    But the “few chances” part, maybe less encouraging. I was thinking that we all had a similar opportunity at Clarion West with our instructors every week, granted that they did not read a book-length manuscript. But still.

  3. I wish they had included books ABOUT writing on my comps list. Thanks for this list–I'm going to add them all to my to-read list (except the Gardner book, which I did read at UAF, just not for comps).

    The thesis defense is actually a lot of fun when you think about it the way they suggest in the guidelines. It's like doing an interview about your book-length work 🙂

    Also–love, love, love the thesis title. I'll get to read it eventually, right???

  4. Hey Ashley! I was really excited to have some craft books on the comps list. It makes sense for fiction writers, and it's helpful to be able to use them on the exam.

    The other three books (Art of Time, Art of Subtext, and Half-Known World) are all books David taught in his Intro to Fiction course that I sat in on as part of my Teaching Fiction Writing Independent Study. These books are amazing. I might have been afraid to teach them to students, thinking they are too complex for beginning writers. But they loved the essays, and the students wrote some astonishingly good stories using the concepts described in the books.

    Thinking of the thesis as an interview helps! I'll just pretend I'm on NPR, talking to Terry Gross (Terry rhymes with Gerri, after all!) I might try to listen to a few Fresh Air interviews, too, just to give myself the feeling that it's ok to take a breath and answer candidly. 🙂 Thank you!

    Yay! Glad you like the title! 🙂 Yes! You can definitely read it someday, if you'd want. 🙂 I'm going to put it away for a month and then do some summer revising on it. After that, I'll mail you a copy. I'd love to have your feedback for whether it works as a short story collection 🙂

  5. I'm definitely going to check out those books. The one about time seems especially interesting.

    I recognize your thesis title, too. Are all the stories in your thesis related to that one you showed us? Or is it more disparate? How have you found the reception to science fiction in your MFA program?

    I wish I could be there for your defense. I think it would be awesome to see you go to bat. Plus then we could go get drinks! Ah, that vast, wild land between us…Good luck!

  6. Hey Eliza!

    Cool! I think you'd like the books. The one on time is nice. It doesn't give much “How To” help, but it is helpful to jumpstart your brain on thinking about time in stories. 🙂

    The rest of the stories don't have the same characters or setting but they're loosely connected by the theme of apocalypse. Sometimes it's the outside world going to hell, sometimes relationships, and sometimes just something inside the characters. 🙂

    I should probably write a post about writing sf in my MFA sometime. The not too long answer: the reception was pretty good. Not awesome like at Clarion West, but I was never barred from writing what I wanted. My thesis advisor teaches Octavia E. Butler stories in her fiction writing classes all the time, and has published a mystery novel. I met some really good friends there who love sf and liked reading my stories. There were also times of snobbery, and some face palm moments where “transcends the genre” discussions happened. But overall it was a wonderful experience, and without my MFA I do not think I would have been accepted to Clarion West.

    That would be so awesome if you could be there for the defense! And drinks! Yes! It would be so lovely to hangout at the Night Kitchen again. 🙂 Someday there'll be a con we can both make it to, and much hugging and drinking!

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