My Thesis was Not a Book: This is Not the End

April 6, 2017 § 8 Comments


2bwby Colin Hosten

I graduated from my MFA program with an incomplete thesis. There was still a lot more of my story to be written, and yet I deliberately chose not to finish writing it. The idea of ending the program with only a partial story had seemed anathema to my goals upon entering the program. Yet I was pleased, even proud of the incomplete work that I submitted for my thesis—in part because of its incompleteness.

The thesis, you see, was technically “complete.” It fulfilled all the requirements—of length, formatting, and quality—specified by the program. I even numbered the front matter correctly and added extra space in the margin for binding. My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA.

But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.

Like too many MFA students, I entered my program with grand visions of exiting with the next American masterpiece. Yes, I read extensively and cranked out what seemed like hundreds of craft essays, but I stayed fixated on the goal of finishing the program with a finished book—and not just any finished book, but a brilliant, MFA-polished, finished book, ready to be snatched up in a lucrative bidding war by all the major New York publishers.

My first semester advisor listened and nodded as I spelled out the milestones and checkpoints I had planned for the two-year program, before gently telling me that writing a book in addition to a thesis was a difficult proposition—that, in fact, focusing on a book could potentially be counter-productive to my thesis.

“What’s the difference?” I wanted to know. Wasn’t it just a matter of reformatting the thesis for publication?

She preferred to show rather than tell me the difference, and she had to look no further than my first creative submission packet for the perfect example.

The difference between a book and a thesis was the difference between glossing the psychological trauma of my sexual confusion as a teenager in one paragraph, versus creating a fleshed-out scene about a boy who tortured me daily, highlighting his face, his clothes, his mannerisms, his breath.

It was the difference between using the setting of Trinidad as a mere backdrop, versus bringing the island to sensory life for the reader, almost as if it were a character in its own right, the way Antigua is portrayed by Jamaica Kincaid in her book-length essay, A Small Place.

It was the difference between submitting work with clunky and overwritten dialogue, versus taking the time to reread, revise, edit, and polish a manuscript thoroughly.

And so on.

Developing the perspective, precision, and—overall—patience to distinguish between a book and a thesis became one of the biggest and most important lessons of my MFA experience. I appreciate now that completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence, not just in setting realistic expectations and then making realistic plans to achieve them, but in the very way I conceptualize the writing process.

The story of my childhood in Trinidad is not a story to be rushed. It must be carefully crafted and finessed with the almost-obsessive attentiveness of an artist. It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried. It requires as much emphasis on the storytelling as on the story. I’ve come to see writing as a process, more than a means to an end. And I’ve learned that the more I take time to enjoy and savor that process, the more my eventual readers will, too.

The essays that became my thesis constitute just over half of the outline I’ve projected for my book. I haven’t gotten to the part where the sweet, little island boy leaves his homeland yet. But I think I know how to write it when I do. And I will, in time. There is no rush, you see; the patience is part of the process.

My incomplete thesis represented the end of my tenure as an MFA student. But it’s not the end of my story by any means. In many ways, it feels as though my work as a writer is just beginning.

___

Colin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay ReviewEssay DailyOUT Magazine, and Spry Literary. A former Assistant Editor at Hyperion Books for Children, he continues to work as a freelance writer and editor, while teaching in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

§ 8 Responses to My Thesis was Not a Book: This is Not the End

  • Jan Priddy says:

    I think most of us thought we might have a book at the end of our MFA, and at best ended with a draft. Like you, I had what looked like a book and also a thesis in length and formatting.

    Perhaps I disagree with how you interpret your advisor’s warning, because I think a thesis is not merely roughed out overview rather than polished scenes and fully realized metaphor. A thesis is process, exploration, daring. It is risk in the new.

    [As I understand it, The House on Mango Street had its roots in poetry, began as a memoir, as thesis, as a crossing over from poetry to prose and then after the program into fiction. It was a long and painful process that began in an MFA program with work Cisneros probably hoped would be a book . . . and eventually was.]

    Then again, perhaps I agree with your explanation of thesis: it is a landscape we must pass through on our way to the Emerald City.

  • I think I was three years out of my PhD program before I realized my dissertation wasn’t a book. I’m glad you figured your own work out sooner than I did mine.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • This is brilliant. Thank you for writing it. I am proud of the work I put into my MFA thesis, but it was only a launching pad. As they say, “commencement” is about beginning, not about the end.

  • YES! Thank you for this, Colin. It can be heartbreaking to work so hard on a huge project only to realize the work is just beginning – but it’s also so freeing to know that this thing is simply the board off of which you’ll spring into the next phase. This is so timely, as theses at my alma mater are due this week, and I know quite a few folks who are feeling all kinds of ways about closing that particular chapter.

  • Susan Davis says:

    What a beautiful essay, Colin. I too thought my Memoir would be finished in the very program that you were completing. I mean after all I had eighty pages completed when I entered the MFA program. Or I thought they were complete pages! I had worked on those eighty pages for over 4 1/2 years. It was a great beginning for me to get those pages polished and write more. But as you have said, it was just the beginning.

  • […] “Something to keep in mind: ‘My thesis did everything it needed to do in order for me to earn an MFA. But my thesis was not a book. I was almost halfway through the program before I learned to appreciate the difference.'” ~ Colin Hosten […]

  • These are words I needed to hear right now: “… completing a book worth reading necessarily demands endurance. It is an exercise in persistence… It involves digging deep to make sure I have not left any important nuggets buried.”
    It is the deep digging, the layering-on of our stories’ rich elements that produce a good book. I needed your inspiration, Colin. Thanks!

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