2016, Archives, July 2016, The MFA Years

The Dissertation

Image: Ignacio B. Peña

I’ve got two posts left (including this one) before my regular(ish) contribution to The MFA Years comes to a close. Before I write my wrap-up next month at the end of my course, I wanted to take some time to talk about the last few months as it relates to my experience approaching my summer dissertation, and everything that that entails.

First, a brief overview. Over the course of this summer, the fiction students are required to write a creative dissertation project that spans a word count of 15,000 – 20,000 words. This can be achieved in any way the student sees fit, be it one complete novella, a collection of short stories or flash fiction, or the continuation of a novel-in-progress. I decided I wanted to write a self-contained novella.

Undoubtedly the foremost reason for having taken this year to pursue a Masters was so that I can develop my craft as a writer of fiction; and in this respect, I feel that my time in Edinburgh has been invaluable. Not necessarily due to the course itself (though there is that), but because of the community of writers and artists whom I have come to know and learn from.

In my last post, I highlighted a very important question that I have become keenly aware of as a writer coming into my own.

Why do I want to write?

This question has taken on an increasing relevance in the last few weeks for me. I hope that my input here on The MFA Years over the last year has been insightful and helpful to some. Throughout my participation, I have become aware of stories and struggles my fellow contributors have undergone in their own corners of the world, and have in turn forced me to examine the kind of writer I want to be. More and more as the months go by and I write and revise my own work, I think about what it is I want to be doing with what I commit to words.

When I first began writing, it was to find a sort of outlet for myself, both emotionally and creatively. It was something that was my own. When a few people I knew began to read and respond to that writing, I realized it became about connection, and I was excited about what words could do to connect to others in a way I had never been able to do face to face.

As April drew to a close, I didn’t want to start writing my novella yet, mostly because I just didn’t know what I was going to write about. So instead I wrote another short story I’d had on the backburner for a while, and ignored the big looming project on the horizon. But I finished that and a month had gone by and I still wasn’t really sure what I wanted to write. I had started with an idea and scrapped it. Then I started on another idea, and scrapped that too. The problem soon became obvious to me.

I wasn’t excited by those ideas, and it was because they weren’t dealing with something I’ve been ignoring for years. The question of who, or what, I am. Not just a writer, but as an American, who at this point hasn’t lived in America for six years; as someone who lived in New Zealand for five years, but can’t call himself a New Zealander; as someone currently living in Scotland, who will never be Scottish. As a man of color, who has never actually felt like a man of color.

This is where I really need to pause, because to say that I am a man of color feels to me a very heavy statement, for a shitload of reasons. So much has happened in the world over the last weeks that has sparked a growing social conflict of conscience that involves everyone some level. Regardless of your proximity to it by your skin color, by your nationality, by your economic class, by your beliefs in gun control; everyone is somehow involved. By your silence or your voice on any or all issues, you are involved. I am too. The thing is, I’m still trying to figure out how.

Most of my stories this year have been rooted in some kernel of a memory that’s been important to me, and for me it’s given each story a legitimacy I can be excited about. But it goes without saying that words are one of the most important things in my life. And I was reading the Border Trilogy a few months ago, and at some point I realized how wonderful it is that I can read those novels and read the words written in English and the words written in Spanish woven in between and never once have to consciously make the switch. It’s just the language of the book, plain and simple. No apologies or explanations.

And as the weeks went on it bothered me more and more. That my name is Mexican; that I grew up in America in a Mexican home in a community that was largely Hispanic; that I had not written a single word of Spanish in any of my stories.

When I was younger, I grew up reading a lot of books. A lot of science fiction, a lot of fantasy. When my parents where working all day after school, it was my Super Nintendo that looked after me; fantasy games, where there were these long narratives that you would read in between moments of exploring and fighting monsters. Later, it was movies and anime. I came to a point right around when I was 18 (I’m 31 now) that I realized, actively, that I never really felt all that American, whatever I thought that meant at the time. But then I also never really had any deep love of my Mexican heritage.

It’s not that I resented being either of these things; it’s more just that I never felt strongly about it one way or the other. I didn’t identify with being American or Mexican. I only identified with being what everyone told my I was: a nerd. Sometimes lovingly, sometimes more derisively, but regardless of what context it was in, that is what I felt I was. I was the things I filled myself with. The things I enjoyed. I maintained that view for a number of years, and ignored any other questions of identity.

