Friday, April 22, 2016

How to MFA Thesis, with Jamie and Nico

            A Haiku for a Thesis

      Each page come spring
      becomes a pile of shit
      after rereading

1. SQUAD GOALS: Picking Your Thesis Committee

So, thesis hours are approaching in a semester or two and it’s time to ask three faculty members to voluntarily commit their time and energy to reading, commenting on (hopefully), and approving (even more hopefully) your manuscript. First things first, you ought to already have some sort of relationship with each faculty member you have in mind (ie. you’ve taken a class with them, remember which New Yorker cartoon they have taped to their office door, and picked up at least two of their dog’s turds).

·         For MFAs, it’s likely you’ll have three writing professors in mind. For example, fiction MFAs may have taken workshops from Prof. Schwartz, Prof. Furman, and Prof. Bucak, while nonfiction and poetry students may be more familiar with Dr. Schmitt, Dr. McKay, and Prof. Mitchell. Some MFAs choose to ask a literature or composition professor (ex. Dr. Berlatsky or Dr. Bradford) to be a part of their committee to seek a balance of perspectives, or perhaps because the student has not taken workshops from three different writing professors. Either way, that option is most definitely available to you.

Nico and I both selected the same committee members: Dr. McKay, Dr. Schmitt, and Prof. Mitchell. We chose them because we had worked with all three of them in multiple classes, and felt like they each could offer unique, valuable, and insightful feedback (and, for Jamie, because they are poets). In thinking beyond the thesis, Becka, Kate, and Susan (breaking out the first names, because we’re, like, tight now) knew both of us well enough to write us recommendation letters (if they were willing to do so, and if we ever needed one), and even agreed to get coffee with us and suggest post-graduation opportunities. But, ultimately, we both saw these women as women who gave, and would continue to give, a damn about our work and futures as broke  grumpy active writers.

·         Etiquette-wise, be sure to request an appointment with each of your prospective committee members and ask them in person to be a part of your MFA journey. Don’t assume they’ll say yes. It’s like proposing to someone. There’s always a chance you’ll hear “Ew. No.”

2. I CAN’T EVEN: How to Figure Out WTF You’re Doing

Though it’s a good idea to know what you want your thesis to be (ie. a novel about a piano-playing dog, a collection of short stories about florists with allergies, a memoir about getting bullied in middle school for having a speech impediment), avoid stifling/cornering yourself.
·         Before your thesis hours formally begin, it’s a good idea to already be writing, knowing that you have plenty of time to be writing anything in any genre, about whatever you’d like. (Pro Tip: Don’t take a class during your final semester. And if you’re being told to take one even though you don’t need one, don’t say Nico and Jamie told you not to take it, because though we’ll have graduated, there’s no escaping the reach of FAU.)
·         Prioritize: Reading and improving your writing practice (and by ‘practice,’ we mean give more care to writing, reading, and/or revising on a regular basis). (Pro Tip: Don’t complain about not having any time to write. You do. Just stop going out to drink and/or watching Netflix. Like, seriously. None of your Facebook friends are buying it—they see your pictures.)
·         Do not be afraid that reading others’ works will cause you to copy theirs (that’s weird, and you know you don’t actually believe that. Imitate? Perhaps. Just don’t plagiarize. Or steal plot ideas. Don’t be dumb, essentially).
o   Jamie: I began thesis hours with about half of my thesis manuscript complete (including many pages of poetry that did not end up being a part of my thesis).
o   Nico: I began thesis hours with only about 45 pages done. But I had probably 15-20 pages of free writes I had done over the summer with Jamie that ultimately I ended up using (at least part of) in my final manuscript.
·         Remember: your thesis is not a portfolio of everything you’ve written during your time at FAU, it’s a focused product. It’s a cohesive Project Runway collection. It’s a herb garden, a flower bed, or a tree farm, not all three. We’re not saying don’t experiment or play with a variety of forms, we’re just saying that a reader ought to be able to read your manuscript and recognize a clear consistency of voice, aka. everything should keep in register.


It’s a good idea that, during this time, you secure a battle buddy. Or bosom buddy. Battle buddy just sounds more fitting. Your battle buddy will be your encouragement, disciplinarian, and shoulder to cry on. In the early stages of thesis writing, he/she will be your café beloved. You can meet to be a sounding board for each other, give each other writing prompts fitting for your respective thesis concepts, offer each other regular feedback and advice, and hold each other accountable for meeting any deadlines both self-given or school- or thesis chair-related. (Pro Tip: The Glades Rd. Starbucks doesn’t have a free table. It just doesn’t. Don’t even try going there to work. Try the Starbucks on Federal, near the Chipotle and Pei Wei.)

