The Story of the Story

I defended my thesis on Friday, and it went swimmingly. I now have an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (woot!), and just need to submit some paperwork in order to make it official.

The whole affair lasted about an hour: 45 minutes of questions, a few minutes for the committee to deliberate behind closed doors, and then a few minutes to tell me their verdict.

Over in an hour, and I’ve been stressing out about the thesis defense for years.

On Thursday night, I put out a request for advice from my MFA friends. It was amazing to hear from all of my great writer friends who’ve defended before me, now scattered across the world and doing great things.

One piece of advice, given by Greg, was extremely helpful:

Just tell stories.

I’d been thinking of the thesis defense as an interview, and that allowed fantasies of hardball questions to creep into my head.

But the defense was less like an interview with Piers Morgan and more like an author spotlight, like the kind Lightspeed Magazine does.

My committee wanted to know the story of the stories, where they started, the turning point in understanding a character, and my journey as a writer.

At AWP, Ashley Cowger told me that she felt like the thesis process prepared students for working with an editor, and I think she’s totally right. My thesis advisor, Gerri Brightwell, was vital to the writing of my thesis. She asked me questions to make me dig deeper into my characters, to question whether a story needed to be told a certain way, to help me get a feeling for when a story was almost done.

If writing the thesis is an exercise in working with an editor, then defending the thesis is preparation for what will follow once your book is published. You need to be able to explain your story in terms of craft and journey. It’s the second story that readers and writers love to hear, one that’s been growing on its own during those late nights and early mornings when your eyes have been trained on the computer.

And I think it’s important for writers to recognize and celebrate that the story of the writing matters, too.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, Winter of 2008

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