Category Archives: Thesis Defense

“I Should Be Writing” and Other Things I Keep Telling Myself

I should be writing. I know. I’m blogging, so technically I am writing, but I’m not writing. My MFA defense was nine weeks ago – NINE WEEKS, and I still haven’t written anything that doesn’t fall into the category of editing my thesis. I now hate the word “thesis”. The mere thought of looking at mine once more gives me anxiety. I just want it to go away. Isn’t that terrible?

Right now my idea board is split between three unfinished projects. One corner holds ideas for a novel I started when I first began the MFA program, an opposite corner has notes for a collection of short stories I would one day like to write, and the largest section is dedicated to the novel I am supposed to be working on. I say supposed to be, because remember, I’m not writing.

I can’t really blame it on writer’s block. I’m not blocked. It’s more of a void. Upon returning home, I threw myself into editing the thesis I wasn’t in love with, so that I could focus on other things. I am a firm believer that if you stare at something long enough you will eventually find something wrong with it. I guess that is one way of looking at my thesis.

As you know, we took a much needed break in Illinois before returning to Tennessee. Sadly, I had to immediately return to work. I have come to the realization that work (at least this position) kills my creative spirit. It’s like walking into a cave. The light has been extinguished and there is little air to breathe. Recent developments at work have only narrowed the space within the cave. After a long day there isn’t much motivation to write.

Compounding matters is the  job search. What does one do with an MFA besides teach, anyway? I forgot how much I loathe job hunting. The other reason I have not been writing is that I have spent every free moment searching for a new job. Have you applied for a job lately? The process is a nightmare. You start with a resume, but must input the information listed on your resume into the company’s job bank so that a computer can scan for key words to see if you are qualified before a human ever lays eyes on it. Those fortunate individuals who make it past the robot preliminary interviewers are then held captive in a virtual room with the heading “Under Review For Consideration”. In this room the line is long and the wait indefinite.

Your phone (if not already) becomes surgically attached to your body in fear that you might miss “that call” or “that email” from a prospective employer. You check spam religiously and scan the caller-id for missed calls.  You hope that website where you applied doesn’t have some sort of tracking system to log each time you check the status of the position. You picture them calling. Will it be a man? A woman? Either way, they will be extremely nice on the phone. You will get along well. Your enthusiasm for the position will seep through the phone line and they will not only want to offer you the position, but a great starting salary as well. At least this is what you tell yourself in the beginning when you are still optimistic. Later, your psychic powers will reveal that you will definitely not get the job, even though the company has not listed the position as filled.

This vicious cycle will continue until (1) you find a job; (2) you decide a career in retail or fast food is what you have secretly always wanted or (3) you give up and decide that doctorate isn’t such a bad idea. After all, you survived the thesis defense with multiple gunshot wounds. A dissertation, even a really bad one with hostage negotiations, won’t kill you, will it? What’s two or three more years? An eternity compared to a lifetime of debt, how much worse could it be? You love studying and completing assignments while your friends and everyone else on the planet enjoys life. Besides, a relationship would just get in the way of your desire for another pretty plaque to hang on your wall. Don’t worry about not having anyone to sit in a rocking chair with when you get older. You can just polish your pretty plaques.

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Is there such a thing as a job of your dreams? I think it is possible to come close. With that in mind, I am patient enough to keep searching. In the meantime, while I’m in my work cave by day and “For Consideration” virtual room by night I really need to be writing.

I think I will start with baby steps. Instead of focusing on piecing together the remnants of my thesis a fresh start might be in order. I don’t mean scrap everything, but perhaps re-familiarizing myself with the characters might shed new light on what direction the story needs to take. I have accepted the fact that I will not finish writing my novel within a time frame that pleases me. These things take time. The life of a writer is filled with frustrations as well as disappointments, but also much joy. Joy that comes from the last word typed on a page. Joy knowing it is good. Joy that comes from finally being published. It is all worth it. The good, the bad, the ups, the downs, the days when I know I should be writing, and the days when there is an unwritten story in my head waiting to be told. It is why we love writing.

If you, too, should be writing, but the distractions in life have become to loud to bear, give yourself a moment to be human, and when the time is right – write.

 

Until next time —

 

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Man down! Life After Defense

man downThank you all for the likes on my previous post. In case you were wondering, I passed my thesis defense, had a successful reading, and survived the teaching presentation. Am I glad it’s over? You bet, but before we get into the details, since I love road trips, let me first tell you about our “never a dull moment” journey.

