MFA Flashback: The Bound Thesis

Once I defended my thesis, the graduation process was far from over.

I was elated to be done with the oral defense of my thesis. It was a wonderful experience, and one that prepared me for future job interviews. But the saga of the thesis copies had yet to begin.

As a graduate student, your thesis becomes part of your university’s legacy. The library, your department, and often your advisor will want a bound copy of your thesis. You may say, “that’s nice, I bet I could just whip up a cost-effective copy through a print on demand service.” But no! Alas, the path through this final requirement is much thornier.

In order to graduate, you have to organize the printing and binding of your thesis. The format must be approved by the Graduate School, and must include strange formatting like 1.5″ left margins. The student is responsible for printing four copies of the thesis on 100% cotton paper, and then the university library organizes the binding of each copy.

To make a long story short, I will say that organizing the printing and delivery of your thesis from the other side of the country is a fate I do not wish upon you. If you find yourself in such a situation, I hope you are as lucky as I was and have an amazing department mastermind on your side like Leah Aronow-Brown.

Once my printed, unbound copies arrived at the graduate school it marked the last hurdle needed to confer my degree.

Now I had to wait.

The binding process takes a long time. Usually, they will not arrive until several months after your graduation date. I graduated in the summer, and I received my bound thesis copies yesterday, in late November.

I wasn’t sure what the bound copies would look like. I’d never seen one in person. So I began daydreaming about green cloth covers with gold embossed letters, artisan embellishments in the interior cover.

But the thesis copy is more of an academic document, bound to be shelved in a library archive. It is still lovely, but in a more sterile way.

The cover is black but looks kind of plum in a certain light

Shadow in a rare still photograph
This thing is thick – a solid 1 1/2 inches.
The page total is right at 150.

The side is printed with my last name at the top
and the bottom has the date of graduation, August 2012.

Woot!

Still, it’s pretty cool to see my name stamped into a book cover.

As a general warning: thesis copies are expensive. Paying for them was a joint graduation present from my mother and father. Some of the copies are mandatory, like one for the library and one for your department. You cannot graduate until those copies are paid for and arranged.

But you also have the option of ordering additional copies. My family members wanted copies, so we ordered several. I wish I had made a separate version of my thesis for my family and a few friends, either through a print on demand site or as a xeroxed and hand-crafted zine. I could have designed a lovely cover for it no problem, and would have made sure to include an Acknowledgements page (which in the rush and stress of my thesis defense I forgot to include in the university version).

I’m submitting several of my thesis stories to journals, both literary and genre, so I don’t want to put them up on amazon as a collection at the moment. But a private copy for family would not be considered publication.

I think I might go ahead and see if I can make a few copies of my thesis this way. There are still family members who won’t get a library bound copy, and friends and advisors I’d like to thank for their help during my MFA years. Mark Pantoja’s Kickstarter short story collection was beautiful, and sits proudly on my shelf. I’d like to have something lovely to give to my friends as well.

But I think it is also oddly fitting that my thesis, This Apocalypse Won’t Last Long Enough, looks like a book that would survive the apocalypse and might be found in a government stronghold that a few straggling survivors use as a way station.

Advertisements

A Name Against the Nothing

Artax in the Swamp of Sadness, from The Neverending Story

A few times at Clarion West, on the Sunday evenings when we met our instructor for the week, we would be asked to go around the table and describe the kinds of stories we wrote.

Occasionally, I’d be asked the same question at the Friday night parties, and at other random moments, like when I went to the comic book store in search of a poster for my bare dorm room walls.

“You’re a writer? Cool! What kind of stories do you write?”

I was supposed to know this, right? Or at least be figuring it out.

I started to have a bit of an identity crisis.

“Fantasy,” I’d say. “But not like elves kind of fantasy. Other kind of fantasy.”

Or I’d list my favorite authors. Kelly Link. Margo Lanagan. Elizabeth Hand. John Crowley.

But it didn’t quite work. I needed a place on the grid, a way to plot myself among the writers I was learning from.

I needed a name.

On one of those Sunday evening roundtables, Alisa Alering gave a great description of her stories, which I now cannot remember word for word. But from her description, I embraced my own. I wrote stories where strange things happened to normal people.

This helped, but it wasn’t until recently that I found a name that I am comfortable wearing.

During my thesis defense, my advisor referenced the term “slipstream” often. I had heard of slipstream before, but it wasn’t something I had researched. So instead I talked about my stories moving back and forth between literary mainstream and science fiction. Sometimes I’d swing to one side, sometimes to the other. Overall, my stories were inching closer to some strange place in the middle. But the middle couldn’t have a name, right? It wasn’t really a place.

The middle turned out to not be a swamp of sadness. In fact, it’s the place where most of my favorite authors hang out.

This is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. ~ Bruce Sterling

Having a term I can use to describe my writing gives me guideposts. I don’t always have to stay on this path. Maybe ten years from now I’ll laugh at the idea that I once identified with slipstream. But for now, it is a way to navigate. It’s a name to fight against that terrible feeling of the Nothing closing in from all sides.