Then I left the United States, and haven’t lived there for years. However, as I’ve gotten older now and as I continue to read stories being written by others, and posts from other contributors on this page who have had to face their own obstacles on their path to becoming writers, I’ve become bothered by my own attitudes toward what I am and where I am from. I’ve encountered one moment of genuine racism in my own life, directed specifically at me, but in the wider context of what so many have experienced and continue to experience, it was benign in comparison. It did, however, open my eyes at a young age to the divisions that separate groups of people. That these divisions could exist for no good reason at all.

Throughout the year when I’ve set out to write a new story, it’s been driven by an emotion that I feel most urgently at the time. Some small memory that has never left me. Some thing in my life I felt needs to exist in some written form. But in my attempts to find something to write about for the summer, I’ve come to a point where I feel I need to explore this… fear? of committing to this idea of what I am.

Because the reality is that with respect to what I am (American? Mexican-American? Ex-pat? Lost?), I don’t know that any of that has really changed. I don’t think I’ve come to any answers. But I know that I now find myself distressed by the question. By the fact that I have spent over a decade ignoring it, and now I want to know why. I am learning I have some ability at expressing things through words in a way that people can connect with, and I am realizing that with it, there’s a certain level of responsibility that I can choose to accept with that. I can ignore it, too, but then I think I’d be doing myself a disservice as a writer if I did.

So to say then that “I am a man of color” comes with a lot of responsibility in a year when racism and xenophobia seems to be truly alive and well in the world. My fear in this statement comes not from what it means for the past that I come from, because it’s not been one where I have had to suffer because of it. My fear is that I want to be able, in some way, to be representative as a writer for those who don’t know what they are, and are failing to do so in the process. I don’t even know if I have the right to do so. Or how to approach it. Or if I should, and to what degree.

I’ve talked about this with a couple of my friends that I’ve made here from my course, and in doing so they’ve helped me figure out ways to draw from this what’s important and focalize it to drive the story I’m writing now; because I found, especially in the first few weeks of me actually beginning a draft, constantly overwhelmed and creatively paralyzed with the novella as a whole.

I think that I may have been putting a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning to somehow address everything I’ve just now written about. At some point, I think I finally needed to just pause and look at what I was doing; I was writing a story, and it was a story with characters battling their own personal demons and the story goes from there. I’d done that before. I’d obsessed over those first drafts, and I know how much things change after that. I needed to remind myself that I could do all that again. And honestly, it’s helped.

The other aspect of the dissertation that I hadn’t given much thought before the summer was the reality that, as a writer, I am alone. And by that, I mean that the comfort of the class structure is gone. The summer dissertation serves as that independent period of transition from being a writer in a set curriculum to one who must write independently of one’s own volition. For our dissertation, we are assigned a supervisor; we meet with them twice, usually in May and June. After the second meeting, we are on our own to finish and revise before we all hand in our final draft on the 18th of August. It’s up to us to reach out to fellow writers in our course to workshop what we’ve written. If we so choose. It’s up to us to continue to read books which may or may not inspire us, serve as some sort of creative feed. If we so choose. It’s up to us to find a balance that allows for moments of rest in between what is, really, a daunting project that doesn’t need to be quite so daunting, if you find a schedule that works for you.

In my case, I had begun the summer with this idea that I would have a strict and controlled regiment of writing: the mornings for my dissertation, the afternoons for a bit of reading, and the evenings for the novel I had begun to write early in the year (of which I took a pause from to write other stories).

Guess what? That plan went right out the window. Life got in the way, and continues to do so in little ways. I’ve been unable to regiment a damn thing, and instead what I’ve had to do is simply find those moments where I can write, revise, workshop, and read whenever I get the first chance to do so. Others in my course have been far more successful at keeping themselves disciplined in this respect; I simply haven’t, and it’s something that I know I will have to continue to keep in check once I’m done with the course.

Now I’m almost finished with a first draft of my novella, and I have a tremendous amount of work ahead before I’ll be happy with it. But more importantly, the last few months have been a tremendous wake-up call for me. The political and social upheavals that have affected all of us in some way has left me with a lot to consider.

I’m trying to find my own words for it. Words that are mine. Words that are for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.