·         Choose your battle buddy wisely. You want to surround yourself with students who are as dedicated, efficient, and/or crabby as you are.
o   Jamie: You want someone to thank in your acknowledgements page for ‘sticking by you’ and ‘chauffeuring you to school and back’ (maybe that one is specific to me).
o   Nico: I originally was going to say you want someone who is as motivated and organized as you are, but I don’t know if that’s true. What I do think is important is that your Battle Buddy is a good reader for YOU. Someone who understands your ideas and intentions, and knows your strengths and weaknesses and how to suggest revisions accordingly.
·         If your thesis chair is willing to meet with you and read a draft or two during your first semester of thesis hours, we highly recommend you plan on doing so. It’s unlikely your chair has the time to be able to read four one-hundred-page drafts before they receive your final draft a month before your defense date, but there’s no harm in asking if they’d be open to reading new sections, chapters, pages, etc. during your thesis hours. In fact, they may expect you to do so in order to have a clear idea of where you are, work-wise, emotionally, mentally, in your manuscript-writing process.
·         Don’t rely on your Chair to keep you in check, though. (Pro Tip: There’s also no such thing as “writer’s block.” If you’re not hungry for cereal, then eat an apple. Leave personal essays alone for a day and write a poem. Write a series of haikus. Write an email in iambic pentameter to your parents asking for a small loan. Write.)
·         Give your Chair a timeline you’re hoping to stick to in regards to how much work you’d like to have done by each date, and when you’re going to plan on giving them work for review/feedback (again, if they’re open to doing so).
o   Jamie: I met with Dr. McKay approximately once a month. Because my manuscript was a collection of poems, it was probably a little easier for her to take home and review more regularly than Dr. Schmitt, who chaired Nico’s 150+ memoir manuscript (which ended up being 200+ pages in its form (or, for you Pokémon fans, its final evolution)).


In the beginning of your final semester, Kelly will send an email out about scheduling your defense. Do this as early as possible (Becka will appreciate it) and it will also give you a clear timeline (so you can set up a New Years Eve style countdown clock) of how many days you have left to write, edit, etc.
·         Aim to finish your manuscript before the semester of your defense. Doing so will offer you enough time to make final revisions before you distribute your manuscript to your committee (and time to concentrate on the thesis essay).
·         Get the requirements for your thesis essay from your chair. Each professor may (and often do) have different requirements for the thesis essay and will give you a handy one-sheet of what they want you to focus on. This essay will be distributed along with your manuscript prior to your defense.
·         Be early to your defense. It’s not a bad idea to dress semi-formal—it is, after all, the day you’ll be told whether or not you’re going to graduate.
·         Don’t be afraid to ask your committee questions. Something we didn’t expect was the focus on thesis-specific questions over post-graduation or program-related questions (like “So, where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What have you learned from your time in the program?”).
·         The defense itself will last approximately forty-five to sixty minutes. Your chair will slap your ass at the end and present you with a brownie, complete with lit candle. Not really. Becka McKay will wish you a good life and then remind you of an event next week that she needs you to attend.


Following your defense, you will have a couple of weeks to make any “creative” edits (read: actual writing to make the project more complete), but do know that those edits are optional. Sure, your manuscript will be uploaded to the FAU library, and, sure, there’s a chance some stranger will come across it and judge your lackluster fifth chapter, but don’t sweat the optional stuff. You’ll be too stressed meeting other mandatory deadlines.
·         The deadlines will come in an email from Kelly. (Pro Tip: Read Kelly’s emails carefully. Though she’s a patient and wonderful human being, she’s not sending you thesis-related directions for no reason, or going to invite you to her office to repeat everything in her emails over tea.) For us, we had about a month in between the defense and the final deadline to hand in our thesis to the Graduate College, and that felt too brief.
·         There are Graduate College-affiliated house elves that you can pay to take care of your thesis form process for you, and, after going through the process ourselves, Nico and I wish we had paid someone to go through everything we did (not more than $100 though).
·         If you don’t pay someone, and decide (like we did) that you are more than capable of using the formatting features in Microsoft word…well here’s how that went:
o   You will learn about margins, gutters, section breaks, continuous section breaks, ancient Greek section breaks, interpretive dance section breaks, et al.
o   You will send what you think is a perfectly formatted document to the Grad College and be told it’s wrong.
o   You will fix it, know it’s perfect and be told the GTA printer fucked up the margins and you should go print it somewhere else because that printer hates you as much as you hate having to grade papers this weekend.
·         But formatting isn’t the end:
o   You will learn about bond paper—colors, weights, watermarks, provenances (Pro Tip: Order on Amazon. Keep the box to put your final manuscript it.)
o   You will have to journey to far off lands to procure a very specific black, felt tip pen that will travel with your thesis across campus to be used by everyone who must sign your signature page while collecting millions of bacteria.
o   You will have to make two trips to Dr. Berlatsky’s office to ask for your pen back because he forgot to put it back in the box. He knows what he’s doing.
o   You will learn from this mistake when you go to the Dean’s office and look for the pen before you leave and ask her assistant politely for your pen back.
·         It’s a process that seems more difficult than it really is based on just how many requirements are going to slap you across the face via emails from the Graduate College, English Department, Library, your mom, etc. Keep yourself knowledgeable of future deadlines and you’ll be fine.

Thesis FAQs As Answered By Nico and Jamie
in Mean Girls Quotes

1. What do you do if you’re on a writing streak but are supposed to attend a campus event?

      “I can’t go out. *cough cough*. I’m sick.”

2. How am I going to handle leaving the program when all is said and done?

      “See? That's the thing with you [MFAs]. You think everybody is in love with you when    actually, everybody hates you!”

