Note: This blog entry talks primarily about a creative thesis.
Dear MFA Student,
Congratulations on getting in/your impending graduation! It’s been a long application process/one to three years of study. No matter where you are on your magical journey of poverty and eye exhaustion from reading assignments, I am going to tell you all about the thesis.
Yes, the thesis. The last hurdle in obtaining your magical nugget of a degree. For new students, the thesis is a mystical dragon living far away in a misty mountain they’ve only heard about in stories. For near-to graduating students, that dragon has arrived, is now burning down Lake-town, and you are not the one with the magical dragon-killing arrow. You’re feeling more like the fat guy who gets the dead monster corpse dropped on him.
So first: Don’t panic. In its heart of hearts, the dragon that is your thesis is actually your beautiful baby in disguise. It’s just got an evil spell of guidelines and deadlines cast upon it. The thesis, if you are doing a creative one, will probably if not most definitely be the work you’ve carved/will carve from your soul for the past/future however many years. This means the thesis is less of a daunting Smaug shadow and more of an itchy suit you have to wear. It’s still you. It’s still your baby. It’s just in an uncomfortable format and everyone is looking at it.
Second: Start early. Even if you think you got it down and you’ll be done in no time, no. Especially if your program is like Stonecoast, where they’re going to need a paper copy in pristine condition with signature pages and the whole nine yards. I started on January 23. I projected I would be done on April 15. I finally turned it in on May 19. I got notice it was acceptable formatting on May 31. It was due June 1.
Third: It’s not about perfection. You can perfect it later. It’s just a thesis, it’s not the final product. I know, it even hurts me to now write that. But you only need something that is graduate level. You are going to make the thing even better once it’s turned in. You will work with editors and agents and the whole entourage. But right now, you just need to make sure it is good to go for your thesis. On that note, if you get a bunch of notes back, don’t freak out. That’s supposed to happen.
Fourth: If you are just starting in your program, you may need a bibliography with your thesis. That means start tracking what you do now. Don’t wait for your last semester and dumbfoundedly look at the stack of books you read and try to cite them all in one weekend. Nope, that’s a bad idea. I would never recommend that, especially to my past self. If you are going into your thesis and it’s too late for you, I’m sorry what’s ahead.
Fifth: Budget for your thesis if you are going to be expected to print it off yourself. For quality paper, it’s about 30 bucks a ream. For delivery, it’s going to be more. I was an idiot about it, and I had to spend a lot on certified FedEx. If you are looking at this going, “What the hell, I don’t have to physically turn in my paper copy,” then aren’t you lucky. Aren’t. You. Special.
Sixth: Double check format. Double check format. Double check format. All those iv’s vs. 4’s and middle page versus 1.5 inch margins. Double check the format and then check it again.
Seventh: Does it seem like I’m talking about budgeting and formatting and bibs and not so much about the creative part of the creative thesis? That’s because your creative part should be done by your last semester. Do not go into your last semester going, “Huh, I dunno what my thesis is gonna be.” That’s a question you should be asking yourself on day one. That is a question that needs to guide your entire course of study. You aren’t focusing on the story as of thesis time, because the story has already been written and rewritten and workshopped and then rewritten five more times. Don’t go, “I think I’d like to write that bildungsroman in space now.” You won’t like to. You won’t.
Eighth: When you are done with your thesis and it’s shipped off and everyone is happy with it, do not stop writing. For example, Stonecoast expects our thesis in by June 1. We don’t graduate until July 16. That’s a month and a half where you still have your professors and your readings to take part in. Don’t stop running because you think you’ve hit the big finish line. If nothing else makes sense here, remember this bullet point. Do not stop writing. There are so many graduates who get out of their program and go, “What now?” and the answer is not, “Keep writing.” They fall into a malaise of not doing anything and feel awful about a “wasted degree.” Get into the habit of a newly graduated writer: one that still does the thing.
Hopefully this is helpful. The thesis is like a big dog with sharp teeth: it is not to be feared, but you need to be aware of it. The thesis is elusive, and every program is different. Reach out to other graduates who have gone through this before. Ask them for advice. Be ready.