The MFA Thesis Defense: Asking the Right Questions

It’s MFA thesis defense season, and that has me thinking about the best and the worst things that can come from such an exercise.

I remember well my own thesis defense in which I was told all the things I’d done wrong in my slim collection of stories. Helpful? To the extent that it gave me things to pay attention to when I continued writing, thinking all along about what sort of writer I wanted to be, what world I wanted to inhabit, and how I wanted to represent it in my prose, yes. Encouraging? Not much.

What did it teach me? This writing business takes a thick skin, persistence, a willingness to fail, to listen to why I failed, to figure out a way to not fail again while at the same time accepting that I will. Developing as a writer takes an intelligence, an ability to look at one’s work as if you’re not the one who wrote it, an acceptance that there are other writers who know more than you do, who are more talented, who are farther along. Steal from them whenever you can.

At some point in the thesis process, I tell my students that there are two realities: the thesis reality and the reality of the marketplace. An MFA thesis is not always a manuscript on its way to publication, nor should it be. If it is, then great, but what both the student and the advisor should expect from a thesis is a manuscript that highlights the writer’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. The thesis should also provide a means by which both the committee members and the student can begin to assess the material that matters most to the writer and the direction that writer seems to be moving when it comes to best expressing that which compels them. These are the things that can come out of a thesis defense that will send the newly-minted MFA out into the world with some degree of excitement about reworking the thesis or perhaps starting anew with another manuscript.

It took me six years to begin to answer these questions for myself:

1.         From what world do I wish to speak? (the small towns and farming communities of my native Midwest)

2.         What’s my material? What am I obsessed with? (issues of violence and redemption, the consequences of deceit and betrayal, the blending of the moral and the profane)

3.         How is the person, Lee Martin, connected to the writer, Lee Martin? (I spent my            adolescence balanced on the thin line between my mother’s compassion and my father’s          cruelty; it finally struck me that everything I wrote was in some way an attempt to       navigate that boundary)

The answers to these questions aren’t always the same. Depending on where I am in my life and the circumstances I’ve encountered, my answers may change, but these are the questions I needed to be aware of before I could write the stories that ended up in my first book, which was published twelve years after I received my MFA. After my thesis defense, I had to find a way of posing those questions for myself and then setting out to answer them so I could be better prepared to write something that would be worthy of the marketplace. A different thesis defense approach on the part of my committee might have saved me some time, or maybe I was just young and dense and unable to listen in the right way. Still, each time I participate in a thesis defense, I try to keep in mind the young writers upon whom we’ll soon confer a degree. I imagine those writers absent from our program the following autumn, out there somewhere still trying to find their way to the writers they can be. By the time of the defense, I’ve given my students all the answers that I can about their work via workshops and individual conferences. Here at the end, I want to make sure that I give them the right questions.



  1. Angie R on April 8, 2013 at 10:26 am

    I especially like that first question. It took me a while to answer it truthfully. While I started out as a CNF-er, I slowly came to realize that the world I was writing from (my own) was not interesting to me, at all. And how could I expect an audience to be interested when I wasn’t? Even though fiction intimidated me in the past, I think a made up world is where I belong…for now. Thanks for your help along the way, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on April 8, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      Hi, Angie! So good to hear from you. Who knows? You may find yourself moving back and forth between CNF and Fiction. That’s what happened to me. I had the opportunity to write some CNF, and it came at a time in my life when that’s what I needed. Hope you’re doing well!

  2. […] he explains in his most recent blog […]

  3. Richard Gilbert on April 10, 2013 at 4:26 pm


    Thanks so much for speaking to my class last night, about these and other matters. I’ve written about your appearance and your recent book Such a Life on my blog:

    • Lee Martin on April 12, 2013 at 11:41 am

      Richard, please forgive me for taking so long to respond. It was a flurry of thesis defenses this week. I had such a grand time with you class. It’s clear that they’re the beneficiaries of some excellent teaching. I look forward to our continued friendship.

  4. Mort Castle on April 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Wow! Serving on my first ever “thesis committee” (suprising, in that my credentials are primarily from “Learn Meat Cutting at Home” and Holder of Folding Chair of Literature and there’s more than a little here that gets me thinking. Loved, too, that you provide Martinesque answers for these questions.

    • Lee Martin on April 12, 2013 at 11:40 am

      Mort, you gave me quite a chuckle. I want one of those Folding Chair of Literature positions! Glad you found the post useful. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  5. Rebecca Kuder on April 24, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    Thank you, Lee. This post expresses (beautifully) what I also hope to do for my students as they step from graduate school toward the long distance run: life as a writer.

    • Lee Martin on April 24, 2013 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Rebecca. Best of wishes to you as you keep doing the good work.

  6. Dorothy on February 9, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Thank you for this post, Lee. I don’t know you, but found this blog while looking for answers about my own MFA thesis defense two days ago, an experience that left me both grateful and unsatisfied.

    I’ve worked on this collection for three years. I had never written stories before in my life. My readers were welcoming, offered praise, mentioned how I had grown much in a short time. Then the critique. My second reader failed to mention two speculative stories that I was deeply invested in. I realized later she doesn’t write speculative fiction and so they likely appealed to her less. I could have wished that, despite her own lack of attachment to non-realist work is not her cup of tea, she might have taken them on and offered some commentary on them. But in 90 minutes with three people talking, there was truly no time to talk about everything. Or, in fact, most things.

    I think a distinction needs to be made regarding the use of the words “fail” and “defense”. Just because a reader—even a published novelist, someone who teaches in your program and therefore has more success than you do—criticizes your work doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It doesn’t even mean that you need to change even one word of your story or poem. Writing professors are as fallible and prone to literary prejudice as anyone else. Their critiques cannot be seen as prescriptive. Your “fail” cannot be seen as a true fail.

    Now the word “defense”: I wish that my program gave both professors and students a better idea of what the hell an MFA defense is all about. Fact: we spend four years in workshops being told that everyone will talk about our story and we are take notes and keep our mouths clamped shut. Then we arrive at this thing called a “defense” and suddenly we’re asked to say something. What training, exactly, do we have in talking about our own work? Is the word “defense” to be taken literally here? And if so, how do we avoid seeming defensive? For myself, despite the great admiration for both my readers and my sense of gratitude that they even read my work at all and took the time to speak to me about it, I felt disappointed, emptied and lost after it was over. Still do. I know that the process is to invite me into the community of peers—my kind, talented readers said this specifically. But I ultimately am questioning the entire concept of a “defense” of creative writing, at least for achievement of a degree.

    There are a lot of reasons that very good writing doesn’t strike a chord with some people, doesn’t get published, doesn’t make a name for its author. Ever. Some of those reasons have to do with the writing not measuring up, that much is true. But other reasons include being a woman in an educational system that is still largely white and patriarchal. Or the culture in the academy that is skewed towards post-modernism or classical forms and resists the new. Or campus and publishing cultures that promote pretty young things and ignores mature writers because, I guess, they fail in the crucial task of inspiring the wet dreams of the professors and administrators.

    And yet.

    One is a writer. One writes. One is always in doubt, seeking an authoritative, honest, beautiful voice. One may never arrive and may “fail” for a lifetime. And still, one packs away the disappointments. And still, one writes.

    • Lee Martin on February 13, 2019 at 11:57 am

      Dorothy, thank you so much for sharing your experience. On the other side of the MFA is the rest of your writing life, and you’re the one in charge of that. As in workshops, the only thing that gets said in a thesis defense that matters is the thing that offers insight or gives the writer excitement about doing the work. May you find that thing again and again as your journey continues.

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