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.


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.


My First Novel: Stepping Stones in the Mire

I recently applied for a fellowship that had me rummaging through my files for a screenplay I wrote during graduate school. I began the screenplay during an Introduction to Screenwriting course and expanded it during an Advanced Screenwriting independent study. When I opened the file with the name of the screenplay I had worked on during grad school, it was as I remembered it – a bit of a mess but with some great visual scenes.

I set into work revising it for a few minutes and then something ticked in my brain. Wait – what was that other file in my screenplay folder?

I went back and there was a title I didn’t recognize. I opened the document and I remembered – I’d spent weeks rewriting the screenplay during the stint when I’d wanted to switch my graduate thesis focus.

This version – the revision of my graduate screenplay – was really good. The scenes were specific, the characters three-dimensional, the push of the story more likely to grab a reader or viewer and pull them in. It was surprising how big the distance was between the two versions. There was a leap from idea to execution, from mucking about and finding the story to telling the story with confidence.

Photograph by clrcmck
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

I’m working on my first novel, aided by goals with my writing buddy, NaNoWriMo word counts, and nudges from writing friends. What I’ve found interesting so far is that I can already tell the difference between my original story concept and where the novel is headed. I spent quite a while brainstorming about this story, but nothing clicked until I sat down and started writing.

My worst enemy in this writing process is the voice inside my head saying that this is all crap. And of course this book will need to be revised. Of course. That’s when the book is really going to start to sing. I can’t catapult myself from one shore to the other via the clean air. I’m going to have to wade through the water.

Looking at an early and late draft of my own writing at this point, when I’m feeling adrift in a big project, has given me the drive to keep going. I’m confident that I can revise this novel and make it cohesive, deeper and brighter than this first draft. The strange trick is freeing myself to write without beginning that revision process too early, starting off an endless cycle of editing myself out of the story before it is even written.

How’s your novel going?

MFA Flashback: Visiting Writers

J.T. Dutton and Me, 2010, Photo by UAF staff photographer

One of the best experiences during my time as an MFA student was the visiting writer series that my department sponsored. Even though we were in Alaska, my program brought amazingly talented and accomplished writers up to visit.

The visiting writer would give a lecture on Thursday afternoons about their craft interests and areas of expertise. These lectures were open only to MFA students and English faculty, so they were cozy affairs where you really got to  know the writer and ask questions. And the writer had time to respond to those questions slowly and with care. It was almost like taking a seminar class with the visiting writer.

On Friday evenings the writers gave a public reading open to the entire campus and community, followed by a book signing where the local bookstore provided copies for sale.

But there’s another element of the visiting writer that takes place earlier in the week, around Wednesday or Thursday.

Second and Third year MFA students have the opportunity to participate in a one on one manuscript discussion with a visiting writer. The visiting writer only meets with a few students (there isn’t much time for more), and there are usually around six visiting writers each year. So meeting with a visiting writer is a once in an MFA experience for most of the grad students in my program.

My thesis advisor asked me if I’d like to meet with YA author J.T. Dutton, and I was ecstatic at the chance. I emailed her around twenty pages of the novella I’d been working on, and wrote the date for our appointment in my calendar.

I was terrified of meeting Dutton. I was afraid she’d throw my manuscript in my face and tell me I was a horrible writer and that I shouldn’t have wasted her time with my silly story.

Instead, she gave me one of the best critique sessions I’ve ever received. She went over some language and pacing edits with me that snapped the opening of my story to life. It was amazing to watch my story wake up from my lumbering prose just by a few scratch marks through extra words, a few arrows to rearrange sentences in the paragraphs.

Next we moved onto larger discussions about story, and about writing YA. It was the first time I had met someone who wrote YA fiction. So many of my favorite books are considered YA, but for some reason I had never entertained the idea of writing YA as something that MFA graduates did. But J.T. Dutton’s novel Freaked was based on her MFA thesis at UAF. I think I had a prejudice that YA fiction couldn’t be serious, and that only serious writing mattered.

