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.

6 comments:

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mew123 said...

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Susan Bell said...

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Joaquina Spindler said...

It was certainly a good idea to go to other people thesis defense to watch them how they do it. It would definitely give you an idea on what to do when it is your time to be on the spot light and defending your graduate thesis. Anyway, being nervous is just part of it, and it would eventually work out for most grad student.

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