This June marks the end of my graduate work in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. As the culmination of my time as a creative nonfiction student, I am compiling a thesis to convince the school that yeah, I’ve been writin’ some stuff. So, every morning this semester when friends, family and my barista ask why I look like I’m on the wrong side of a bar fight with a raccoon, I explain that, “I’m working on my thesis.” Never, “I’m writing my book.” Saying “my book,” I’ve become convinced, is a curse. As soon as I’ve ever labeled a project book-worthy it falls apart. The iron masterpiece that stood rooted in my mind turns out to be nothing but cotton candy in a rainstorm. Defining my work as a “thesis” protects the sprouts of inspiration and early drafts from falling victim to the trap of explanation. Bringing up a thesis to people sounds academic and dull, so I’m more likely to have people commiserate on their own grad work (an MBA full of theoretical accounting formulas, for instance) than ask, “So what is your book about?”
Perhaps my superstition stems from the fact that I’ve done this before. As an undergraduate English major, I had the option to write a gigantic literary criticism treatise or a creative thesis to fulfill my graduation requirements. As much as spending a semester dissecting Tolstoy and combing through microfilm sounded like a total blast, I opted for the tortured artist route. I’ll write a book! I told everyone within earshot. And if you couldn’t hear me, hell yes you were getting an e-mail.
You may have asked me what my book was about. Or you may have turned slightly and tried to get back to your day. Either way, I’d go on: “It’s called Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl. And it’s all about how everyone tried to destroy me—this school tried to destroy me! But I survived.”
The story covered my first two years at Concordia University, a very small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. The 120 pages were clobbered with every middle class coming-of-age cliché you can name: threesomes, weed, Jägerbombs, bitchy roommates, one-night stands and handcuffs. Even better, the stock stories were conveyed with every hackneyed writing device I could dig out of my scant toolbox: Overwrought dialogue? Everywhere. Run-on Wolfe parody sentences? Well, of course —I mean, my GOD! How could I write about these craa-zy times, man, without going a little Gaga? A chapter named with the complete transcribed lyrics of a Fiona Apple song? Check and mate.
The juvenile writing I can shrug off. I have to give my 22-year-old self a little credit; at least I was writing every single day, during hours scrounged between taking classes and hawking underwear at Frederick’s of Hollywood. The more glaring problem with my undergrad thesis was the immediacy in the writing and in the presentation. I was convinced that I could (and should) write a memoir about events that had just happened in the last tax year. There was no concept of narrative distance and as a result, the stories never elevated beyond how they would be related at happy hour. The guy was an asshole and I was an innocent victim. “How could he do this to me?” I would flare, over the phone to friends and then on the page. I had no breathing room to move past the immediate, to collect these fragments of human experience and turn them around and, as Vivian Gornick demands in The Situation and the Story, reveal “the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” Without that bird’s eye perspective looking at this clueless, lonely girl and wondering why she did the things she did, not what random men were doing, the narrative couldn’t get off the ground. My thesis was a diary, a rehash of a crummy twenty-four months.
My book-or-nothing attitude was the first delusion I had to squash in grad school. As Judy Blunt told me after my first MFA workshop, to which I’d submitted my same amateur schlock, “You need to get over this ‘book’ idea. That’s like trying to build a house without a hammer. You need to learn how to tell a story first.” The distinction is often made by MFA faculty between “thesis” and “manuscript” because, as much as incoming students would like to believe otherwise, the two are not one and the same. Even if you enter a grad program with an elegantly arcing personal narrative (“I was kidnapped by a bank robber who turned out to be my long-lost father”), your style and perspective in writing should evolve in a fashion so drastic that completing a viable manuscript by graduation day is unlikely at best. Like everyone else, I had to drop my delusions of walking out of commencement with a degree in one hand and a polished memoir in the other. What I will leave with in June is far less tangible: the craft tools and personal discipline to refine my thesis’s foundation into a book outside the structure the MFA program provides. Even the diploma won’t be heading home with me; it shows up in the mail a month later.
As I slowed down, took my graduate writing Bird by Bird, I began to grow. I stopped stretching on my tiptoes for a narrative that would fill 265 pages and moved to personal essays. This allowed me to zero in on structure, on picking words with care, to be theatrical in doses and precise in droves. I told stories, moments, snippets well, instead of a long journey poorly. Every once and a while I would get extra excited about a story and think I could blow it up from 15,000 words to 150,000. “A memoir of becoming a woman in the Great Recession!” or, “What it’s like to be an artist in corporate America!” As soon as I said these ideas aloud, whether to a fellow writer or a civilian friend, they would melt. I’m not claiming that these were ideas worth keeping. But now I’ll never know, because whenever I began justifying an emerging notion, it dissolved. “Well, you’ve read Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, right? It will be like that, but lighter, like The Devil Wears Prada MEETS The Boys of My Youth written by Cheryl Strayed. Because corporate work environments are really hard…”
During my last Pacific MFA residency in Seaside, Oregon, Debra Gwartney gave a presentation on process and revision. I shuffled into the Best Western conference room thinking I knew the drill by now: Cut! When you’ve cut, cut again! Read your draft out loud. Annihilate adverbs. Instead, Gwartney showed us a picture of a plywood skeleton, precariously held with duct tape and wood glue. “This,” she claimed, “is a whale.” The skeleton was the beginning of a sculpture by a New England artist. The artist’s glimmer—I’m going to sculpt a whale!— was only on the path to realization. “No one can see the future whale but her,” Gwartney said. The sculpture’s beginnings, she explained, were like our earliest drafts: We’ve been inspired, we can feel and envision a final product, but all that is concrete in the world is a giant pile of wood scraps and adhesive. A long road of shaping, additions, polishes and shavings remains before anyone else can see what we’re working toward. “Which is why I would warn you against sharing your work too early,” she said.
I had never considered that pushing my writing out for opinions might quell it. I get excited about a project, and I blanket my reader circle with drafts as soon as the words hit the page. Confessions of a Lutheran Schoolgirl had probably been read five times by all of my friends before Concordia accepted it for graduation credit. What Gwartney said made the correlation between sharing and squashing click: I needed to trust myself to write, ponder and rewrite before sharing my work and taking on all the doubt that keeps the universe humming.
Imagination is precious and ideas are fleeting. Even if it seems obsessive or superstitious or pathological to squirrel my work away, I’m finding the peace to draft more than worth the antisocial tendencies not sharing my early work produces. Premature advice can send me off the rails. I am still fleshing out, so hearing an early voice chime in with “are you sure your mother’s opinion is necessary in this scene?” can set off a whole mess of destructive second-guessing. The whale, whether flash or essay or thesis or book, lives inside of me, and can’t breathe out in the world unborn. Forcing myself to turn my project into a marketing elevator pitch is the equivalent of infanticide.
So whatever is taking shape in my Word files, I love it enough to hold out. And perhaps that is the greatest thesis lesson of all: learning when to keep my mouth shut.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a student in Pacific University’s MFA program and will graduate in June 2012 with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Sliver of Stone and Owl Eye Review. She is an associate editor of Silk Road Review and teaches memoir workshops in Portland, Ore.