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.