Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Defense of the Thesis Defense

I should talk a little bit about what exactly went on at my thesis defense and what I gained from the experience. Before I went to my thesis defense I took the opportunity to go to other people’s defenses – whether they were defending fiction, poetry, or nonfiction – and in preparation for my own defense I took notes on what questions were being asked and then tried to answer the questions myself later for practice.

This, as I have said before, was one of the most useful things about the entire thesis process, because in my preparing for the variety of questions I might have to answer I actually was forced to think about all kinds of things that I hadn’t really thought about before. (That’s not to say that I hadn’t thought about craft related issues as I was writing my novel, but there were still other ways of looking at it that I hadn’t had time to consider.)

But my defense itself was extremely interesting (and fun, once I got over the very bad case of jitters I came down with that morning). They asked me some questions that I had definitely anticipated – questions about the difficulties I had as a female writing from a male perspective, for example, and questions about the difficulty of rounding out your “bad guy” characters so that they are real, believable human beings and not just evil demons. But there were also a number of questions I hadn’t planned on – questions about my decision process for events that would occur in the novel that might be predictable versus events that would be totally unexpected, questions about passive versus active characters, and questions about the thematic symbolism I tried to weave throughout the novel, hell, even questions about the ratio of dialogue and interior monologue to plain narration of action.

In many ways, it felt like what I imagine an author’s interview would feel like, where somebody who has read your work closely is asking you questions about how you wrote it. But many of the questions brought up new ideas for revision – I hadn’t really thought, for example, that some of the events in the novel were predictable or that one of my characters might come across, at times, as too passive. And many of the other questions made me feel pretty damn good knowing that thematic details and that sort of thing, which I had tried to weave in subtly, were being picked up on by close readers.

After my defense my committee and I had some time alone where they told me how much they really did enjoy the novel and then gave me some concrete suggestions on how I might revise it further. I left feeling, well first of all relieved that the whole thesis process was pretty much over (I just had to fix a few typos and then turn it in to the graduate school), but more than that both encouraged (they liked it! They really liked it!) and excited about future revisions.

One of my committee members suggested – and it was something I had already been thinking about – that I should set the whole thing aside for a few months so that, when I come back to do the next draft, I can reread it with fresh eyes. This is definitely the way it has to be because, after working on it for two years straight, I most certainly have lost any perspective on the work I might have once had. As I’m letting the sediment of the novel settle in my mind, I’m having a few writer friends whose opinions I really trust read it. I feel very confident that when I come back to do the next draft (which will probably be sometime this summer – I’m too excited about it to let it sit for too long), I’ll be able to do a very thorough, very good revision of it. But more than anything I feel confident that the things I learned from the thesis experience will stay with me as I write my next book, and the next one. As stressful as the whole process was (and it was very stressful for me – I have issues with anxiety, man) it was worth it a thousand times over.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Thesis Is Not the Book

Having recently defended my thesis, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between your thesis, which you must successfully defend to earn your degree, and the publishable book it will hopefully one day become. As I was getting ready for my defense I started freaking out about my chances of passing – suddenly this thing I had been working on for so long and had been feeling like was almost ready seemed very very very far from where I wanted it to be.

But then some people reminded me that you have to look at the thesis process as there being two separate sides to it: there is your thesis and there is your novel (or book of poetry or collection of short stories). Your thesis will probably not be ready yet when you defend it. That is, it will not be ready to publish. But that’s okay. Part of the point of the thesis process is to prepare you for the work ahead of you in putting together a publishable book – you’re not expected to actually finish the program with one ready to go, rather, you should finish the program with the skills to get a book ready to publish.

After I turned my defense copy in to my committee members, I started to notice all kinds of things about the book that I wanted to change. As I prepared myself for the sorts of questions I would be asked at my defense things just started to click into place in my mind. Suddenly I could see problems with the structure, with certain characters, with some of the underdeveloped aspects of it like the setting, that I had never quite been able to see before.

