2016, Archives, November 2016, The MFA Years

Thesis: The Paperwork Semester

As I review document after document in my final – paperwork – semester of my MFA, I’ve been thinking back on all that it took to get here to this final stretch towards graduation.

When I started my MFA at Stony Brook University, just over two years ago, I’d set out with the very specific goal of learning how to write a book. I’d written plenty of essays, of varying lengths, and other pieces of fiction and non-fiction, but a book-length project felt beyond my abilities.

Over the course of these past two years, I continued to write segments towards completing my memoir. One of my classes was to prepare us for thesis and there I began piecing my sections together and thinking about what I should delete and what needed to still be added and so on.

And then, last spring, I started using my official thesis credits and got nowhere. For a variety of reasons, largely logistic (my university has three campuses, one of which is 2.5 hours away) I wasn’t able to manage productive communication with my advisors and so when the semester came to a close, I found myself with only 14 pages that we’d all agreed upon.

Ultimately, I switched advisors so I could work with someone in closer proximity and we agreed that I should simply pull everything into one document and start there.

I did and I found that as I went through each section – some old, some new – the trick was looking at the transitions. In music, we call these the stops and starts; when one song ends and the next begins. Those who remember “mix tapes” know how important this is, but anyone who has ever listened to a live show or even the radio and heard a jarring transition understands how it important it is that the stops and starts flow. This held true for my memoir, it seemed.

Two months and 300+ pages later, I sent my new advisor the first draft of my thesis. It wasn’t perfect and will certainly still need editing and revising, but I did it. Most importantly, what I realized was that I had it in me all along, but I didn’t trust myself.

Indeed, every few weeks over these past two years, I have questioned myself not only about my writing but even about the wisdom of pursuing an MFA.

Did I really need it to be a better writer?

Was this the best way to pull the book out?

Was it worth the money?

I think the answer is yes to all.

I am absolutely a better, more confident, writer than I was two years ago. Through my coursework and being forced to turn in homework that wasn’t always what I would have chosen on my own, I’ve learned to approach writing from a spectrum of approaches and, for that, I am a more effective writer.

As for pulling out the book, I probably could have done it on my own, eventually, but I needed both the push of a deadline as well as the community of writers encouraging me to succeed to actually sit down and get the work done. I am easily distracted and often my own worst enemy so having these other writers support me – as well as my sisters and nieces – made all the difference.

Was it worth the money? Absolutely. I believe that education is always valuable because it is an investment in oneself. And, already I’ve been invited to interview to teach writing at the university level, and for other work, having the Master’s nearly completed counted in my favor.

With all of my coursework completed in the spring, I now plod through the final “paperwork semester” of submitting my thesis and formatting my thesis and ticking off boxes about my thesis on checklists and so on. My advisor and readers have given me good feedback on my manuscript so I feel confident that I have, indeed, earned my degree. As I wait for December 22nd – graduation day – I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

I set out to achieve a specific goal and I have reached it. In addition to which I move forward as a part of a community of writers I’ll know forever and with a new skill set that I’ll employ for years to come.

Above all, the end is in sight and I’m happy that I rose to my self-imposed challenge and came out on the other end with a piece of work to which I am proud to sign my name.

In case you’d like to read the opening pages from my still-in-progress memoir, you can find an excerpt by clicking here: Blue Marlin.


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