Category Archives: Thesis

Back to Basics – A Writer’s Journey

It’s never too late to start over. The original plan after graduation was to turn my thesis back into the novel it was on the way to becoming. At the time I was working on a novel of linked stories and to comply with thesis requirements I had to choose three to present. After thesis when I began to put it back into its original format I realized I no longer liked the way it was laid out. Not only that, I had grown as a writer and my characters had matured. So basically, I started from the beginning.

Many writers cringe when they look at their old writings. I started by separating what I liked about what I had written from what needed to be discarded, and now I’m in the process of rebuilding the story.

For me, the most difficult part of writing is self-judgment. I’m my harshest critic. I learned at a young age to aim for perfection, but in writing, as in life, perfection does not exist. Unfortunately, this habit of harshly criticizing my own work produced writers block and delayed the progression of my work.

I was pleased to discover I’m not the only writer with this habit. I follow @thewritelife on Twitter and saw their blog post “The Real Source of Writer’s Block (And and Exercise to Beat It).”  The post recalled how as children we effortlessly told stories because our audience mainly consisted of our parents. As we grew older we became aware of a larger audience and doubt settled in, which produces writers block.

To combat writers block the author recommends a five-minute free writing session before you begin to write. During the five minutes you are encouraged to purge your thoughts onto the page. The purpose of this exercise is to find your writer’s voice in a judgment-free place so that you can once again capture that childlike spirit of producing judgment-free work (that will one day be harshly judged by others). The exercise may seem menial at first, but if you stick with it, eventually when you do start writing again you’ve stopped judging your work enough to write freely.

I have not tried this technique, but definitely plan to do so. I have a novel to finish.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Unfinished Business

quality-ferris-wheel-for-sale-in-China

Life after graduation feels a lot like being on a Ferris wheel at the carnival. The ride begins slowly. When it picks up the pace it sometimes takes you places you realize you don’t want to go, but you must stay seated until the ride comes to a complete stop. At times, it seems as if the ride will never end, but eventually it does, and you get to try something else.

I received my masters degree two-and-a-half years ago, but it feels more like a year. In that time, I’ve settled in Fort Worth, dismantled my thesis in an attempt to create a well-written novel, started a collection of short stories, and set out on a quest to find the job of my dreams.

The novel and short stories currently riding the Ferris wheel are works in progress. Like me, they anxiously await the moment I get THE JOB OFFER OF A LIFETIME so that my quest can end.

Is it really that important to find the right job? Absolutely!

What interests you? Where do your strengths lie? What do you do exceptionally well? These are the important questions to ask yourself when choosing a career path, or considering a job offer. It’s not about what you majored in, but what makes you happy. We can all agree it’s best to find a job you love, but if you’re stuck in one you hate then everything else in your universe will be thrown off balance until the ride ends.

Professional career coach, Christie Mims, describes job dissatisfaction in her Muse article, “2 Big Signs You Don’t Just Need a New Job, You Need a Whole Career.”

She writes:

  • You’re currently slumped over your desk.

  • The very thought of work makes your stomach curdle.

  • When you try and muster excitement about that next PowerPoint or team meeting, you suddenly start to daydream about chucking it all and opening a bar on the beach.

The image Mims depicts summarizes a typical workday for someone stuck in the wrong career. So how do you get off the Ferris wheel of a job from hell?  First figure out where you went wrong in choosing your current position. What aspects of the job make you the most miserable? If the problem is with a co-worker or manager ask yourself if the job would be fine without their presence. If so, it’s not the job.

If you truly don’t enjoy the day-to-day tasks in your position, feel uninspired, bored, and stifled it’s time to start looking at other career paths.  In “Finally! A Simple Formula for Finding Your Passion,” Mims writes:

Some of the things you are passionate about are probably going to be hobbies, like chocolate is for me. But some of them will be new career options.

There is a correlation between the things you are passionate about and your career pursuits. Why not work doing something you enjoy? It will make you a much better employee and happier person.

Once you figure out what you want to do, how do you go about finding a dream job? It is important to determine what factors meet dream job criteria.

Do you need an exercise membership as one of the company’s benefits? What are your salary expectations? Are flexible hours important? Would you like to travel? What about company culture? Do you prefer a small company where you rarely interact with your co-workers or a larger environment with numerous opportunities for group outings and recognition? Before you begin to search for a new position, figure out what you want.

When you’re ready to search, start within your own network. Contact friends, colleagues, and mentors to see if you can connect with their network. The best way to get hired is by referral.

If you have a small network or are just beginning to establish a network try the job boards. I’m not a big fan of the creative job recruiting agencies, but it doesn’t hurt if you find one you enjoy working with.

Make sure your resume and LinkedIn profile are top-notch, and avoid posting anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see on social media. Thinking of hiding your profiles? Don’t. It makes it appear as if you have no social media presence at all. This can hurt your chances of securing your dream job.

While you’re waiting, stay up-to-date on the latest interviewing techniques, media trends, and technology. Subscribe to several career blogs and read their recommendations about how to create a personal brand. The Muse regularly posts career articles and some job leads as well.

If writing is your thing, check out job listings from some of the writing magazines or offer freelance services to build your portfolio while you wait. I strongly recommend practicing the AP Stylebook Quizzes to stay on top of your skills.