At the reading on Friday night, J.T. read a passage from the end of her novel, and it is a reading that both my partner and I remember to this day as being an amazing experience. It was a beautiful passage about being at a Grateful Dead concert and the feeling of being in the crowd.

Freaked and Stranded by J.T. Dutton

J.T. told me something important during my one-on-one critique session. “This is a novel,” she told me. “A YA novel.”

That story is still with me, and I haven’t written it into a novel just yet. But I know that I can, and that it can be as sad and serious as I want and still be a beautiful YA novel. And it can also be funny and geeky and talk about Star Trek, and those aspects might even make it a much better story.

A New Job Begins and a Piece of Paper Arrives

Last week I started a temporary job as a full-time administrative assistant. It’s a wonderful position – great co-workers, a quiet but productive office, and it’s on a university campus. In my mind this type of job has one really wonderful feature – I can leave it behind at 5PM and spend the rest of my time writing. 

But last week I was so tired that I didn’t write at all. On Thursday I came home from work and fell asleep by 7PM, woke up for an hour, then went to sleep for the night. I’m hoping that my body readjusts fully this week, and I can have my wits about me enough to step into my stories.
One definite plus is that I’ve been able to read much more. I read an entire book in one week, something I haven’t done since grad school. It was a shortish book, only around 200 pages, and it was a memoir, but that’s still a step forward. I have to take a one hour lunch break in the middle of the day, and I spend most of that time reading. It’s strange – my room of my own is my office. 
I’m considering taking my Eee PC with me and trying to write a little on my lunch break. No big goals, just a hundred words or so. Enough to push me into my novel project every day, so that my brain can work on it in the background as much as possible. 
On Saturday, a large envelope arrived in the mail. No padding, the edges torn. Mail from Alaska always comes in a bit chewed. Thank goodness the contents were in great condition:

My Diploma!

I know it’s silly, but damn am I proud of this sheet of paper. Maybe proud doesn’t describe how I felt when I held it for the first time. Maybe – excited. The kind that shakes the fibers of your heart a bit. 

I’ve felt in-between for a long time. It’s nice to be out the other side. 

MFA Flashback: Why Alaska?

The dry cabin I lived in my last year in Alaska

I get asked about Alaska pretty often, usually at least once a week. I still have my Alaska driver’s license, so the tellers at the bank are always curious why I would move from Alaska to Alabama. And at interviews, Alaska features prominently on my resume. It makes for a fun introduction.

In high school I knew several people who had never left Alabama, never gone to the Gulf of Mexico to see the ocean, never even taken a trip up to Tennessee. And since I’ve been back I’ve met a few people who have their limits – they won’t cross the Mississippi River or go up higher than the Carolinas. Not everyone in Alabama feels this way about travel, but it is pervasive enough that I get asked weekly, “Alaska! What made you leave Alabama to go all the way to Alaska?”

The simple answer is that I applied to a school in Alaska, and they accepted me and gave me a Teaching Assistantship.

The more complicated answer is that Alaska was as far away as I could get from Alabama and still be in the United States. It’s not that I hate Alabama, it’s just that there’s so much world out there – and a great way to learn about a new place is to go to school there. This gives you a built-in community, something to do, and a source of income.

It might have been easier if I had gone to graduate school within the contiguous states, or as they say in Alaska, the Lower 48. I would have had a car to take with me, I could have visited my family more often, and I might have been able to attend the AWP conference while still in grad school, which would have been a great source of motivation.

But I would have missed out on birch trees, snow, outhouses, giant ravens, the enormous mechanical beasts that scrape the roads late at night, moose in my backyard, blueberries beside the cabin, driving through the Yukon on a spare tire while being chased by bears –

and meeting the kindest, most inclusive bunch of people I’ve ever known. Fairbanks was the first place that ever felt like home. Alaska has a way of trapping people’s hearts, of pulling them back long after they’ve left. It’s kind of a joke among people in Fairbanks. “We’ll see you again,” instead of good-bye.

