I didn’t know what to expect from an MFA thesis defense—I even embarrassed myself a little by asking my advisor if I needed to prepare a PowerPoint presentation. (Hey, that’s what my partner had to do for a thesis defense in mechanical engineering!) As it turns out, no one had to sit through a PowerPoint. Instead, the thesis defense was an opportunity to participate in a discussion of my creative work. My committee members discussed my stories in a conversational, nonjudgmental way, and they focused on my strengths so that I could figure out which aspects of my stories to pursue or deepen.
During my defense, one committee member asked me why I removed certain elements of stories that she had seen in a different form in workshop. Contemplating this now, I suppose I instinctively wanted to avoid reaching for the low-hanging fruit of easy conflict, and my committee members encouraged this instinct, advising me to continue to work on making my characters more complicated. George Saunders has an amusing way of framing this issue of complicating characters: “[A] few years back, in our admissions pile at Syracuse, we were getting a gazillion stories where everyone over 40 was a pedophile. Or, you know—if he/she wasn’t a pedophile, it was through sheer act of will. And I started feeling that move as sort of habitual—it was what a young writer did when he/she didn’t know what else to do: throw a pedophile in there. So that decision—which must have felt, to those writers, like steering toward the rapids—was actually the opposite: it had become the lazy, go-to solution—a way of avoiding complexity.” Thankfully, none of my stories have involved pedophiles, although I did come dangerously close to rewriting Lolita once.
We also briefly discussed short story endings during my defense. For my portfolio annotations, I reread stories by Charles Baxter and Tobias Wolff, and observed that many of their story endings reveal the protagonist transforming in a remarkable, even surprising way. For instance, in Baxter’s “The Winner” the protagonist claims a power he does not have in the beginning and for a moment he is someone greater than who he thought himself to be. The endings in Baxter and Wolff stories open up possibilities for their protagonists, as Wolff describes in an interview with The Paris Review: “Chekhov gives another model of conclusiveness—that conclusiveness inhabits the whole body of the story, not just the ending. That every good story expresses inevitability in all its parts, and yet is not foreclosed, shut down, at the last word. A good story somehow continues in a shimmer of possibility.” Writing the annotations helped me to analyze the various ways authors achieve character transformation. At the defense, it was gratifying to discuss characterization and transformation with much more experienced writers.
I also received some book recommendations during my defense, which I always appreciate. The defense included a discussion of W.G. Sebald, and one of my committee members encouraged me to read Robert Macfarlane and Beryl Bainbridge. On top of my current reading list is the story collection “Young Skins” by Colin Barrett, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award—a collection I should have read (and annotated!) already. Overall, the defense was a wonderful opportunity to receive some final guidance from veteran writers before I graduate and leave this writing community. I learned what my strengths are (which perhaps hints at my weaknesses—no one praised my dialogue, for instance!). All joking aside, the thesis defense reinforced my belief that I need to build on my strengths instead of becoming hamstrung by my weaknesses. Rather than being a defense, the conversation served as an affirmation that I am ready to begin my writing career.