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
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.