Once you’ve been to Alaska, it’s easy to understand how people can move there from far away and never leave. And how the people who do leave always carry Alaska with them, a string pulling them home.

Here’s a short video I made of my first winter in Alaska for my family, way back in 2007. It isn’t fancy, the video quality isn’t HD, but I think it captures some of the feeling of being in Alaska for the first time, so I wanted to share.

First Winter in Alaska movie from Jenni Moody on Vimeo.

MFA Flashback: Comprehensive Exam

In addition to coursework, students in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks must complete two tasks: compose a thesis and pass a comprehensive exam. 
What is this exam?
  • The exam is in February, and MFA students are expected to take it in their second year. It is a pass/ fail exam. If you fail, you can take the test again the following February. It is only held once a year and you must pass it in order to graduate. 
  • The test is composed of five questions that must each be answered with an essay. Students answer two questions in the morning session (9am – Noon) and three questions in the afternoon session (2pm – 5pm), all on a Saturday near the beginning of the Spring semester.
  • The exam itself is exhausting. The only book you are allowed to use is a dictionary. But you must reference (and quote if possible) several books in each essay response. 

At the end of the exam, upperclassmen were there with champagne and beer. There’s no better feeling than finishing an exam you’ve been studying for for a year and having people who have been through the process before (and know how difficult it is) there to cheer your success.
But here’s my story – I messed up with my comprehensive exam. I didn’t plan for it. 
There are fifty books on the comprehensive exam reading list, and in order to pass, you need to read most (if not all) of them. Usually professors try to use at least one comp book as a text for their class, but this will only get you so far. Students must read a substantial number of books in addition to their class readings, and with most graduate literature courses requiring you to read one book per week, this can become an overwhelming task. 
The first year for a graduate student is tough. Graduate level workshops are like that scene in Centerstage; everybody was the best writer in their undergraduate workshops. But here, in the graduate workshop, you’re a first-year. The first time your story gets workshopped at the graduate level is a serious wake up call. 
So after my first year of grad school, I was wiped out. (Did I mention we were living in the middle of Alaska with no car?) I was mentally and physically exhausted. That summer, I should have been reading for my comprehensive exam. But I couldn’t bring myself to read or write. My brain felt fried, so I went into regeneration mode. I rode my bike to Creamer’s Field to watch the sandhill cranes, developed an obsession with episodes of Mystery! and Globe Trekker that aired on public television.
I reasoned I’d study for comps during the winter break. I’d have nothing to do but read for a few weeks, and  the books would be fresh on my mind when it came time for the exam. 
Then we visited my family for the winter break, and time evaporated. As time drew near for the exam, I made a difficult decision – I decided not to take it in my 2nd year. If I took it while I was unprepared and failed, as I knew I would, then it would be much harder for me to take the exam when I was ready. 
I took the exam in my 3rd year and passed. The results of the test were given through individual letters from the chair of the department, placed in our grad mail boxes in the English office. I was on shift as a tutor in the Writing Center when word started going around that the letters had been delivered. There weren’t any students waiting to be tutored, no appointments scheduled – I can’t remember if I ran to the mailbox to get the letter or if my boyfriend picked it up for me. The letter was short, and without looking at it I can still remember one part: “in the end, I believe the most useful part of this process was the time you spent studying for the test.”
Me with my comps pass letter, 2010
And this is absolutely true. 
When I realized I wouldn’t be able to take the test on time, I got serious about studying for the next opportunity. The students in my year had formed a weekly study group, but I dropped out after a few sessions because I couldn’t keep up with the reading and I was embarrassed. 
Luckily, there were several fiction writers in the year below me who were up for the exams. We started meeting every Sunday at Alaska Coffee Roasting Company. We made a schedule of books to discuss and designated a discussion leader for each text.
I wish I had a photograph of the four of us studying for the exams. The coffeehouse was always crowded and noisy. There was never enough table space for our coffees, sandwiches, piles of books, the binders of notes we were compiling. Our screenwriting professor, Len Kammerling, was sometimes there with a different group, and he’d wave to us and stop and chat. Often I would spot David Marusek, the science fiction writer, with his laptop. I never worked up the courage to go over and say hi. There were impassioned conversations about Melville, talks that helped me better understand my mixed feelings for The House of Mirth, and gradually there was a comprehension of knowing the texts much better than I could have if I had studied for the test on my own. 
I’m glad I didn’t try to take the test my 2nd year, when I had not studied. My comps study group was one of the best learning environments I experienced during graduate school. And this experience converted me from a student who detested group projects, to a teacher who believed in their ability to inform texts and conversations on literature in a way that other modes of learning cannot. 
If you’re curious as to the 50 books I read for my comprehensive exam, here’s the 2012-2013 list. It changes a little every two years, some books are added and others dropped, but the scope and the spirit are pretty much the same. 