After searching for a long time, all it took was a great writing friend to help me find a name.

And, of course, a little luck.

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

Resistance Manifesto

As I prepare for my thesis defense, I’m going back through my materials from the classes I took at UAF. In particular, I’m reading through my binder from Forms of Fiction, taught by the amazing David Crouse.

David assigned a writing project during this course that I particularly loved. We each had to write a resistance manifesto. In writing, you’re defined not only by the writing styles and ideals that you embrace, but also by those that you reject.

I took Forms of Fiction in the spring of my first year as a graduate student. The first semester of grad school is hell. It’s wonderful in many ways, too. But it is an overwhelming load of coursework, learning to teach, and trying to write. The first semester breaks you down and makes you realize that you’re going to have to work at writing if you really want to write well.

Then after that first stretch, you begin to rebuild your writing self.

This exercise was very cathartic at that stage of my writing development, but I believe it can be useful anytime you’re feeling lost in the crowd of writers. Define who you are, and who you are not as a writer, and keep steering by that star.

RESISTANCE MANIFESTO

I do not want to have my work described as “good writing.” Fuck that.

I do not want to be any part of literary snobbery that denies entrance to form or genre.

I will not pass through the charnel houses just to be published.

I will not camouflage myself in the gristle and shards of “good writing” to earn any position or award.

Fuck that.

I resist the urge to retreat into the safe arms of academia and forgo the world of the real.

I resist the urge to forget my childhood, the Southern strangeness that is part of my story.

I defy the division of images and text.
Booyeah.

I support the proliferation of writing through public forms. I will write and share my writing through unfamiliar means.

Saddle-stiched. Hand threaded spine. A copy machine mage.

I will share my life with my family and friends through zines full of images and words.

I will write as well as I can, changing the lens until I get the correct prescription.

I will structure these lenses in thick black frames and blue striped socks.

I am not writing for an editor. I am not writing for a magazine.

I am not writing to be entombed in a print quarterly.

I am writing to be found on a bus seat, a chance library sale find, on a table in a cafe. 

I am writing for the girl in the closet who speaks to her sister through the walls while her parents rage outside.

I am writing for the boy with long hair who lives in a house full of doors that are always closed. 

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.

Writing Rhythms

I’m up to my neck in short story revisions at the moment. Which means less of the fun “I’ll fix this problem later!” typing, and more “Crap, how do I fix that problem?” staring at my computer screen. I have twelve stories I’m mending at the moment, making sure that the stories have forward movement and clarity, their backs sewn up into fulfilling arcs.

There’s a lot riding on these twelve little stories. They comprise my thesis for my MFA degree. When they’re finished, I will have to defend them in front of a panel of university professors. My thesis and its defense will determine whether or not I will be able to graduate with my MFA degree. And I need my degree to get a job teaching composition (and hopefully someday creative writing) at the community college and/or university level.

I have also taken the “all or nothing” approach to finishing my thesis. I quit my job working for a non-profit, where I worked 50+ stressful hours per week, and am now living on my student loan. So I have to make these days, hours, minutes, and moments count. Because I am paying for them, with interest.

The problem with this is that I have a hard time stepping away from work. Even if I am not physically sitting in front of the computer, my mind is still working away at my story problems. It’s difficult to turn off the “how do I fix this story?” stress level.

Recently, I tried implementing a new kind of writing rhythm into my daily writing schedule. This advice came to me from Ellen Sussman’s article “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity” published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Poets & Writers. 


One of Sussman’s suggestions is to use “the unit system” :

Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write. You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a fifteen-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work. 

Before I read this article, I had been dividing my days into two giant groups of time – working on thesis time and rest of life time. But I wasn’t ever able to really transition from one to the other. I’d dread sitting down at the keyboard, because I was stressing over my stories constantly. I would already feel like I’d been working on writing before I even opened up the Word document.

But forty-five minutes – that’s a manageable amount of time. I can push myself to be actively productive for a forty-five minute stretch, if I know that I can get up and walk around at the end of it. In those fifteen minutes I do the little chores that let my mind take a break. I feed the cats, do the dishes, check the mailbox. Sometimes I dance. And when I come back to my story on the start of a new hour, I feel newly energized. I don’t always have Aha! moments after those 15 minutes, but the knots in my stories are usually a little bit looser, easier to pull apart and straighten out.

Making the transition between conscious writing time, and non-actively writing time, several times a day has helped me step away from the story world more fully at the end of the day. In the evenings I still read stories and novels, observe the world around me, and do all of those other activities that help nourish writing. But I take a few hours to breathe, to tell myself that the stories are coming together. And the next day I’m rested, ready to sit down and start to work.

Even if you only have an hour a day to write, I think this is a great system to try. I know that for myself, it is easier to be productive when I know that there’s a break – or a change, no matter how small – looming just over the horizon.