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.

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