Thesis Defense: Another reason why you should get an MFA

April has been a crazy month. I went back to work after two weeks off recovering from my surgery and had to hit the ground running. I had to finish my thesis, turn it in, defend it (I passed! Yay!), and finish reading the books on my Comps reading list (I have comps next weekend). Writing has definitely taken the back burner to the things I needed to do to teach and graduate, but I’m grateful that there is an end in sight.

The Defense (or what some audience members have called, My Thesis Offense)

I really had no idea what to expect going in. I had never attended anyone else’s, but I knew I was going to be asked questions, and that since I’d sat with my manuscript for a good six months or so, I’d probably be more than capable of answering them.

The thing I wanted the most out of my defense was a clear idea of how close Predator’s Tongue is to being a book. At AWP, there are always several panels on the differences between MFA theses and books: Can graduate faculty members really help a thesis become a book, or are they too different? Some people go on to publish a finer, more edited version of their own thesis, like Michael Chabon and Sandy Tseng. Some scrap their thesis totally and begin anew, like James Allen Hall, who wrote Now You’re the Enemy after he graduated from his program. I know that the more I’ve worked with this manuscript, the more I’ve really found my own stride and some of the older poems just get shoved out or are re-worked entirely. It has been a continual process.

The defense, for me, really turned out to be a good conversation about why I chose to do things the way I did them: why break it up into the sections I chose? Why did I choose the predator/prey theme to tie it together? what am I saying about gender? what went into how I chose the ordering? why the title? what are the advantages/disadvantages of not writing “confessional” poetry?

Looking back, there are some places where I wished I had formulated my ideas a bit more. For example, I’m still unsure about the title. Predator’s Tongue was a suggestion by my thesis adviser. Originally, I was attached to Oral Lore as a title. As I’ve been working on this manuscript, I began to notice how much I use the word “mouth” or its many synonyms (speech or lack of speech, tongues, “maw,” “jaw,” etc.), so I wanted something that pointed at that. I also wanted something that pointed at a larger motif in the work. Oral Lore points at the fact that many of the poems are myths or mythic, stories of re-making and transformation. While I’m still attached to Oral Lore, I was aware that I should probably choose a different title. Not only is it hard to say (says my husband), but it doesn’t really clearly unify the work like pointing at a major theme would. So, my adviser suggested the title I have now. When asked why I chose the title, I didn’t have a clear answer since I haven’t completely bought it yet. I know it works better than Oral Lore, but there’s something about it that I haven’t completely bought yet. I wondered if it’s because it doesn’t have an article in front of it. I want it to be A Predator’s Tongue or The Predator’s Tongue, but it does sound better without one. Tongue of a Predator also doesn’t sound all that great…I wish I could have owned the title more, but regardless of whether I keep its current title, it did give me a clear unifying structure. The entire book is framed around the predator/prey motif.

All in all, I did get some good pointers on how to move from thesis to book. I need to move some poems from a later section to an earlier section, and I need to look at re-ordering the second section a bit. I also got some good suggestions on inspiration for future poems I could stick in the work to keep pointing at that major theme. The literature faculty member on my thesis committee also gave me great insight from her point of view. She looked at my work in terms of gender, in terms of arc, and her comments were particularly helpful in seeing how a non-creative writer might see and approach my book.

When thinking of the “Get an MFA or not?” argument, I still strongly say, “Get an MFA!” Having a conversation like this about my book really was important. I got to think and explore more about why I did things the way I did. It’s no longer some “magic process” conceived in a windowless, four-walled room; it’s a thoughtful, methodical one, one that has to be tested and re-shaped and re-welded to really stand strong. I got the opportunity to wade through some insecurities, hear some helpful feedback, and engage with members of academia who’ve worked through manuscripts and been published several times before me. This is exactly what I needed to finish shaping this book. I hope that once I graduate (in August!) that I’ll be able to build this sort of supportive community outside of this program, so I can have this same sort of conversation after I draft my next book.

Today, I feel much more confident going forward, and I think once I run my draft through the ringer once again, I’ll be submitting it to the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award open May 15th.

Here’s to endings (and new beginnings)!

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9 thoughts on “Thesis Defense: Another reason why you should get an MFA

  1. First, congrats on the defense. Mine was via phone; one of the perks of being in a low-res program is that you don’t have to be there in the room, so they can’t see you fidgeting and–let’s be honest–freaking out a little bit. But I’m glad it went well.

    Building up a support network is always a good idea. But. You need to have people around you that aren’t afraid to say, “Tara, that poem was really not all that good. Let me tell you what was wrong with it.” I’ve been in writer’s groups where nobody would say anything negative, and the few people that did had nothing constructive to add on to it. The group did me no good, so I eventually left it.

    And as all five of the short stories I included in my thesis have now been published, let me tell you… it’s a joyous feeling when that happens, when you can say that.

    1. Over the phone! How weird! But at least they didn’t get to see you fidgeting. I sweated profusely, and my husband told me later that I kept gnawing on the inside of my right cheek.

      And yes to your comment on support groups. We need people to help us grow, not tell us how good we already are. We’re narcissists with inferiority complexes. I don’t need any more back-patting. 🙂

      Congrats on your thesis getting snapped up! Do you think you’ll try to publish it as a collection?

      1. As a collection by itself? No. The only thing it would be fit for would be a chapbook, and honestly that seems like something of a dead end street. But I’ve got 50,000 words in print now (I actually did the math not too long ago just to amuse myself), and another 10,000 in the submission hopper. A good-ish length for a full collection is 75,000 words (that’s 250 pages for those of you playing along at home), so I’m nearly at the point where I can really start shopping the whole thing around.

        Nearly. Sigh. I need to write more.

  2. I was denied by the MFA programs I applied to (all of them). It seems like an impossible task to even get in, let alone finish. I love the idea of MFA programs and studying the craft of writing but it seems extremely exclusive. Maybe I can win the lottery instead.

    1. Man, I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve heard that happening to several people right now. Sounds like the programs are getting more and more selective. Where did you apply?

  3. How exciting it must be to be in the home stretch! Congratulations.

    I agree that if you’re thinking about doing an MFA, it will most likely be great for you. I’m loving my VCFA MFA, and will be halfway through at the end of the month. But If I had done it a few years ago just to do it, I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of it. You need to start, I think, ready and eager to learn, not just to have someone help you with a WIP or to earn a terminal degree.

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