It made the few days leading up to my defense uncomfortably stressful, because suddenly I saw all these flaws with my novel that I was worried my committee members would make a big deal out of during my defense, but on the positive side, once I passed my defense (and it was actually a wonderful experience but I’ll talk about it some other time), I left feeling very excited about all the new ideas for revision I had – and a renewed feeling that I would be able to turn this into something publishable if I just made the decision to keep at it until it’s there.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a writer getting their graduate thesis accepted for publication without having done at least one more revision – if not multiple revisions – after defending it and before sending it out. That said I have heard of many writers who did eventually get their graduate thesis published (and many of them are just wonderful wonderful books). I learned too much to even describe from the process of writing my thesis but perhaps one of the most useful aspects of the process was that two week period after I turned in my defense copy but before I defended. The questions that I ended up getting asked at my defense were extremely useful – but as I was waiting for my defense I prepared myself for a range of questions (many of which didn’t get asked) that really forced me to look at my thesis in a whole new way.

Right now I’m going to set it aside for a month or two so I can gain a little perspective on it and make the most out of my next revision, but I feel really excited about where to go with it from here. I’m super grateful to the entire thesis writing process for giving me the skills necessary to be able to trudge ahead and one day turn this book into what I want it to be.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Making Use of the Faculty

This past Friday a couple of UAF professors put on a CV and Cover Letter Workshop for interested graduate students. The timing for this workshop couldn’t have been better for me, since I’m currently trying to put together a CV and cover letter to apply for adjunct jobs in Ohio. I have to admit, I felt like a fool because the CV I had previously put together (with which, by the way, I applied to graduate programs this past time around) was not at all what a CV should be. It didn’t even look like a proper CV – too fancy. To put together that CV I had looked up information on the internet, looked at some samples, and downloaded a template. Boy did these things lead me wrong!

At the workshop the faculty members answered questions, and one of them passed around copies of his current CV (with which he recently applied for and received tenure). These professors also recently went through a hiring process at our university, sifting through the applicant pool to try to find the best applicants for a few open positions. They gave us concrete, specific, and immensely useful information about what they were looking for on the hiring committee, what they do as applicants, and how we could put our experience in graduate school to the best possible use on our CVs and cover letters.

In addition to the fact that this was extremely helpful for me as I get ready to apply for my first non-TA teaching positions, this workshop really got me thinking about how much you can gain from just tapping into the professors’ wealth of knowledge about both writing and academia. This is one HUGE plus about MFA programs; you can learn all kinds of things about how to become a professor and you also get some good references to use when applying for future jobs.

I’ve said before that one of the major things you get from MFA programs is preparation and experience for a career in academia, and while this might not seem directly relevant to creative writing, consider how good a job teaching is for writers. How many writers work as teachers to support their writing addiction? Quite a lot, actually. Teaching is a great job for writers because it encourages you to keep working on your writing and affords you ample time to do it (can you say summers and winters off?) – in fact, if you don’t keep getting quality publications you won’t even stand a chance at ever getting tenure. Learning how to get your foot in the academic door is important, then, and I don’t know that there is any better way of preparing yourself for this sort of career than asking people questions who have been through it themselves. People like the professors in an MFA program.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Another Entry about Rejections

Okay, down the rejection road one more time. Here’s the thing: rejections are an inevitable part of being a writer. I think because of my recent graduate school rejections I’ve been extra sensitive to rejections in general recently and I began to really question the worth of my writing. It couldn’t have come at a worse time because it was right before I had to turn in my thesis and prepare for my defense. I started to think, wait a minute, this book isn’t even any good, how the hell am I going to defend it?

Well I got a rejection a couple of days ago that made me feel a lot better, helped me put it all back in perspective. It was from a paying journal with a higher circulation than I’ve yet to be published in and the editor told me that my story was very good, that this was excellent writing, and that I should know that it made it very far along in the editorial process. She said that “as always, with such “rejections,” it’s important to remember that this is not a judgment about your writing.” This was a really similar response to what I got last summer from that agent who requested to read the manuscript of my children’s book and then ended up deciding not to represent me. A clear statement that they liked my writing, and that I shouldn’t consider the rejection as any kind of statement whatsoever about the work itself or my skills as a writer – it has to do, instead, with a number of variables that I have no control over. It as, after all, a business, and market trends, current supply/demand situations, etc. all play a role in what gets published and what doesn’t.

I can look at my stuff and say that I like my writing much better now than a year ago, or a year before that, or a year before that, and that should really be what I’m focused on. No, I’m not “there” yet, wherever “there” is. But I’m changing in a way that I consider improvement and as long as I keep at it, I’m sure this will continue to be true. And that matters much more than whether any individual story gets published by any individual journal.