3. I know my chair said it has to be at least 100 pages, but is there a page limit on thesis manuscripts?

      “The limit does not exist”

4. My Battle Buddy has a mental breakdown in Starbucks because he realizes that the idea for his thesis is bad and the 50 poems he wrote are now useless, what should I say?  

      "Do you wanna go to Taco Bell?”

5. It’s Saturday night and I’ve been locked in my apartment for a month writing. My thesis draft is due on Monday but I just got a notification on Tinder asking me to go out tonight, what do I do?

      “At your age, you're going to have a lot of urges. You're going to want to take off your     clothes, and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you *will* get chlamydia...   and die.”

6. My thesis chair just told me she wants a draft of my essay NEXT WEEK, what do I do?

      “She’s a life ruiner. She ruins lives.”

7. Help, everyone is annoying and I just want to be left alone but I don’t want to upset anyone’s feelings.

      “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries.”

8. What do I do if I see one of my professors working at the coffee shop where I’m writing?

       “I love seeing teachers outside of school. It's like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.”

9. I asked my boyfriend to read my thesis and he said it was too academic and boring, what do I do?

      “I know having a boyfriend might seem like the only thing important to you right now,     but you don't have to dumb yourself down in order for a guy to like you.”

10. What kind of response should I expect after my thesis committee deliberates and calls me back in the room?

      “I just wanted to say that you're all winners. And that I couldn't be happier the school       year is ending.”

Jamie's bio, as written by Nico: Poet and origami enthusiast James White was born a quarter of a century ago in Surrey, England. A quiet, yet precocious child, James learned at a very young age the value of saying a lot in very few words. When James isn't writing poems or teaching, you can find him at home spooning his dog and eating chocolate pie, or in the Decor section of Home Goods perusing items with birds on them. In addition to his not one, not two, but three Pushcart nominations, James has been published in more literary journals and reviews than we have time to mention in an introduction. He is currently working on an upcoming series of poems written on small squares of paper that he intends to fold into origami cranes and hang from a mobile.

Nico's bio, as written by Jamie: Nicole Cassanetti was born on the hood of a banana yellow 1983 Volkswagen Beetle during the Reagan era. Always a quiet creature, she quickly developed her affinity for smoking, napping, and paying for everything with loose change after realizing her dream of becoming a writer. Nico is well-versed in writing about her grandmother, kissing her vampiric boyfriend on shag rugs, and subsequently everything in between. Besides planning on making a career out of teaching creative writing, she claims to answer the call of North Carolina's Blue Ridge mountains, in which she'll take hikes with her stumpy corgi, kiss her now-much-hairier husband on grassy knolls, and call her old pal Jamie to chat about terrible student writing, crippling financial despair, and birds.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Writing Communities of Poetry and Leftover Cake

An occasionally heard complaint from MFA programs is they burden students with so much work that the students are unable to find time for the one thing they unhinged their lives to do – write. At a few weeks into the spring semester, this complaint is far from me.
The irony of my writing life, or really my ability to complete any activity besides online shopping and eating banana bread, is that as my free time grows, my motivation declines in close proportion. I had far too much free time between Christmas and the beginning of this semester. This meant I spent many days telling myself 1 p.m. is a reasonable time to shower, that it’s just fine to wear the same pair of sweatpants for many days in a row, and that spreading peanut butter on a stale piece of cake makes a nutritious breakfast. And I wasn’t writing.
Enter the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. For one week, A-list poets such as Kevin Young, Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Alan Shapiro gave readings, craft talks, and workshop with a group of poets who have taken many plane rides and pressed “pause” on their daily put their lives to learn from these writers. As an intern, I was able to learn from these people in exchange for tasks such as passing out programs and troubleshooting the cell phone issues of the elderly (well just once).
The takeaways from this week are invaluable. Advice ranged from the potential added resonance of repeated words (Thank you, thank you, Mary Szibist) to the potential boons of rethinking simple sentences. This came from Carol Frost, who led the workshop I observed. She asked participants to find as many arrangements as possible of this sentence: Mary swam the river with her red dog.

The river, Mary swam with her red dog.
With her red dog, Mary swam the river.
Mary swam with her red dog in the river.
With her red dog in the river, Mary swam.
Mary, the river with her red dog, swam.
As the order of words shifts, each line changes in meaning and tone.  Now when I write, I fight against my instinct of how a sentence works. More possibilities exist than subject-verb.

More motivational even than these pieces of wisdom was being in the presence of so many people who love language and poetry. It was an intensified version of the community fostered through an MFA program, and I remembered how fortunate I am to be writing out of the cold. I know this is a temporary state, and that one day I’ll find it much easier to ignore the urge to write and eat banana bread instead. But hopefully when I arrive, I’ll find it harder to give in. I hope to carry these writing communities with me. When my peanut-butter-on-cake-persona forgets why I write, why it’s sometimes impossible to write, I can remember the enormous web of people who are struggling with me, and we will still write.

Kathleen Martin, a fist-year MFA student, is a Kansas native and a journalist turned poet. She owns several socks with hedgehogs on them.