We left a day early. That was smart considering we had to organize travel for four pets and two humans. What wasn’t so smart was my brilliant idea to work up until the day before we left. I realized a week before that it all wouldn’t fit into my Taurus and rented an SUV. When we finally got everything packed my living room looked like this:

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I was determined to make good use of the space and organized the luggage perfectly so that it all fit, providing no one needed to get anything out. As long as I had enough room to see out the back we were ready. I made sure the pets were all still breathing and we hit the road.

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I didn’t start to get nervous about my thesis defense until we were on the way to Kentucky. My recommendation to anyone who happens to take a road trip using their phone as a GPS is to invest in a real GPS. The absence of cellular towers (or inability by my provider to access said towers) resulted in a loss of signal and us getting lost in Martin, Tennessee.

Not only did my phone say there was no signal, it said I wasn’t even registered on the network. Lovely! Once I accepted the fact that we were lost and would have to use our brains to get to our destination I pulled over alongside the road and laughed hysterically.

You know the “this isn’t really happening to me; I think I need to cry; pull it together, you’re stronger than this; I can’t believe I have to defend my thesis tomorrow morning and I’m not prepared” hysterical laugh? Yeah, that one. A thought crossed my mind that the cars passing by might mistake me for an escaped mental patient, so I grabbed the atlas from one of the bags in the back, played the “shove and slam” game about three times with the trunk, and allowed the only person in our household who can read an atlas (my daughter) to guide us back to civilization. Thirty minutes later we were on track and once again the stars were aligned.

The morning of thesis defense I felt relaxed. Not leisurely relaxed, but “there’s no way out of this” relaxed. Since we have pets, I always stay in Mayfied, which is a good thirty minutes away from campus. Somehow I neglected to see the memo that asked us all to arrive fifteen minutes early. I wondered if anyone had ever been late to a thesis defense, wished for a police escort, and prayed I could bend the hands of time (while flooring it), to arrive safely and ticketless to my defense.

I arrived about 5-10 minutes past the “be here early time” and found one of my classmates waiting on the couch. I wasn’t late after all. When my time came I felt ready. For what, I don’t know, but Judgment Day was before me and I was ready for whatever was to come – or so I thought.

For some reason I pictured me at one end of this long table and three committee members at the other far end. It wasn’t like that at all. Before me were three individuals I had either worked with, heard lecture, or knew of by way of the program. This was a safe, trusting, supportive environment – until the drive-by-shooting happened.

It came out of nowhere. An AK-47 had replaced one of my committee members and I didn’t have time to duck. I stared at the carnage that minutes before was a seven-story-novel-in-progress-turned-three-story-thesis and wondered if it was all a bad dream. There were three members, but only one had a weapon. Why?

As the bullets found their targets, obliterating my heart, confidence, and hope I swiftly took notes and tried to clarify what was being said as the committee member continued to fire. I held my head high and maintained composure while doing a quick mental inventory of the remaining skills I thought I had. I wondered what job I would find now that this writing thing wasn’t going to work out.

When the firing stopped I was sent out so they could deliberate. I sat alone in a room and tried to put pressure on my life-threatening wounds to stop the bleeding. The blood was seeping from every pore as I fought for survival. DON’T. YOU. DARE. CRY. I reminded myself that I’ve been through worse – much worse, and survived. I thought what good experience this would be for the cruel rejection letters I can only hope to receive in the future. I prayed no one asked me how it went.

When I re-entered the crime scene the atmosphere was different. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they pulled cone-shaped party hats out from under the table, threw confetti at me, and blew those loud, accordion, snake-like noise makers everyone hates. I waited for a banner to drop from the ceiling and a band to play. You did it!

So here’s the part where my sanity goes into overdrive because it is still processing the previous events. They’re happy. I’m in shock. Not from passing, but from it all. The entire two years: the move from Texas and relocation to Tennessee, homesickness, the fact-versus-fiction employment war, the frustrating change in program requirements, mentors, the just-because-we’re-writers-we-beat-up-on-ourselves days, the drive-by shooting – all of it! To make matters worse, one of the sweetest people I have had the pleasure of meeting, who just so happened to be one of my committee members, presented me with an award.