Best of luck in your endeavor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plot Twist: Destination Unknown

In fiction, conflict can arise and create a plot twist. These plot twists propel the story into a new direction and help “build” the character or get them to where you want them to be. If life were fiction and I were a character, right now we would be encountering my plot twist. It reads something like this:

The fearless Texan, with a yearning to travel and desire for knowledge, sets out to explore the unknown and pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. Setting her sights on graduate school, she heads to Kentucky for an MFA program in creative writing at Murray State and finds a temporary home in Tennessee where she discovers, unlike Texas, they worship pork, not beef, and are accustomed to tornados in the summer and single digit degree weather during winter.

With bachelor’s degree in hand she searches for work in her new surroundings, but encounters resistance within the economy. After completing a three-month sentence in Cashierdom, she loses one month of sanity in Printingville before making her way to Leasetropolis which is surrounded by Plexiglas, has extremely low ceilings and conventional thinkers.

Three residencies, three mentors, three meltdowns, 68 text books, an attempted thesis defense assassination, wretched teaching presentation, confidence-building reading, and almost 945 days later – it’s finally time for graduation, which also means, time to return home.

The festivities are bittersweet for the Texan. An obsessive planner, she is in “relocation mode.” Her thoughts are not on graduation gowns, mortar boards, tassels or honor cords (although they are an honor), but her future: the next job, next home and the next hundred miles wherever they may lead.

Desination Unknown

I have said in the past there is joy in adventure. Yes, there is, unless you are job hunting. There is nothing exciting about being an almost graduate, stalking employment boards, resume revisions, and rejection. You can say it is good practice for when you start submitting your work for publishing, but in reality no writer has positive thoughts about having their work rejected.

Job hunting is in some ways worse than having your writing rejected. At least you get rejection letters. Most companies seeking candidates for employment don’t bother to respond at all – even some placement agencies.  Why such cruel and unnecessary punishment? Is it unrealistic to hope for the career of your dreams? Perhaps, but the dreamer in me is willing to accept a happy-medium. Writers live to write and will usually do whatever it takes to be able to continue doing so.

The magnificent thing about plot twists in writing is the ability to shape the character into the person you need them to be. Sometimes this is through hardship, loss, or frustration, but as long as you are holding the pen or perched in front of your keyboard the story possibilities are endless.

Congratulations to my fellow graduates. We made it! To those of you still on the path, keep fighting for whatever it is that motivates you to be the person you have always wanted to be. No one can stop you from writing, but you. Dream it, claim it, capture it!

As for me, right now my destination is unknown, but there are still 41 days left for another plot twist and who knows what a page turner its may turn out to be.

Destination Unknown

 

This is only a chapter, not the ending . . . The story has yet to be told.

“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.

imagesJ7JB3UVP

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 —

 

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:

20140710_105901

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.

20140710_115228 20140710_115245

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

Judgment Day

Texas - Tennessee-KentuckyTwo years, three mentors, one hundred drafts, one million frustrations, one thousand, three hundred, ninety-one miles, and a bucket of tears later it is finally time to defend my thesis.

I promised to take you along with me on this journey and apologize for leaving you at Tennessee Texan back in February without an update. Since we last spoke thesis took over and everything else, including my “Something Good Happened Today” box was displaced – well, not everything. Work, a blessing and a curse, continued to provide endless complications to make this journey almost impossible, but I made it.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Perhaps, but I would rather not live life in a constant trial by fire. Writing takes time and dedication. If you want it – it must come first or the dreams you dream will simply be thoughts in your head instead of potential realities.

Am I ready for this? Yes. Am I as prepared as I would like to be? No. The perfectionist in me desires to pull off a stellar reading and instructor-worthy teaching presentation. I will do my absolute best. Something tells me once I arrive on campus (my second home) everything will be as it should. There is a calm that comes from being surrounded by supportive, loving people who share your dreams. I’m really going to miss that place. It has been my home away from home and the people there are simply amazing.

I will walk away from this with seven linked stories of fiction I hope one day will become my first novel. Our particular program allows only three pieces of work (unless special permissions have been granted to write a novel). The thesis process was like slaughtering one of your children. I watched as seven became three, then a different three, and finally two and a last minute partial rewrite to accommodate page limits. I was sure page limits would be the death of me.

My mentor is like a breath of fresh air. If you saw her you would know exactly what I mean. You know how some people, upon first glance, just radiate creativity from head to toe? She not only guided me along this process regarding my writing, but provided me with much needed counseling when work threatened to steal my dream and my body wanted to shut down in protest. There really is a the light at the end of the tunnel so never give up. 

My time here in Tennessee will come to a close at the end of December. As you know, I miss home. Five months can go by quickly so the moment I return from this residency I am going to dust off my resume and go hard on the job hunt. What do I want to do? Let me get back to you on that. Once again I am ready for a new journey, but this time I don’t think it involves more schooling – at least I hope not. I would love to see more of the world. My spirit loves adventure and the idea of something new is intoxicating, but eventually the newness wears off and reality creeps in. When it does, you either love where you are, make some kind of transition if you don’t, or search for a new path. Wherever your journey leads I encourage you to go beyond your comfort zone. You will never know what you are truly capable of until you test your own boundaries.

When we last spoke I had started exercising. I did that for a while and then not so much. I guess you could say I was focused on the wrong thing – the scale. It is one thing to lose weight, but being healthy requires a lifestyle change. When the numbers don’t go in the right direction as quickly as we would like it is easy to become discouraged. Thanks to nutritionist, J.J. Smith and her 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse I have begun that change and my body thanks me. After residency I do plan to return to exercise, but the cleanse gave me a jumpstart in the right direction.

In eight hours I leave for my final residency in Kentucky where I will stand before a committee and defend my thesis. What an amazing journey. Thank you for being with me every step of the way. I leave you with how I am feeling right now – Happy.

Until next time.