MFA Flashback: Office Space

I entered the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a Teaching Assistantship. In return for teaching one section of a beginning composition course each semester, my tuition was waived and I received a small stipend. 

Magazines about MFA programs urged me to consider TAships carefully. “Do you really want to spend your graduate career teaching instead of writing?” In the end, I decided that I wanted to take as few student loans as possible, and a TAship was the only way. 
What I did not realize when I started teaching at UAF was that learning how to teach would become an invaluable part of my education. I believe that being a teacher made me a better student in my graduate classes, and helped me to grow socially. 

All TAs are offered desk space on the English department floor. The desks are out in the open, somewhat divided by office partitions. 
My first year as a TA and as a graduate student, I had a small desk with the right side pushed up against the wall. There wasn’t much space, but I was ecstatic to have it. 

First year TA desk at UAF

It was a small space, but I was surrounded by fellow first-years. If I was having problems teaching or writing a story, there were always people around to offer support and advice.

“How is your class going?”

“What do you think about Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?”

To have people who not only ask you how you are doing, but who are genuinely interested in the answer and will talk with you for twenty minutes until you feel better – I would have missed out on all of this if I had not been a TA. I would not have had a desk, a space where I could work and talk and run into my fellow grad students.

At the beginning of my 2nd year, I moved to a much larger office space that had been given up by a 3rd year student after he graduated. I had my own bookcase, a filing cabinet, lots of wall space, and a coat rack that I misguidedly covered in blazers.

2nd & 3rd year desk

The best aspect of my 2nd and 3rd year TA space was that it was good for hanging out. Sure, I had much more desk space on which to sort and grade papers, and I could roll my desk chair back and forth without worrying about knocking into anyone. But for the first time I had a cozy guest chair that was also out of the line of traffic.

My MFA friends stopped by to play with the dinosaur that made silly roaring sounds when you pushed a button, or to borrow a book to teach in class. We talked about the stories we wrote, the literature classes we took, the students we taught.

View from a visitor’s seat

Before I left UAF, I had to clean out my desk space. What I couldn’t keep I gave away, leaving a plant on one friend’s desk, a plastic Gloomy bear on another. I turned in my keys to to the Writing Center and the 8th floor to Leah, the wonderful administrative organizer for the English department. Turning in those keys felt like losing the last link to all of the wonderful friendships I’d gained during my MFA program.

“Don’t worry,” Leah said. “You’ll have new keys soon.”

“The Internet is our new Writing Center. We can hangout anytime,” another MFA friend said.

But as wonderful as the Internet is, as lonely as I would be without it, I still miss the experience of having a physical space amid a community of writers. These last two, long years since I left UAF I’ve been working on my thesis at my small desk in the corner of my bedroom. There isn’t another chair in the room, just an Internet window open, hoping someone drops by.