Me? An award? What did I ever do to deserve an award? Wow? Didn’t you just hear what the other committee member said about my thesis? I looked down at the beautiful plaque, which was from the English Honor Society, noticed my name was spelled correctly in beautiful gold lettering, and started to cry. Damn!

Happy tears – mostly! I haven’t received an award in a very long time. It felt good – even though I still don’t know what I did to deserve it.  When I escaped the room the first person I called was my daughter. She must have been waiting by the phone. More than anything I wanted human connection – a reassuring voice to sift through the rubble and sort out the truth from what I was feeling. She was supportive, but the wounds were deep, so I called the next best voice of reason in the world – my therapist. Every writer needs a therapist on speed dial!

Later that night was my reading. My therapist helped me stop the bleeding, but the wounds were raw and I didn’t feel confident to read anything I wrote. I hated my thesis. Sometimes I still do. Nevertheless I had to read something, so an hour before my reading I decided to switch stories. It was a risky move. I had fifteen minutes to read, hadn’t had ample time to practice, and the story contained a sensitive subject matter – abortion.

When it was my time to read, my amazing mentor I’ve had the pleasure of working with for two semesters gave a heart-felt introduction. I just love her, but you already know that. Reading something you’ve written on the way out of a program is a big deal. You’re reading in front of the new people and people who are almost where you are. Your writing is supposed to show growth, it is supposed to be practically publishable. I don’t know what happened exactly when I read, but I lost count of the wonderful people who congratulated me that night, stopped to talk to me about the story they heard, or said they really liked it. I was covered in emotional bandages and totally blown away. Wow! What an amazing night.

My teaching presentation was two days later. When I awoke that morning I decided to purchase three dozen doughnuts for the poor unfortunate souls who would have to sit through my teaching presentation. Okay that is a little dramatic. Yes, I bribed them. I wanted to bring coffee too, but the other voice of reason (my daughter) said it was a bit much. I arrived early to the presentation, set up my computer, and was ready to go. Not really. The presentation I was supposed to memorize didn’t go over the way I wanted.

For starters, I’m teaching a lesson on fiction and my class is made up of mostly poets and a handful of non-fiction writers. I’m teaching story structure and can already hear crickets. Quick, let me find some way to relate this to them so they won’t be bored. One girl looks confused. Another is yawning. Sigh. Did everyone get a doughnut?

Problem two – I was told I would have forty-five minutes to prepare the entire presentation and even sent drafts of it. It turns out I actually had more time than that, but I didn’t know this until after it was over. During the presentation I felt rushed and could tell they weren’t really following me. Not to mention – they weren’t eating the doughnuts! By the time it was over I was frustrated, but mostly relieved. I already knew teaching wasn’t going to be my thing. I was disappointed, but at least I’d survived.

We left Kentucky the next morning and headed for a small town in southern Illinois so that I could make the defense-recommended edits to my thesis. Not to mention, we desperately needed some time away from Tennessee. I knew if I returned to work before completing the edits on my thesis I would never finish them. I’m glad I gave us that time. We both desperately needed it.

Photo by Taylor Winters

Photo by Taylor Winters

I also found out that graduation, though in December, isn’t what I thought it would be either. Apparently they hold a special robing ceremony for graduates in our program, but only in May. It sounds really special, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to make that. All signs right now are pointing to Texas, so I applied for December graduation. I may go just to hear my name with the millions of other names or may just let them send it to me in the mail. Something tells me I’ll probably go. When I left Kentucky this last time, I had the feeling it would be a while before I would see it like that again. I’m going to miss it.

In a few weeks I will send my final thesis off for a last stamp of approval and pay for binding. When I said I didn’t like it earlier, I meant that it is a thesis, but not the story I feel I have finished telling. My next goal is to put it back into a novel, and when it is ready, try to get it published. I realize that takes time. Writing is not a hobby, but something I truly enjoy doing. Job hunting is especially difficult now, because I would love to find something that will allow me time to write – that and the fact I don’t know what I want to do besides write.

The profession I am in now does not leave room for anything else, so work consumes me. I want something different, but I’m not so unrealistic to realize that sometimes we must compromise. Besides, time is running out. My overachiever self is quick to remind me that I will be returning to Texas in 144 days and without the completed novel I wanted. I can’t help that. Rules are rules, but I will have my degree, and that is definitely something to be proud of. 

Photo by Taylor Winters

Photo by Taylor Winters