In the Aftermath of Defense: An Open Apology to My MFA Thesis Reader


First, I’m sorry that this hour-long thesis defense devoured so much of your time. When you looked at your watch and said, “It’s 4:05…I gotta fly,” I understood the extent of your magnanimity. Thank you for fulfilling your obligations, despite being so much more important than the rest of us.

I’m sorry that the language of my short story collection bogged you down. You said that I have a gift for virtuostic terms—forgive me, but did I sense a note of sarcasm in your voice? Or by “virtuostic” did you mean passionate and demonstrative of special skill? Because I find that observation to be complimentary. Also, I believe the word is “virtuosic,” not “virtuostic.”

I’m sorry that your questions caught me off guard. Most of my teachers let their questions hover in space at a respectful distance, rhetorical and open, giving me the chance to absorb and consider. But your questions deploy with a precision so lethal that suddenly I am shrugging up against a wall, bracing for rupture.

I’m sorry that you saw the turning point of Plenty, my story about the candy store, as a “joke.” I didn’t mean to cause laughter with the revelation of the skinny character’s disease. And I got it when you said that the story needs more complexity to justify its length of 20 pages. From now on, I will be more sensitive, and take this whole writing thing more seriously.

I’m sorry that my story about the father who imagines a non-existent daughter to life was disappointing. My writing can be long-winded and unwieldy, even overwrought. I have come to terms with these flaws and am striving to remedy them. But no teacher, no colleague, no fellow writer, no classmate, no friend, no family member has ever called my writing “disappointing.” What a wake-up call.

I’m sorry that you didn’t have ample time to read my collection. If you had, you would have picked up on the neurological nature of the cab driver’s health problems in Contact, would have attributed the numbness in his hands, his inability to form words, and his hallucinations to a stroke or a brain tumor, and not a heart attack. I appreciated the extension of the thesis due date, but clearly the extra days did neither of us any good.

I’m sorry that you could say that only one story had potential. At this rate, if for every five stories that I write only one story has potential, which means that a dozen rewrites on that one story still lie ahead, I fear that it will take me decades to publish a complete collection, and I’m not sure that I can maintain my fortitude for that long. Apparently, my thesis collection has barely scraped the underbelly of promise. Maybe it’s time for me to give up writing and pursue a career in neuroscience.

I’m sorry that I said out loud before the defense began that I felt proud of the work I had accomplished, five stories in whose emotional gravity and intricacy I believed, a hundred-and-twenty-six pages of language trimmed and tailored to engaging clarity. I’m sorry that I said out loud that I was proud of how far I had come since starting the MFA in the fall of 2012. I’m sorry that I said out loud that these three years have transformed the way I write and read and even teach my struggling high school students.

I’m sorry that I gave breath to my vulnerabilities in that small room on the afternoon of April 16th, only for them to swell uncontrollably like oversized circus balloons. I’m sorry that I granted ascension to my dreams, only to watch your cynicism strike them down, writhing and whimpering, from flight. (Was that language too virtuostic? Because I kind of like it.)

I’m sorry that, for someone who is supposed to take utmost care in choosing words and tone, who is supposed to give incisive but nurturing feedback to growing, eager writers, who is supposed to help them feel worthy of membership to an all-too exclusive club, who is supposed to fuel them by portraying acceptance to the writing world as a realistic and accessible goal, who is supposed to demand from them the high caliber of work to reach it, but also to encourage them to believe in their capabilities…you seem to prefer the heroine’s role, brandishing your experience and status in order to rehabilitate those of us who have been getting it all wrong.

Finally, I’m sorry that I cried all the way home in the car after my thesis defense. I’m sorry that I’ve wasted so much energy on feeling defeated. And I’m sorry that when I publish my first book, you might just have to admit that in spite of everything, I managed to hold my own.

Categories: A Girl's Life, Relationships, WritingTags: , , , , , , , ,

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